National Columnist

LeBron to leave Heat in 2014? Better believe it -- if going gets tough

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There are people who believe LeBron James will leave the Miami Heat next July, no matter what happens on the court between now and then. Dwyane Wade is getting old. Chris Bosh isn't worth the hit to the salary cap. And so on.

Me? I believe in LeBron more than that.

I believe he will leave the Heat only if the product on the court heads south in the next 13 months. I believe he's the best basketball talent of all time, but not a guy who hangs around for the heavy lifting. When the going gets tough, LeBron gets going. To another franchise.

That's what I believe, and you know what? LeBron would have the right to go. He had the right to look around Cleveland three years ago, at the dreck his front office kept putting on the court with him, and mutter to himself, "These people must be crazy." And split. Go to Miami. Pool resources with the best two free agents available, Wade and Bosh, and put some wind into his sails for a change.

He had that right in 2010, and he'll have that right in 2014 -- if the going gets rough in Miami.

And it could. Lord knows, it could. For starters, up 3-2 after winning Game 5 on Thursday night, the Heat had better finish off the Pacers. They had better get to the NBA Finals at a minimum, or I'm telling you, he's gone. If they can't win the Eastern Conference this season, with what's left of Dwyane Wade, then forget about winning an NBA title next season.

Everyone gets older, but Wade is now aging in dog years. He was 30 last season. He's 37 this year. He'll be 44 next season. Don't tell me what his birth certificate says. I'm telling you what his body says, and it says he's three or four years away from joining the AARP. LeBron James is Batman, but he came to Miami play with Robin, not Alfred.

One thing we know about LeBron: Loyalty won't be a factor in his decision. If he can leave Cleveland -- and his hometown of Akron, 35 miles away -- he can leave South Florida. In northeast Ohio he had family and lifelong friends. In South Florida he has a gardener. He might adore the gardener, but not enough to stick around and be laughed at.

And that's what will happen if the Heat were to lose to the Pacers, or even if they lose to the Spurs in the NBA Finals. People will laugh at LeBron James. Me? No, not me. Winning a title isn't nearly as easy as a lot of us -- starting with LeBron, but including me -- thought it would be in 2010 when this Big Three came together.

Lots of us thought the Heat would rampage to a series of NBA titles, a mercenarily made dynasty. I promise you, LeBron was one of those people. I know I was. It hasn't happened, and if it doesn't happen this season -- back-to-back titles would be a solid foundation for a future dynasty -- it's not going to happen. One title in three years would become one in four, and that simply will not do. Not for LeBron. He has options, and he has the right to explore those options, and if the Heat don't start stacking titles he'll go Lewis and Clark.

Don't look at me like that, either. Yes, I know, I'm the guy who called Dwyane Wade the NBA's dirtiest player a few days ago. Now this. So I hate the Heat, right? To the intellectually lazy, sure, yes I do. Or I could be writing the truth. Remember two years ago when I said LeBron was shrinking in the fourth quarter, and the intellectually lazy was sure my motivation was antipathy? Remember what happened the rest of that series?

When LeBron shrunk so much that everyone else saw it, too?

Same thing with Wade. He's dirty. Most folks will see it eventually, as if his five egregious acts of violence in 24 months -- Kobe's nose, Rondo's elbow, Ramon Sessions' groin, Lance Stephenson's head and that open-field hit on Darren Collison -- weren't proof enough.

This story, it's a little different. It was a fact that LeBron was shrinking in 2011, and it's a fact that Dwyane Wade has become dangerously dirty, but it's not a fact that LeBron will leave Miami next summer if the Heat don't win the 2013 NBA title. For one thing, the Heat might win the title this season. Might win it next season as well. And if Miami wins both years, my guess is LeBron will stay. A run of back-to-back-to-back NBA titles would be too much to abandon.

For another, LeBron might stay no matter what. Again, no pretending otherwise, this premise is speculative. I've been wrong before about the Heat, when I've given them too much credit, and maybe I'll be wrong here. But I'll tell you this: On a notepad next to my computer, I listed the reasons -- compelling reasons; not bogus, fill-up-the-page reasons -- LeBron might stay or go.

Under "go," I listed the following:

1. Didn't come to Miami to lose.

2. Wade's knees.

3. Bosh's softness.

4. Heat president Pat Riley will be 69 next summer. Retirement soon?

5. Kyrie Irving.

(Irving is the best young point guard in the NBA and LeBron loves the kid, just like he loves Stephen Curry and will love whoever the next young superstar is. Irving plays in the same city LeBron genuinely feels badly for leaving -- and the same city that just won the 2013 NBA Draft lottery. If that pick yields another star, that's one more reason for LeBron to return to Cleveland.)

Under "stay" -- assuming the Heat don't win this year -- I listed the following:

...

A divorce between LeBron and the Heat would be ugly, this is true. The city would be furious, but LeBron wouldn't care. He divorced Cleveland, remember, after a relationship of seven years and with nearby Akron roots that started at birth. He wouldn't hesitate to leave Miami after four years, especially if the Heat have only one NBA championship by 2014, making his original boast about titles -- "not two, not three, not four ..." -- oddly prophetic.

Besides, there's another fact to remember. When LeBron signed with the Heat in 2010, it was a six-year deal that had an opt-out clause for the summer of 2014.

LeBron got himself a pre-nup.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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