LeBron James - the world’s greatest active basketball player - has officially opted-out of his contract with the Miami Heat. This wasn’t a completely unexpected move, but the timing is a bit curious. James was slated to earn $20.6 million in his fifth year with the young franchise. Now, LeBron becomes an unrestricted free agent, giving him the chance to sign with any team in the NBA starting July 1st. Though some may see James’ latest action as distancing himself from Miami, this was the best mutual decision for the both the Heat and LeBron James. He’s free to look around at other teams in the league, but he’s also free to restructure his salary in order to give the Heat more cap space to bring in supplementary role players to assist James’ pursuit of another NBA championship. Speculation will undoubtedly abound. Carmelo Anthony’s future may be up in the air, but it’s a less muddled situation in Miami; LeBron likely will stay put and demand that a supporting cast flocks to South Beach, instead of the other way around.
Almost every team in the NBA not named the San Antonio Spurs wants No. 6 on their hardwood floor, there’s no secret there. The Lakers, for instance, have been scheming for a while to bring Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James to play alongside Kobe Bryant. Due to Kobe being quite possibly the most arrogant and selfish player of all time, I’d say there’s a better chance that pigs fly before this happens. Bryant didn’t drive Shaq out of his city just to have Melo and Bron come to town and steal the spotlight (and the ball). Some other notable teams out West, like the Rockets, the Mavericks, and the Clippers have already started furiously attempting to contact James’ agent to see if the player’s services are available.
Realistically, if James leaves, he’s staying in the Eastern Conference. If he had been playing out West in 2011 and in 2014, his team may have never advanced to the NBA Finals, falling to the Mavs and Spurs in earlier series. Logically, James wants the easiest path to a championship. Many critics call this cowardly while I call it pragmatism. So LeBron’s best option is staying in the Eastern Conference because its weaker makeup gives him an easier playoff run. Allegedly, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks are considering purging their respective rosters in order to reel in both Anthony and James. Ask yourself if you would legitimately leave a 54-win team to join a 38 or 33-win squad. Yeah, didn’t think so.
James’ best options out East are the Chicago Bulls and…. the Toronto Raptors? As you can see, his choice of contenders is relatively limited. Granted, whichever team he joins immediately becomes one of the championship favorites. It's hard to see him leaving the tropical climate of South Florida for the frozen tundra. Toronto is probably not happening at this point in Bron’s career, but Chicago is one place that seems like it could work. You have a star scoring guard, the reigning defensive player of the year, a terrific coach, sizeable cap room and a strong group of role players in place. My one doubt lies with Derrick Rose. I’d argue that his knees are in worse shape or at least on par with Dwyane Wade’s. If Rose was healthy, I might be singing a different tune. But at this point in his life, LeBron is not about to leave his future up to pure chance. Re-signing with the Pat Riley-designed Heat for less money is James’ best option, but he could very well surprise us all and jump ship after falling short in the NBA Finals.
Staying in Miami means James would take yet another paycut. He took the sacrifice once in 2010 and is prepared to do so again, but only if it ensures a deeper roster for the NBA Finals runner-up. LeBron isn’t focused on money at this point in his career; he’s all about winning. James’ wealth transcends basketball. By the time he’s 50, the majority of his profit will have come from business ventures outside of the sport, like Michael Jordan and his footwear line. Therefore, I don’t see a max deal from the Cavaliers or the Hawks swaying James. Money is always a factor in an egotistical athlete’s decision-making process, but with Mr. James and his estimated net worth of $120 million, an enormous paycheck is not the primary concern.
Even though there is a lessened emphasis on a payout for LeBron, Florida’s legal setup is beneficial for the star player. With no state tax on his earnings, James keeps more of his money after taxes than he would while playing for a different team under a heftier contract. There are only six other states with no income tax in America: Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. Of those six, only one is home to the NBA: Texas. So if anything, I’d make the Dallas Mavericks and the Houston Rockets frontrunners outside of Miami in the LeBron sweepstakes. Still, I predict one of those teams lands Carmelo Anthony before wooing the NBA’s best player away from his comfort zone in Miami.
To put it simply, LeBron James will be the best player for the next 5-10 years on whatever team he plays for. He’s already solidified his place as one of the best players of all time, and probably the best at his position. So where’s the sense in leaving a city where you’ve won two championships and made four Finals appearances in four years? Anywhere else he goes, he attracts a newly invigorated sideshow comparable to 2011, must readjust to new teammates, a new environment, and new coaches, and he opens the floodgates for criticism of his unfaithful nature.
His legacy will be forever damaged if he leaves Miami at this point in time. In three years, he’ll be 32 years old and no one would blame him for changing teams. But bolting after barely missing the three-peat would not look good. Some claim that he’ll never match Jordan’s resume, which is true. When LeBron jumped straight from high school to the NBA, in stark contrast to Jordan who spent time at the University of North Carolina before turning pro, he embarked on a journey that could never be equal to Jordan’s, just different. Still, LeBron has a good chance to rack up the championships in Miami and lead a dominant dynasty for many years to come. By leaving, James will be defined by his journeyman career path, more in the mold of Paul Pierce or Shaquille O’Neal than the likes of Kobe Bryant and MJ.
James is a trendsetter, not only in basketball arenas across America, but also in the world of fashion, entertainment, and more. Thus, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he leaves Miami for a younger core of players in a distant city. But, let’s not get caught up in pipe dreams like the other 31 NBA owners out there. Odds are that the recently dethroned King will be playing in black and red next season. Wherever he is in the fall, expect James to be alongside a few new super-pals that will take some much-needed weight off his shoulders.