Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wade Holds Key to Keep LeBron in Miami

Let the sweepstakes begin.  LeBron James has decided to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent for the second time in his career.  The first go 'round shook the NBA to seismic proportions and created the most polarizing team in NBA history.  After four scintillating seasons, James has another decision that could shake up the NBA landscape.

James had seven days left before he had to make a decision whether to exercise his player option which would have paid him $20 million next season.  By announcing an opt out now, he gives the rest of the NBA time to make moves and get strategies in place two days before the draft.  It also puts pressure on the Heat to get their plan in place after a bitter end to the season.  The threat of losing the best player in basketball is real for Miami and they will have to amend their roster drastically to make James comfortable.

By opting out before the draft,  hundreds of possible scenarios are in play, not the least of which would be the Cavs making a move with the first pick.  The Cavs could trade for a veteran like Kevin Love to make themselves championship ready for James.

After the humiliating Finals loss to the Spurs, James said he would first get away with his family to clear his mind.  After a brief vacation he said he would talk to the organization and later with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  He took the vacation, but it is almost certain he didn't meet with Wade and Bosh.  After a difficult season and a worse Finals, it appears James had made it clear what he thinks about the money owed to Wade and Bosh.

The Heat should still be viewed as the favorite to sign James, but it entirely depends on what Wade and to a lesser degree Bosh do with their player options.  Both players are due to make $20 million next season which is more than they're worth on the open market.  Wade especially holds the future of the Heat in his hands.  He has every right to opt in.  The organization made the contract and all parties agreed it was fair.  He has won three championships and been the face of the franchise since he was drafted.  But, with his declining health, production and games played, Wade is simply not worth the money.  In the playoffs Wade looked refreshed early, but was a shell of himself in the Finals.  The Heat will need a good chunk of the $20 million owed to Wade to replace his lost production.  With both players aging, James was counting on Wade to help ease the nightly wear and tear which hasn't happened in the last three seasons.  After two straight miserable Finals showings, James knows Wade's best days are behind him.

Bosh has sacrificed to play for the Heat, but his skill set is not worth $20 million.  He was never a physical big and now he is basically a spot up shooter.  He doesn't give the Heat any interior presence or rebounding which has been their weakness for four seasons.  Another team might pay him $20 million because he is still healthy and capable of being a consistent offensive threat, but the reason why he went to Miami was to compete for championships, not be a featured player.  As the third member of the Big 3, Bosh hasn't been a difference maker.  He's a nice piece, but it is obvious there are several NBA teams whose second and third best players are better than Wade and Bosh.  Egos of professional athletes, especially perennial all-stars, make recognizing weaknesses very difficult.  It also makes it hard to leave money on the table.  If Wade and Bosh are unable to come to that realization, or are unwilling to give up their best salary option, the Heat will be unable to realistically compete for a championship, even with James being the best player in the game.  Should Wade and Bosh sign their player option, owner Micky Arison will have to pay the repeater luxury tax he has ardently claimed he would avoid.

So where could James wind up next year?  The short answer is anywhere he wants.  There are only a handful of teams that wouldn't do everything in their power to retain his services.  There are also only a handful of teams that have the available cap space as currently constructed.

Miami has several advantages on their side.  James trusts Pat Riley and Eric Spoelstra.  There is no other team in the NBA that can provide that comfort level.  He is also aware of the mistakes he made while leaving Cleveland, so he's sure to give Miami every opportunity to resign him.  Despite the turbulence, he has made four straight Finals and should continue to do so with some small improvements.

Unlike leaving Cleveland, Miami is not James' team.  Although he is the leader and clearly the best player, the city still belongs to Wade, making an exit much easier than his first decision.  Riley and Arison should be very aware of that and do what is necessary to keep him.  They certainly want to stay loyal to Wade, so it will take a lot of juggling or a lot of spending should Wade opt in.

If James leaves Miami, home to Cleveland would be the most likely destination.  Aside from returning home, Cleveland is the only team that wouldn't make James appear to be a mercenary.  Legacy is still very important to James.  If he starts bouncing around the league chasing championships, his critics will always have ammunition to belittle his achievements.

There are three major obstacles for Cleveland.  The first is owner Dan Gilbert.  Do you think he is regretting that letter he wrote when James left for Miami right about now?  I bet he is.  Before James considers returning to Miami, he would need Gilbert to grovel and get on his knees to deliver a  tearful apology.  Anything short should be viewed as a deal breaker.  Gilbert is a moron who might have already ruined his chance at resigning the world's best player before he turns 30.

The next obstacle is the roster.  They have Kyrie Irving and some intriguing young talent, but absolutely no playoff experience or veteran leadership.  The Cavs would have to sacrifice the number one draft pick to acquire a big name to entice James.  That's a serious gamble, and one Gilbert might not be ready to take.

Finally, they would have to sell James on newly hired head coach David Blatt.  He is highly regarded as an excellent international basketball coach, but he is unknown to players in the U.S.  Cleveland probably won't have the time to make a proper pitch for Blatt and would need someone within James' inner circle to convince him he is the right fit.

The remaining potential destinations are total speculation.  There is a case to be made for nearly every team.  Here are the one's I find most intriguing.

1. Miami Heat

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

3. L.A. Clippers: They give James the best chance to win a championship next season.  James is extremely close with Chris Paul and he adores Doc Rivers.  They are championship ready with three contracts they could shed to create cap space.  They would most likely have to part ways with Deandre Jordan which would be tough, but to get James in exchange would be well worth it.  If the Donald Sterling saga comes to a conclusion and Steve Ballmer is able to retain ownership, it is very likely he would be willing to pay luxury tax.  He overpaid for the Clippers by about a billion.  What's another $30 million?  I would love to see Blake Griffin and James on the same team.

4. Houston Rockets: They've reportedly been making plans to put a full press on Carmelo Anthony.  If they can get James at the same asking price, that's certainly the direction they will go.  They have some pieces to move before this can become a reality, but a starting lineup of Patrick Beverly, James Harden, James, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard is scary.  They won't have any depth on the bench unless the domino effect of signing James provides them with some veterans willing to take a discount. It's intriguing, but I'm not sure James would want to play with Harden or for a team that has no interest in defense.

5. Atlanta Hawks: It's doubtful because it's Atlanta, but there are some interesting theories as to how this would work.  Head coach and long time Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer has already got momentum on his side with a nice playoff showing this season.  He is striving to make the Hawks the Spurs of the East which might be attractive to James after watching the system precision of the Spurs in the Finals.  By clearing some space and getting a healthy Al Horford back, the Hawks could trot out a lineup of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, James, Paul Millsap and Horford.  Not too shabby.  He would play with teammates that complement his skill set and that would have no problem letting him come in and be the man.

The rest of the teams in play (but really not) are as follows:

6. Brooklyn Nets: Because Mikhail Prokhorov will not spare any expense, but they are too old.

7. New York Knicks:  Because he could sign with Anthony and play under Phil Jackson, albeit through Derrick Fisher, but they have a crazy owner and an incomplete roster.

8. Chicago Bulls: Because they would be a true contender instantly and they have some cap space and a great head coach, but it was Jordan's team, Joakim Noah hates him and it would be another slap in the face to Cleveland.

9. Phoenix Suns: Because they have the money to give him a max contract and they are on the rise, but they aren't championship ready.

10. Dallas Mavericks: Because they have the cap space, but Dirk Nowitzki is an older second option than Wade and they're in the same division as the Spurs.

The draft on Thursday will be extremely telling as to which teams are trying to maneuver for James.  If Cleveland trades the number one pick, they will be in play.  While James has options, I think he knows it is doubtful there will be a better one than the Heat.  We've heard all about the sacrifices the Big 3 made to play together.  Another large sacrifice will be required to keep them together.  No one would blame Wade or Bosh for keeping their money, but if they do, no one should blame James for leaving either.

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