Would Miami Heat Completely Start Over If LeBron James Leaves?

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 8, 2014

Miami Heat forward LeBron James during the pre-game ceremony in Game 4 of the NBA basketball finals against the San Antonio Spurs, Thursday, June 12, 2014, in Miami.  (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

Pat Riley talked big in the aftermath of the Miami Heat's NBA Finals defeat, and though they weren't in the room, his words were aimed directly at LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade.

"This stuff is hard. And you got to stay together, if you've got the guts. And you don't find the first door and run out of it," he told reporters.

It was a stirring speech, one clearly designed to appeal to the competitive instincts of Miami's Big Three. He was effectively telling them not to quit when times got tough, an exhortation meant to ease the pain of their recent defeat but also one with a forward-looking slant. Knowing the difficult task of rebuilding the Heat roster on a minimal budget lay ahead, Riley might have also been preparing his top players for a second disappointment.

Now, Riley is about to find out whether his failure to provide the Big Three with the help they wanted could result in Miami heading into next season with the most soul-crushingly clean slate of all time.

Critically, it's not Riley's fault that he'll head into a reported meeting with James on July 9 with only Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger to show for his offseason retooling efforts. James wants max money, per Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, and any rumors of Bosh or Wade taking significant pay reductions have been cut down as quickly as they've arisen.

When we look back at this offseason, the story of the Heat will be pretty simple: The Big Three didn't sacrifice enough to give Riley any real room to maneuver.

At the same time, we absolutely cannot blame James, Wade and Bosh for the stances they've taken.

Grantland's Zach Lowe explains how the league is currently set up to put players like James in a wholly unfair position:

As long as there is a salary cap limiting what teams can spend, there will be a real tension between players grabbing as much money as they can and their teams’ ability to sign as many quality players as possible.

This puts star players in an impossible position: accept a pay cut “for the good of the team” or look like a glutton. When stars take pay cuts to stay together, fans rail against their collusion and call the NBA product a rigged game. When stars chase the money, fans rip them as pigs.

Meanwhile, owners around the league reap the benefits of wildly escalating franchise values and revenue sharing that keeps all but the most fiscally irresponsible teams in the black.

At any rate, Riley and the Heat now face the sudden, perhaps unexpected possibility of a team dissolving in a matter of days. That said dissolution would come as a direct result of the system that players and owners agreed to during the last lockout hardly matters.

The practical point is that Miami is in a position where the stakes are suddenly high.

When James meets with Riley in Las Vegas, he'll either be satisfied the Heat have improved enough to do more than bow out in the Finals—or he won't.

If James comes back, it seems all but certain Wade will follow. Amid persistent talk of James and Bosh relocating, we haven't heard the artist formerly known as Flash mentioned in connection with another team.

Bosh is a trickier case, as he has a max offer on the table from the Houston Rockets and is said to be considering it, per ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

It's hard to know what Bosh will do, but the fact that he's waited this long to make a decision indicates his first choice is still to join James in Miami.

If LBJ decides to leave, it's extremely difficult to see Bosh and Wade staying behind, which would create a scenario unimaginable just a few weeks ago: The Heat would be left with a roster of rookie Shabazz Napier, Norris Cole, McRoberts and Granger. And remember, the latter two aren't even officially under contract yet.

Is it really so hard to imagine them backing out of verbal agreements if the superstar teammates they expected wind up elsewhere?

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

At that point, the Heat would be stuck with a handful of unpalatable options.

They could overpay second-tier free agents in order to save face and get actual bodies in jerseys, perhaps spending huge on Luol Deng, Pau Gasol and Lance Stephenson. Make no mistake, Miami would have to exceed market value for each of those players because all three figure to field competitive offers from teams with better shots at winning.

If the Heat are on the hunt for talent to replace their missing stars, they could also throw out max offer sheets at restricted free agents like Eric Bledsoe and Gordon Hayward, though both the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz, respectively, have made it no secret they'll match any such entreaty.

There's always tanking as a last resort.

Such a strategy seems totally out of the question. For a team that has made the Finals for four straight years, bottoming out for a draft pick would be an especially bitter pill. But you never know how that option might look if Miami's other avenues dry up.

Unfortunately, the Heat didn't come into this summer with a contingency plan. Instead, Riley approached free agency as a two-step process: Get help and get LeBron.

Alan Diaz/Associated Press

Everything else was supposed to fall into place after that.

Riley's post-Finals speech was impressive, but he's going to have to make an even better one when he meets with James in Vegas. He'll have to convince him McRoberts, Granger and whatever scraps from last year's supporting cast he can convince to return are enough to make the Heat markedly better than they were a year ago.

He can rely on the fact that Miami was easily the class of the East last year, and that even minor improvements could be enough to get them over the hump.

It's not an impossible sales job, but it'll be tough.

If Riley is successful, the Heat will most likely end up where they were last year—as one of the last teams standing, hoping they have enough gas left in the tank to reach the finish line. No matter what happens, though, they won't be any kind of superteam.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

If Riley fails, Miami could soon be adrift, floating around in a strange roster-less netherworld, lacking stars and facing a 2014-15 season without any real hope of contention.

In other words, what James thinks of Riley's upcoming sales pitch will either preserve or destroy the Heat as we know them.

Best of luck, Riles.