HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — LeBron James will be a free agent on July 1. ESPN’s Chris Broussard reported Tuesday morning that James’ agent, Rich Paul, has informed the Miami Heat that James will exercise his early termination option, releasing him from the final two years of the contract he signed in 2010.
This doesn’t mean that James is leaving Miami. It just means that he’ll be signing a new contract this summer.
Can Riley re-tool?
Maybe this is good (and mostly expected) news for the Heat. If they ultimately convince James to stay, they’ll have him on board longer than the year or two they would have had him if he didn’t exercise his option. (The six-year, sign-and-trade deal he signed in 2010 had an early termination option in 2014 and a player option in 2015.) If he re-signs, they have him for the remainder of his prime.
We haven’t heard word about Dwyane Wade‘s or Chris Bosh‘s intentions, but they have the same contract options as James. And if all three opt out, the Heat could have some flexibility.
But in order for team president Pat Riley to truly upgrade the big three’s supporting cast, at least one of them would have to take a pay cut. Even though all would be free agents, their max-salary cap holds would still put the Heat over the salary cap. Once you replace one or two cap holds with lesser salaries, there’s space to sign other free agents.
And if the Heat are looking to upgrade around the big three, there are plenty of free agents to choose from. Point guards Kyle Lowry, Eric Bledsoe and Patty Mills could be at the top of their list. If Wade continues to take on a lesser role and Bosh continues to play on the perimeter, they need help on the wings and inside as well.
The door is open
But if Wade or Bosh don’t want to take pay cuts, if Riley can’t get more help, and if James doesn’t see a bright future with the Heat, this opens the door for other teams to convince him that he has a better opportunity to win championships elsewhere. The Heat have been to The Finals each of the four seasons that James has been in Miami, but Wade obviously isn’t the same player he was in 2010, and Miami got absolutely crushed by the San Antonio Spurs in The Finals earlier this month.
If James is looking for younger stars to complement him, he should talk to the Chicago Bulls (Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah) and Houston Rockets (James Harden, Dwight Howard). But both teams would need to clear some salaries off their books in order to have the necessary cap space to sign the four-time MVP to a maximum, four-year contract.
Other teams, like the Los Angeles Lakers and Charlotte Hornets, have the space, but not the co-stars. Kobe Bryant‘s $23.5 million salary alone (forgetting the additional $9.7 million the Lakers owe Steve Nash,) would prevent L.A. from signing both James and Carmelo Anthony to maximum deals.
Cleveland? It’s always a possibility, but that organization is not exactly organized at this point.
The leverage play
Ultimately, this move gives James the most leverage. It pushes Riley to go out and improve his roster. It pushes Bosh and Wade to accept pay cuts or lose their golden ticket to The Finals. And it pushes other teams to show their cards. If James sees the right pieces around him (in Miami or elsewhere), he could be willing to take less-than-max money as well.
James is the best player in the world. He knows it, but also knows that, in order to win more championships and be considered among the best players who ever lived, he needs more help than he had this season. And opting out of his contract was the first step in getting it.