LeBron James didn’t want to use the NBA Finals stage as a platform to discuss his future plans but on the eve of the Miami Heat’s humiliating Game 5 loss to the San Antonio Spurs, he did reveal the mentality that would motivate every decision that he makes going forward.
“For me, it’s like you either don’t make the playoffs or you win a championship. There’s no in between,” James said less than two weeks ago. “I don’t want no first-round victory, no second-round victory, no Eastern Conference Finals. Either I don’t make the playoffs or I would rather get my two months off, get my body rested or win the Finals. I don’t want no in between.”
So James’s decision on Tuesday to opt out of his contract and become a free agent was a confirmation, not a proclamation, that if the Heat – or any other team wishing for his services – is serious about making sure that he wins every year, now is the time to make those moves. James had until Monday to inform the Heat of his plans, but the timing was critical with the NBA draft approaching on Thursday.
James has always been that rare talent with the ability to read the defense like a point guard and already have a strategy for how to score before it sets up. He also has the strength to barrel up and over the opposition to get his desired result. In the same manner, James studied the landscape of the league and was a step ahead in making his latest power move.
The Spurs dismantled Miami in a way that no other team could and it also exposed Dwyane Wade as a fading star for the second straight Finals. In response, James flexed in a way that almost absolves him from the unwanted reputation as a ring-chasing mercenary.
Heat President Pat Riley called out James last week in a riveting hour-long, one-man stage show of a news conference in which he explained the difficult of winning championships and implored his players – James, in particular – to “stay together, if you’ve got the guts.”
James responded by telling Riley to do something about it, to show that his desire to remain a championship contender burns so deep that he will make the necessary moves to keep him in a Heat uniform. James made it clear four years ago that he was willing to burnish his reputation in pursuit of a title, leaving behind broken hearts and angry letters. He has two rings now, two more MVP trophies and won over a significant portion of the population that might have turned on him because fans often side with winners.
The haters haven’t completely gone away, as James learned while battling leg cramps in the NBA Finals. But the easiest way to silence criticism is to keep winning. James has no desire to accept less.
By opting out, James isn’t running out of the door. He’s waiting to see what can be done, if Wade and Chris Bosh elect to take less money so that Riley can find the pieces needed to keep the franchise relevant. But he is also gazing out on the horizon to see if other potential suitors around the league can create a more appealing situation.
The Heat did right by James by putting him in position to win the championships he desired, but it failed him by failing to surround the Big Three with anything more than aging, one-dimensional veterans with short shelf lives. Miami was never able to create a situation like Boston, which was able to extend run of Pierce, Garnett and Allen by developing Rajon Rondo into an all-star, or San Antonio, which drafted Kawhi Leonard and found young, serviceable role players to provide the depth needed to keep Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker effective on the back end of their respective primes.
Seven years after he proved that he couldn’t defeat the Spurs by himself, James was placed back in a familiar position as a Big One. As the final minutes of each loss played out, James stared blankly from the bench or covered his face, unable to watch. He needed help and wasn’t getting it from the jump-shooting Bosh and a Wade who was unable to finish at the rim.
Wade won’t ever be the same player who carried Miami to the title in 2006, much less the player who helped the Heat storm through the weak Eastern Conference this season. But James could still team up with Carmelo Anthony, a longtime friend who is now realizing that he might have to surrender money or shots in order to win a title.
Riley has called the possibility of adding Anthony – who also chose to opt out of his contract this week – to Miami and form a possible Big Four a “pipe dream.” But Miami has to be more creative in order to build a team that lasts, especially with Wade’s decline creating a dilemma in which Riley said the 32-year-old shooting guard will have to “reinvent himself.”
James could return to Miami for five years, $128 million or take a four-year deal worth about $95 million, but in an ideal world, the four-time most valuable player will get his money and contend. He sacrificed close to $15 million on the life of the six-year deal that he signed four years ago. But back then, Wade was considered a peer and competitive rival. Now, James stands alone.
Teams around the league have been preparing for the possibility of James becoming a free agent but most executives expect him to stay in Miami, even with a collective bargaining agreement that made it harder for Riley to maintain the team he built. But the Heat is on alert. Cleveland has an all-star point guard in Kyrie Irving and the No. 1 pick in the draft. Houston has James Harden and Dwight Howard. Chicago has Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. The Los Angeles Lakers have Kobe Bryant and the lure of Hollywood. A dark horse like the Atlanta Hawks, which has Al Horford and Paul Millsap, could even emerge as a possibility.
The Heat gave James what he desired but the power structure has changed four years later. James is in contention wherever he decides to play next season. Without James, Miami is in a worse situation than it was before he made his controversial decision to take his talents to South Beach.
As a student of the game, James realizes – as Michael Jordan did before him – that organizations don’t win championships without great players. The reason that only nine franchises have won championships since 1980 is simple, and it has little to do with market size or a willingness to spend. It simply comes down to this: If you are fortunate enough to have an elite talent, you have the best chance to win.
The Los Angeles Lakers had Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and later Bryant and Pau Gasol. The Boston Celtics had Larry Bird and added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Paul Pierce. The Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The San Antonio Spurs have Tim Duncan. Those four franchises have won 25 of the past 35 NBA titles.
The Heat has made four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, winning half. But for James, there is no more in between. Now that he has a couple, James wants to hog the rest of the rings until he retires.