Four years ago, the Miami Heat completed the greatest free agent coup in NBA history and staged a self-congratulatory party that was meant to engage local fans but that enraged almost everyone else. The tone-deaf celebration a day after LeBron James made his controversial decision to leave Cleveland quickly made the Heat one of most divisive teams in all of sports.
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did nothing truly offensive other than bob their heads to some hip-hop music and trot around a stage with lasers and smoke as if they were a boy band. But James’s mouth got him in some trouble when he spoke of winning, “not one, not two, not three … ” championships.
With that mission only partially accomplished (two NBA championships and four NBA Finals appearances later), the Heat entered the 2014 offseason with unfinished business — and an uncertain future after James exercised the early termination option in his contract. As the free agent negotiating period begins at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the spotlight will remain fixed on Miami simply because James can single-handedly alter the landscape of the league with one more decision.
The game’s best player is on the open market for the second time in four years and joins Carmelo Anthony, a former scoring champion, and two former Finals MVPs in Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce in what is easily the most intriguing free agent class since 2010.
James, Wade and Bosh showed the power that players wielded when they decided to join forces, but they have all decided to opt out of their contracts and become free agents. Those moves are notable not because they signal the trio’s intention to bolt South Beach, but because it helps give Heat President Pat Riley a record $55 million in salary cap room to bolster the team’s talent and depth for more title runs.
The trio took a little less to make it work in 2010, but Wade and Bosh will have to lower their annual salaries once more in order to retain James and find reinforcements via free agency. They will have a number of intriguing options, ranging from the elite, like Anthony, to Toronto’s Kyle Lowry or even one of the Washington Wizards’ top targets, Marcin Gortat and Trevor Ariza.
James is reportedly seeking to become the highest paid player on his team for the first time in his career and Miami can potentially sign the four-time most valuable player to a five-year maximum salaried contract for roughly $129 million.
San Antonio may have throttled the Heat in the NBA Finals with a style of selfless basketball that has been praised by purists. But the Spurs’ desire to share the ball and the wealth is just as, if not more, difficult to duplicate than what Miami is attempting to do to remain relevant. The Spurs’ top trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili combined to earn just under $29.9 million in 2013-14, just about $8 million more than what James would be paid next season if he elected to accept the maximum contract the Heat could offer him. Miami witnessed firsthand what that extra money can buy, as Danny Green (who earned just shy of $4 million in 2013-14) and Tiago Splitter ($10 million) combined with NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (still on his rookie contract) to more than capably support the Spurs’ core en route to the title.
The Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat in 2011 before the league locked out the players and negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement that made it more difficult to create super teams. The possibility remains if players are willing to trade more financial security to improve their chances of winning. And it’s that sacrifice from Miami’s all-star trio – specifically Wade and Bosh – that will define the 2014 free agency period.
New York Knicks President Phil Jackson lamented last week about how the league’s salary structure — and maximum contracts in general — limit the chances for teams to stock talented rosters. Had James, Wade and Bosh all stayed under their existing deals, the Heat would’ve had no chance to make the necessary roster adjustments to remain a title contender.
“I think it puts limitations on a team,” Jackson told reporters in New York before the NBA draft. “What happens is then you end up having two or three players that have big contracts and everybody else is either your veteran minimums or young players that are coming in, or you just don’t have that middle ground of a player that’s a veteran, comfortable, leadership-quality people. I think that Miami explored it and I think they got the most out of it. I’m wondering what direction it’s going to go now.”
Duncan ended suspense about his future when he opted in for another year in San Antonio at $10.3 million, a move that still gives the Spurs a chance to add depth. Nowitzki is also committed to taking a discount salary to remain with the Mavericks. Of the big name talents available, Anthony is the player who appears most amenable to change despite his fondness for New York.
Jackson has encouraged Anthony to take less money to help the Knicks build a more competitive team. The Knicks can offer Anthony the most money but the eight-time all-star has yearned to be recruited for the first time in his career and is expected to listen to pitches from Chicago, Houston and Dallas. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant has also stated that he plans to talk to Anthony in an effort to get him to switch coasts and join a team that has 16 NBA championships but currently, no coach.
Teams realize that they can immediately become title contenders by getting James into their uniform. So far, James hasn’t seemed open to the flirtations of others, but that hasn’t stopped Dallas and Houston from making moves in an attempt to lure him from South Beach. Phoenix, which has young assets and the cap space to possibly sign both James and Anthony, would also like a chance to take a shot, no matter how long it might be.
Bosh has made it clear that he wants to return and Riley said in statement on Sunday that he plans to keep “him in Miami for many years to come.” Wade has a chance to be a rare one-franchise player. At the all-star break last February, James was asked if he could imagine leaving Miami and replied, “At this point, I can’t.”
But with the Heat’s flaws getting exposed by San Antonio, James has put the pressure on Miami to give him a team worthy of his talents. Riley first responded by moving up to take James’s favorite player in the NBA draft, Shabazz Napier of Connecticut. Riley denied that James had any influence on the selection of the most outstanding player of the NCAA tournament.
“If LeBron and I have the same taste in talent, so be it,” Riley told reporters in Miami. “But he didn’t call me on the phone or he didn’t make a point to me about anything. He never has.”
The stage is set for the Heat to claim the attention of the entire league once again. And as free agency unfolds, if Miami is able to retain and retool, it won’t need any fancy theatrics or light shows to upset the rest of the league once again.