Depending on how the "King" handles his current contract, he could be a year away from leaving the basketball world hanging on his every word. Again.
With Miami Heat fans enthralled by his arrival in the summer of 2010, their thoughts of multiple championships raced beyond their control. James' declaration of hoping to bring, "not one, not two, not three..." titles to South Beach didn't help ground their expectations.
James has already cashed in on the first step of that promise, and Miami's 24-game winning streak has silenced any doubt about its status as championship favorites this season. With a lackluster draft class and a free-agent crop that could look eerily similar to the 2013 trade deadline, heavy on talk but light on movement, there's no reason to think the Heat won't be the odds-on favorites next season.
Come summer of 2014, though, things start getting more than a little murky.
James, like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, has the option to terminate his contract after next season. According to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, "it seems almost certain James will use his early termination option and become a free agent" at that time.
Windhorst's reasoning for his assertion is hard to argue. James, who's not playing on a max contract, would be in line for a raise. He'd also get five guaranteed years in his next deal.
Not to mention he'd have the chance to flex his highly regarded basketball IQ in finding the right situation.
If you're thinking Miami's the only place for him, think again. There's a good possibility that he would opt out only to negotiate a new contract with the Heat, but that's certainly not the only possible outcome here.
Miami should have the inside track. Besides the fact that he won his first championship there, it also boasts beautiful weather—and no state income tax.
As far as the state of the roster in two seasons, though, that's a bit of a mystery. While James has lined himself up for another fat contract, it's hard to tell if Bosh or Wade would be able to find more than the $42 million they can opt into for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
Four other Heat players (Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony and Norris Cole) have options for the 2014-15 season. Cole has the only team option of the group as he's still working on his rookie contract.
The potential tax problems created by the league's "repeater tax" clause could make it nearly impossible to keep Miami's "Big Three" intact at $60-plus million for those two option years.
Assuming Miami wins at least one of the next two championships—heck, even if they don't, as long as James avoids a catastrophic injury—it will remain an intriguing destination for free agents. Ray Allen and Shane Battier already left money on the table to play with the Heat, and future free agents could follow suit.
But what if James' business savvy creeps further into the conversation? He's not hurting for cash by any means, but those other three cities listed offer some enticing (potentially lucrative) stories.
Some people refuse to believe a Cleveland reunion is a possibility. They point to the manner of James' departure and the subsequent backlash from bitter fans and scorned Cavs owner Dan Gilbert.
But if James isn't writing it off as an option (via Michael Wallace of ESPN.com), why should we?
In fact, during Miami's lone visit to Cleveland in 2011-12, James quipped that "It would be great," when asked about a possible reunion in his future (via Ira Winderman of NBCSports.com).
It's tough to see any of that previous backlash entering James' thought process, though. He's too great of a talent for those fans and that owner not to come crawling back upon his return. They'd probably be some of the first ones to greet him at Hopkins International.
What may actually play into his decision is the development of the team's budding stars. Kyrie Irving (23.0 points and 5.7 assists per game) has already arrived. But if players like sophomore Tristan Thompson and rookie Dion Waiters start to mimic Irving's rise, would that be a more appealing roster choice than Miami's?
Not to mention the Cavs' youthful roster leaves them gobs of cap space in the coming season. Cleveland doesn't hold the same free-agent appeal as South Beach, but James' presence could be enough to lure some notable names to the city. The Cavaliers also have a horde of picks owed to them (via hoopsworld.com) and will certainly add at least one more lottery pick to their roster before the summer of 2014.
Or the noted hoops historian could prefer to write his own chapter in two of the league's most storied franchises—the Bulls and the Lakers.
James dropped legendary Bulls star Michael Jordan's No. 23 in 2010 out of respect for one of the game's greats (via ESPN.com). But would he have any interest in honoring the legend by bringing Jordan's former team back to the league's forefront?
Chicago doesn't have Cleveland's cap space, but they've got a couple other things working their favor. Derrick Rose headlines that list, as the point guard is just two seasons into his five-year, $94.8 million deal. Luol Deng's contract (conveniently?) expires at the end of next season and the franchise has yet to exercise its amnesty clause.
Of course if James is really looking at this decision in an historical sense, it's tough to match the decorated past of the Lakers.
Who exactly James would be joining in L.A. is another story. Steve Nash is the only player signed beyond the 2014-15 season. Dwight Howard hits the free-agent market this summer and won't give any indication of his future plans before then. Kobe Bryant's deal expires after the 2013-14 season and has hinted at his retirement (via T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times).
But it's not as if this is a franchise that has struggled to attract elite talent.
While the Bulls and Lakers will give their pursuit a valiant effort, this is a two-team race in my opinion.
And it just may come down to Bosh's and Wade's level of play after next season. Or what team president Pat Riley can bring back in return for Bosh.
If they're still the NBA's best team, there's no reason for James to jump ship. Players want to play with this trio, and South Beach is the best setting to realize their championship dreams.
If Bosh or Wade (or both) falter, it's going to be hard for James to ignore Cleveland's collection of talent. But the safe money's still on Miami at this point. There may not be enough touches to go around on a James-Irving-Waiters lineup, and Cleveland's supporting cast has a ways to go to match Miami's.
James has shocked the basketball world before, so anything's possible. But for right now, I'd say don't look for him to do it again.
Not in 2014, anyway.
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