When Miami Heat president Pat Riley defended LeBron James against Danny Ainge's criticisms with one of the season's very best sound bites, he wasn't just firing back at a rival executive who had overstepped his bounds—he was also beginning his courtship of the King.
You see, James has a player option in his contract that he can use to enter free agency as soon as the summer of 2014. Riley knows this, and he also knows that James would be a fool not to test the market next summer.
So he's showing his willingness to go to bat for James in the most public way possible—by making a scene and creating headlines to show his allegiance.
There's nothing wrong with what Riley did. He's making an effort to endear himself to the most important entity of his organization. He knows James is going to have plenty of attractive alternatives when he hits free agency, so there's no reason for him to be circumspect in his attempts to show James he'll always have support in Miami.
And if James' reaction means anything, it appears that Riley's initial sales job is working:
Taking a broader view, it certainly does appear that Riley and the Heat should have some concerns about their ability to keep James in Miami beyond the 2013-14 season.
For starters, LBJ's main sidekick, Dwyane Wade, will be 32 next summer. And although D-Wade is playing some of the highest-efficiency basketball of his career this year, he's been showing signs of slowing down—as well as vulnerability to injury—for a couple of seasons now.
If Wade doesn't look like an able second star 16 months from now, you can bet that James will consider heading someplace else to find one. After all, James has been through the process of trying to carry a team on his own before, and it didn't work out so well for him in Cleveland.
And as implausible as it might seem, the surprisingly persistent rumors that James would entertain the idea of returning to Cleveland to finish his career just won't go away. For what it's worth, Kyrie Irving would certainly represent an enticing option as a running mate.
Whether concerns over Wade's health or the allure of Cleveland (a phrase nobody has ever uttered before) will be enough to attract James, one thing is for sure: He's definitely going to opt out of his deal.
At present, LBJ isn't making max dollars. He took slightly less than he could have otherwise collected in order to help facilitate the construction of the "Big Three" in Miami. Now that he's firmly established as the most dominant player in the league, he'll certainly want to be paid in kind. The Heat could break the bank to re-sign him to a longer deal for more money, or he could test the waters in another city.
Either way, James has every reason to at least see how much more money he can make.
However things shake out, Riley's sudden emergence in the media after a season of total silence was a smart move. He seized the opportunity to preen, make some waves and assert his loyalty to his best player.
If Riley's choice words improved Miami's chances of retaining James by even the tiniest margin, they were well worth it.