With LeBron James expected to make his second huge free agency decision in four years this week, we're taking you through his options. For over a year, it looked like staying with the Miami Heat was the most likely scenario. They had just won their second straight NBA championship and it seemed like the drama of a Decision 2.0 would be minimal. One year later and a drubbing at the hands of the Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals, LeBron seems to be weighing his options a lot more than we assumed he would have to.
While we've wondered what he would look like in other uniforms, what would his situation look like if he decides to stay in Miami? Does the money and cap flexibility actually exist to help them revamp the roster? Can they bring in another big name for him? Can they contend in the way LeBron will want to contend? Let's take a look at how this could play out if he stays in Miami.
The money of LeBron James staying and the subsequent deal with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade seem to be the biggest question marks when considering LeBron re-signing. The only way for the Heat to add a big time free agent to this core, while keeping the integrity of the core intact is to have big pay cuts from the Big Three to allow room for someone like Carmelo Anthony or Kyle Lowry or whomever to slide into the roster spot. Then you fill in with cheap role players like they did four years ago and start building the supporting cast to the All-Star heavy core. Except that's not going to happen with Miami.
All indications and reports are that James wants a max contract this time around. With that expected to start at $20.7 million for next season, it means Bosh and Wade either have to sync up around $22-26 million next season or they don't provide Pat Riley with salary cap room and try to build the supporting cast with the mid-level and bi-annual exceptions. The latter option seems to be the most likely avenue for bumping up the role players around the Big Three, after news of Josh McRoberts (mid-level exception) and Danny Granger (bi-annual exception) broke.
That means the Heat will be hard capped at $4 million above the luxury tax and the Heat won't be able to spend much beyond that. Bosh still gets relatively big money, Wade takes the biggest cut, and the role players sticking around can be signed up to that hard cap of roughly $81 million. But does that provide the Heat with the necessary upgrades?
The Team on the Court
Trying to figure out if this team is better than last year's team is a bit tricky. You're essentially looking at the roles of what the Heat had available to them in last year's Finals run and then guessing if new players filling those roles provide an upgrade, downgrade, or side-step. It could cause the Heat to change their system, therefore making that comparison relatively moot. But for argument's sake, let's pretend the Heat stick with the same formula of last season with this summer's potential upgrades.
Starting with the point guard situation, the Heat would go from the combination of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole to Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier. This is a downgrade in talent, but considering Chalmers gave the Heat very little in their playoff run, the gamble isn't that big. Chalmers would certainly be the best of the bunch there, but if Cole and Napier can knock down outside shots, keep turnovers low, and pester the ball, it will be enough to supplant what Chalmers is supposed to give them.
The additions of Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger would likely be to replace veteran Shane Battier (retired) and possibly Chris Andersen if he becomes too expensive or doesn't want to return to Miami. McRoberts is the best player of the bunch there, providing excellent passing and a good finisher around the hoop for dump-off passes. Last season was his first attempt at being an outside shooter, and his 36.1 percent success rate is good enough to stretch the floor. But the Heat need that to be a legitimate part of his attack. As for Granger, I'm not sure you can expect much out of him and the Heat are really showing faith in their training staff to get him ready.
Granger used to be an incredible weapon for the Pacers, but now he's broken. He showed more life than expected in his brief stint with the Clippers but can you stretch that out over an 82-game campaign along with a deep playoff run? Can he consistently guard stretch-4's? Will he be able to provide perimeter defense on wings? Can he consistently knock down open threes? Granger's signing brings about more questions than answers for Miami but they probably believe they have those answers.
From there, you can assume Ray Allen, James Jones, and Udonis Haslem can all be re-signed for relatively cheap to get them up to that hard cap figure. While this isn't an incredible upgrade of talent that we expected from the Heat as Riley finagled the salary cap limitations, is this enough reason for LeBron to feel confident Miami could be the right decision?
Is this the team LeBron needs around him?
The two biggest differences between the 2013 champions and the 2014 runner-ups were defense and 3-point shooting. The Heat gave up over two more points per 100 possessions while shooting 3.2 percentage points worse from downtown. You can survive one of those diminishing returns throughout a season but both of them proved to be too much for the Heat when they faced off against the Spurs. They just weren't the same team on both ends of the floor and they couldn't stop the Spurs enough, nor keep up with them with the attack of their own.
Does this proposed roster solve that problem? I don't think you can feel confident that adding McRoberts and Granger fixes the defense, but Battier was so bad on both ends of the floor for much of the year (or maybe inconsistent is the better way to put it) that adding a consistent McRoberts could give better structure to the Heat. And from there, the structure allows them for pillars of their basketball attack to feel confident in. If they can get back to being an elite 3-point shooting team, it turns their offense into an even greater asset, making the defense a bit easier to execute because teams can't run out on long misses or turnovers.
The majority of this confidence LeBron would need to have though comes from Dwyane Wade. Last year, Wade missed 23 games during the regular season and still couldn't get anything done when it came to the NBA Finals. He wasn't bad during the playoffs but he was bad during the five most important games of the Heat's season and possibly franchise if it helps lead to LeBron leaving. If he stays, he has to believe Wade can reinvent his game like Riley discussed at the end of the season.
A way to do that is either becoming a 3-point shooter or preparing his body better. He's historically one of the worst 3-point shooters ever, so that's probably not going to change as he enters his mid-30's. But the Spurs-Popovich way of managing minutes could lead to him being fitter for a deep playoff run. If he's able to play fewer minutes and sacrifice his averages over sacrificing nearly one-third of the season, it could lead to a body more ready to compete in the Finals. He could also stand to lose a little bit of weight, as he appeared heavier than he should be at times.
The flip side of that could be relying on Chris Bosh more on offense than they have with Wade. Bosh is more than a capable scorer, and going through him for stretches more than they have with Wade could be a big cure for what ails them. Having a team much better at 3-point shooting and being able to set up their defense more often could have that same effect.
LeBron would be able to still compete for titles now in a weak conference while giving himself leeway to re-evaluate in three years when it would maybe make more sense for him to join the Cavaliers. Obviously, that's the big question for him now. Does he feel the Cavs have enough to lure him back home or will it take them a couple of years to hit their stride and be ready for him? And if it's the latter, wouldn't he be better off staying in Miami for those three years to allow for another title run or two?
We'll find out soon enough just where LeBron's confidence lies.