LeBron May Leave Heat, but He’ll Stay in the East if He Wants a Ring

LeBron James
LeBron James's future in Miami is uncertain. Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

And suddenly the heat is on Miami.

As first reported by ESPN Tuesday morning, LeBron James, who in four seasons has led the Miami Heat to four NBA Finals and two championships, exercised his option to terminate his contract before it expires at midnight of June 30. By doing this nearly one week early, and two days prior to the NBA draft, King James is affording every realm—including the Heat—as much time as possible to put together the most attractive package to lure him.

First things first: Money is not the primary motivation for the planet’s greatest basketball player, who will not turn 30 until December. He and his brood could survive multiple lifetimes on his endorsement contracts alone. While he will still command a hefty salary next year, James was only the ninth-highest paid player in 2013–2014 and he may accept even less than last season’s $19 million-plus in order to play for a team that has a viable chance of competing for an NBA ring each of the next five to seven seasons.

Next up, roster. This is the top priority for James. Miami’s “Big Three” is now just a museum piece, as both Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are north of 30 years old. Both those players may also opt out and in the case of Wade, whose skills have dramatically diminished, he’d be doing Heat general manager Pat Riley a favor by liberating $18 million in cap space next season. And that’s not likely to happen.

You’d have to think James will first listen to Riley and his coach, Erik Spoelstra, who helped rescue him from the purgatory of never having won an NBA title. Riley is smart, ruthless and passionate, but what can he offer James other than a sublime city in which to spend the winter and a tax-free state in which to file his returns? How does Miami get better while continuing to pay the salaries of James, Bosh (also $19 million-plus) and Wade, while not having any valuable younger players to offer other teams as bargaining chips?

The question for James—and the appeal Riley and Spoelstra may make to him—is loyalty. But LeBron was sixth in the NBA in minutes last season and he may appreciate not further accelerating his own demise, which will happen if he remains in South Beach. Unless Riley can pull off an incredible trade, James should make like those Heat fans in Game 6 of last year’s NBA Finals and leave before the curtain drops.

If James does opt out, where should he go? To the Western Conference? Whatever team he joined there would have to battle against surging teams such as Oklahoma City, Houston, Portland and the Los Angeles Clippers, not to mention the Benjamin Button-ing San Antonio Spurs. Granted, he could join one of those clubs—most likely Houston or the Clippers—but the HOV lane to the NBA Finals for James remains in the East. As ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said on Tuesday morning, “The West is the varsity; the East is the junior varsity.”

If he remains in the only conference he’s ever called home, five teams are intriguing. Let’s look at each:

1. A homecoming in Cleveland, which I wrote about a month ago, would not only arouse passions but give the city on the south shore of Lake Erie two of sport’s most intriguing figures (Johnny Manziel).

2. Chicago has the most mature team, and James would enjoy playing with the league’s top defensive player (Joakim Noah), while finally having an all-star point guard as a teammate (Derrick Rose). Recall that Rose, like James, has won an MVP award. The question becomes how much trust James wants to invest in a player who has had two knee surgeries before the age of 26.

3. New York, New York. Carmelo Anthony just opted out. Could new general manager Phil Jackson persuade LeBron to ascend to the throne in New York City, a town that has been starving for an NBA championship since 1973? The Knicks are currently in no better position than Miami, which may be a turnoff.

4. Milwaukee. Don’t laugh. (OK, laugh. For a minute. Now focus…) Giannis Antetokounmpo was a revelation as a 19-year-old rookie last year and is freakishly athletic at 6-foot-9. Like LeBron. The Bucks have the second pick in this week’s draft, which means they could pair that duo with either Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Dante Exum. This would be the biggest thing to happen in Milwaukee since Arthur Fonzarelli.

5. Washington. Charles Barkley has said that the Wizards will have the best backcourt in the NBA in a year or two with John Wall and Bradley Beal, both of whom are younger than 23. If the Wizards, who gave the Indiana Pacers hell in the playoffs this spring, can re-sign center Marcin Gortat, they will immediately become the team to beat in the East.

Regardless, LeBron has an abundance of options, which is why he exercised this one on Tuesday morning. It opened the door to all the rest of them. The NBA draft has suddenly become a subplot this week. Long live the King.