The Decision 2.0 looms for LeBron James


(Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

LeBron James made it clear four months ago during Miami’s media day that he would prefer not to talk about his free agency plans following this season, but that hasn’t stopped others from talking about it.

According to an ESPN.com report, a source close to James said the four-time MVP “has 30 options if he wants them,” including the Los Angeles Clippers, who feature James’s good friend Chris Paul, and Cleveland, the team that drafted him in 2003 and the city where he still owns a house.

Miami stands as the favorite to retain James, who can choose not to opt out of the final year of his contract this summer. But with Heat teammate Dwyane Wade’s long-term health in question, some have wondered if Miami is less desirable of a destination than it was in 2010, when James left Cleveland to join Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach.

Dwyane Wade (Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press)

As of Thursday, Wade had missed 13 of Miami’s 48 games, with the Heat going 7-6 in those contests. The longest stretch of absence came last month, when Wade sat out four straight games to rest his knees.

In his first game back, the three-time champion shot just 3 for 8 from the field for eight points in a Jan. 26 victory against San Antonio. Three games later, vintage Wade resurfaced as the guard exploded for 30 points and 10 rebounds in a win against Detroit, further demonstrating the 32-year-old’s roller-coaster season and performance.

During Wade’s absence last month, James admitted that the adjustment to Wade’s injuries and rest schedule has been difficult.

“With some of the guys being in and out, and with the concern with D-Wade, it’s been tough on all of us trying to fill that,” James told reporters. “We’ve just got to be able to do a little bit more consistently, and go in with the mind-set sometimes that he’s not playing instead of [he is] playing.”

Through Wednesday’s games, Miami’s offensive numbers have been better when Wade is on the sideline, according to NBA.com/stats. When Wade is on the bench during games, the Heat averages 110.3 points per 100 possessions as opposed to 108.7 points while he is on the court.

The Heat, however, does suffer defensively without Wade, giving up 2.9 points more per 100 opponents’ possessions. But while Wade has built a reputation as a sound defender, his declining health could transfer even more future responsibility to James, who already leads the team in points, rebounds and assists.

With Wade having led Miami to its first NBA championship in 2006, cementing his place in Heat lore, it’s unclear how open team President Pat Riley would be to trading Wade for a younger, more promising sidekick to James.

Chris Bosh (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

But when James evaluates his options in the summer, he may focus less on Wade and more on Miami’s third wheel in Chris Bosh. The 11th-year forward has quietly put together one of his best seasons for the two-time defending champions, averaging 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while continuing to serve as an inside-outside threat for the undersized Heat.

On Miami’s 12-man roster, Bosh is the only player who yields a negative net rating when he’s on the bench, meaning the Heat give up more points to opponents when he is out of the lineup. When Bosh is on the floor, Miami outscores teams by an average of 10.7 points per 100 possessions. What’s more, Miami’s effective field goal percentage and free throw attempts drop while its turnovers rise when Bosh is on the bench.

When analyzing the Heat’s various lineups, out of the combinations that have appeared in at least 11 games this season, two of the four most efficient shooting lineups do not include Wade. Meantime, all four combinations include both James and Bosh.

Heat’s hottest combos

Lineup Games Minutes eFG%*
Battier, Bosh, Chalmers, Cole, James 11 33 62.7
Bosh, Chalmers, James, Lewis, Wade 11 61 62.0
Allen, Battier, Bosh, Chalmers, James 28 174 59.9
Allen, Bosh, Chalmers, James, Wade 13 35 59.6

*-eFG% stands for effective field goal percentage, a measure of shooting efficiency adjusted for made three-pointers being 1.5 times more valuable than a two-point basket.

Source: NBA.com/stats with SAP

With James serving as Miami’s primary ball handler — he touches the ball 12 times more on average than any other Heat player — teams with forwards as their second option could prove more appealing than those with star guards in place, should James choose to test the free-agent market. If so, that could make Miami, with Bosh, a better fit in the eyes of James than the Clippers, who have Paul at point guard, or the Cavaliers, who boast all-star guard Kyrie Irving.

It’s anybody’s guess as to which factors will play into The Decision 2.0 for James, which is why Wade conceded in the preseason that the process, like his health, is mostly out of his hands.

“LeBron James’s decision is LeBron James’s decision,” Wade said in September. “Whether I’m healthy or whether I’m not healthy, he’s going to make a decision that’s best for him and his family. That’s all you can expect from that situation. Don’t try to put that pressure on me. Y’all can stop that right now. It’s not my decision.”

BY THE NUMBERS
8
Players available for the Lakers entering Wednesday’s game against Cleveland. Despite losing three more players to injury during the course of the game and incurring a technical foul for leaving Robert Sacre on the floor after he picked up his sixth foul, the Lakers still beat the Cavaliers, 119-108.

12
Consecutive regular season losses by the Indiana Pacers in Atlanta entering Tuesday’s contest vs. the Hawks. The Pacers, who hold the NBA’s best record, ended their drought with an 89-85 win.

QUOTABLE
“Introducing our home court as the Smoothie King Center is one of the goals we set when we purchased the team.”

 – Pelicans owner Tom Benson after the team announced Thursday its agreement to give its arena naming rights to the juice bar chain.

“We have severely underperformed against expectations. …  Just as this is completely unacceptable to our loyal and passionate fan base, season ticket holders and corporate partners, it is also just as unacceptable to our ownership group.”

— Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in a statement released Thursday after the team fired general manager Chris Grant following a 16-33 start.

Brandon Parker is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.

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