And so it begins. LeBron James walked into the AT&T center at 5:05 p.m. CT on Sunday night, and walked out of it six hours later with his third Finals defeat. You know what comes next.
As was the case four years ago, his "team" huddled near the arena exit for the season-ending hugs and handshakes. And by "team," we do not mean the Miami Heat -- just as LeBron did not mean the Miami Heat, and as he did not mean the Cleveland Cavaliers after he was eliminated by the Celtics in the 2010 playoffs.
It was not a stretch, according to one of those team members, to say that James is leaving his options wide open. He and his family love Miami, he said, but he was not prepared to commit to anything beyond the moment -- not a minute beyond the June 30 deadline for the Heat's Big Three to terminate the contracts they signed when they teamed up in July 2010 and changed the NBA landscape.
That landscape is always changing, and it has been altered dramatically since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh answered the bell for Pat Riley in Miami. James is wiser, Wade is older (much older) and Bosh has morphed into a meek perimeter player. The supporting cast has been weakened by the collective bargaining agreement that took effect after the Big Three's first season together. The competition has gotten better.
"The whole league continues to get better every single year," James said. "Obviously, we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It's just how the league works."
The Heat's options for bringing all three back and fortifying the supporting cast are limited. If James, Wade and Bosh were to opt in for 2014-15, they'd make a staggering $61 million of what is expected to be a $63 million salary cap. As taxpayers in all of the previous three seasons, the Heat would face the dreaded repeater tax for any salary beyond the projected $77 million tax level.
There is little young talent developing around them, in part because Miami ultimately chose to sweeten the move to Miami for James and Bosh, respectively, by working sign-and-trade arrangements that added an extra year to their contracts. Miami sent two first-round picks, two second-round picks and the right to swap another first rounder to Cleveland for James, and two more first-round picks to Toronto for Bosh. The extra year James and Bosh got will likely be a moot point from the Heat's perspective; even if they don't opt out this summer, they can do so next summer.
So if Miami wants to keep the band together for another title run next season, job No. 1 is to figure out how to reduce the Big Three's payroll burden. They all took slightly less to play together in the first place, with Wade taking the biggest haircut. Someone would have to take an enormous pay cut for Riley to have the room necessary to fortify the supporting cast.
Trading Bosh for a rim-protecting center, defensive-minded point guard or both is one option. The most necessary step, however, also will be the most difficult to pull off: persuading Wade, who has diminished rapidly at age 32, to take a significant reduction in salary.
Wade has $42.8 million guaranteed over the next two seasons, and he's already sacrificed his role as the focal point of the team to James. Shots and touches are one thing; dollars are quite another. Can Riley persuade Wade to opt out and re-sign on a three- or four-year deal to spread out the impact and create some payroll flexibility? The Heat cannot amnesty Wade, as unthinkable as that might be, since they used the one-time provision on Mike Miller last July.
For all of these reasons, the idea of Carmelo Anthony joining James in Miami is far-fetched, to say the least. With $70 million in committed salary for next season, the Heat would need Wade or Bosh to opt out and sign elsewhere, and even then, Anthony would be looking at about an $8 million paycut per year. The two remaining members of the Big Three could soften the blow by taking a significant pay cut themselves. But either way, the Heat would be right back in the same predicament, with three players absorbing most of their cap, leaving insufficient flexibility to make needed upgrades to the rest of the roster.
None of the Big Three can be signed-and-traded to the Knicks for Anthony, unless the Knicks could find a way to dump at least $11 million in salary in the transaction. Under the 2011 CBA, a team cannot acquire a player via a sign-and-trade arrangement if the transaction puts them $4 million above the tax line. The Knicks currently are $22 million over. (Also, there is no incentive for Anthony to agree to a sign-and-trade, since he can no longer get the maximum contract length of five years in such a deal.)
If all three of Miami's stars opted out, the Heat could re-sign them all plus Anthony -- but only if all four of them signed new deals starting in the $15 million range. For Anthony's four-year deal, this would amount to about half the five-year, $129 million contract he could get from the Knicks. To call that implausible would be an understatement.
James' options in free agency are equally complicated. Teams that have room to sign James outright, or could easily create it -- the Jazz, Sixers, Suns and Lakers -- are either not in more desirable markets, not championship-ready, or both. The Bulls and Rockets are two potentially appealing options, and both are positioned to clear max room or acquire James via a sign-and-trade deal. But James would have to consider how much better his championship options would be in either place. In Chicago, questions remain about Derrick Rose's long-term health. In Houston, would James, Dwight Howard and James Harden complement each other or compete for shots, touches and attention?
While it is true that James loves Los Angeles -- who doesn't, I ask -- it is not clear whether he'd love playing with Kobe Bryant, or whether Bryant would be willing to cede his throne to a new king. But of all the convoluted superstar concoctions that are possible this summer, James and Anthony joining Bryant with the Lakers might be the most plausible -- as long as you operate from the assumption that both would be willing to take a significant pay cut to do so. If the Lakers waived Steve Nash and stretched his $9.7 million over the next three seasons, they'd have about $30 million to allocate to free agents.
In the end, James must consider an aspect of his decision that perhaps exceeds everything else in importance. Excoriated for leaving Cleveland to chase championships with Wade and Bosh, how much backlash would there be if he abandoned that plan at the first sign of trouble to cherry-pick titles somewhere else?
For a guide to what long-term stability and organic team-building can do, James needs to dive no deeper than the game film from the Finals loss to the Spurs. As painful as it was, it could provide a window for James into what he must achieve in the next phase of his career.
And it's not a quick fix.