The Miami Heat have won consecutive titles with LeBron leading the charge, and 2013-14 could very well bring about a three-peat unless one of the other elite contenders steps up. However, everything is uncertain after that.
LeBron and Dwyane Wade both have options in their contracts that would allow them to hit the open market next summer, and this upcoming season could be the last time that the two friends take to the court as teammates.
This is especially important for LeBron, as his Miami future might depend on ditching Wade. Let's break it down.
It's almost inconceivable to think about it on the heels of back-to-back titles, but the current Big Three era could be drawing to a close in Miami.
At the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, everyone comes off the books for the Heat. And when I say "everyone," I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. Not one player is under a guaranteed contract past the next campaign.
Norris Cole's contract has a team option, while LeBron, Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Joel Anthony all have player options or early termination options. Everyone else is an unrestricted free agent.
The Heat could potentially go into the 2014 offseason with no money committed, allowing them the opportunity to pick and choose which players they either bring back or sign away from other teams.
LeBron and Wade also have option years for 2015-16, and they don't officially become unrestricted free agents without opting out until the summer of 2016, when both players will be past their primes. Yes, even the best player in the world, a guy who currently seems impervious to injury, can be past his prime.
When all this cap space opens up, the Heat will have to make some tough decisions. That could involve trading away superstars or hoping that they decline player options. And that's where The Wade Dilemma comes into play.
The Wade Dilemma
Wade has spent over a decade in the NBA now, and he's already left an indelible mark. If he retired right now, his three championships, nine All-Star appearances, scoring title and countless other accolades would ensure that he received strong consideration for the Hall of Fame.
However, the Heat can't look at the past. Only the present and the future.
The legendary shooting guard is 31 years old now, and he's a rather old 31. Not only has he put a lot of tread on the tires simply by playing in the Association, but his grueling and physical style of play has only added to the wear and tear.
Wade underwent offseason knee surgery that forced him to miss the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, and those joints continued to plague him throughout the year. He was a noticeably different player once the postseason rolled around, and vintage D-Wade showed up only a few times.
In fact, ESPN even reported that the 2-guard needed to have his left knee drained before Game 7 of the NBA Finals and that Wade dealt with eight hours of game-day therapy in order to perform at a high level against the San Antonio Spurs.
According to the article, those weren't even the only problems:
Wade also received platelet-rich plasma therapy late in the regular season to combat three bone bruises around his right knee, which was his biggest source of frustration and pain during the playoffs. Wade said two of the bruises healed, but a third -- directly under the kneecap -- remained a big problem, especially since that area was also affected by tendinitis.
Wade underwent an MRI to rule out additional problems during the East finals against Indiana, and said he was driving into a meeting with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra before Game 7 of that series -- not long after saying in the immediate aftermath of the Game 6 loss to the Pacers that he needed the ball more -- to tell him that he felt he should only play short minutes because his ineffectiveness was hurting the team.
These injury issues may just go away during the offseason. Perhaps a few months of rest will allow him to play like a much younger man, but Wade's style isn't exactly conducive to staying healthy. In fact, he finds himself in a bit of a lose-lose situation.
Throughout his career, the Marquette product has played with reckless abandon, driving into the paint and finishing through contact. The number of times he's ended up on the ground is simply staggering.
The only way Wade will remain healthy is to abandon his biggest strength, but that forces him into the weakest part of his game: perimeter shooting.
In 2012-13, the 2-guard only shot 66 three-pointers in 69 games. Once the series with the Spurs rolled around, his shot was so non-threatening that San Antonio was just daring him to shoot by giving him plenty of space and going under every possible screen.
Can you imagine the conundrum Wade will have to deal with every night? He'll have to decide whether he wants to risk injury and play to his strengths or become a less effective player in order to stay healthy.
Miami can't afford to commit big money to an aging star with chronic knee issues. That just isn't a recipe for success in a competitive environment, and it's tough to see Pat Riley letting sentiment get in the way of a business decision.
Looking at things solely from an injury and business perspective, it's illogical for the Heat to retain Wade much further into the future. However, that overlooks a few key factors.
While I just said that Riley doesn't let sentiment impair his judgment, this is no ordinary situation. Wade is critically important to the Heat for two reasons.
First, he's such a major part of the city. South Beach has fully embraced Wade ever since he was drafted in 2003, and it's become his true home. The feelings are completely mutually.
Whether it's the Wade's World Foundation that helped him win the NBA's Community Assist Award this season or just his overall presence in the city, Wade means a lot to Miami.
And there's one person in particular who holds him in especially high regard: LeBron.
The strong friendship shared by the two superstars is what originally brought the MVP to the Heat, and it will be a major hindrance to any attempt at moving forward without both All-Stars. But it's a complicated situation, largely because the friendship doesn't necessarily translate to the court.
What follows is an excerpt from a fantastic article about the duo written by Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg:
Wade and James are an evolving story, a source of fascination and speculation for anybody who cares about basketball: They are best friends. No, they just act like they are. They are an unbeatable combination. No, they don't fit together. There is a rift between them. No, they are just teammates.
The truth is in there somewhere, and I think it goes something like this: The friendship is absolutely, 100 percent legitimate. They are very close. They talk all the time. They text constantly. They were close friends before they played together and will probably still be good friends in 20 years.
And yet...well, it doesn't always translate on the court. And if they are honest with each other, and honest with themselves, they would repeat the mantra that successful people have used forever: Friendship is great, but business is business.
"One thing about the new NBA," Battier said last week, "basketball really doesn't spill into the locker room. Maybe it used to. Maybe that is the perception of how it used to be in the old days...You can't really draw a correlation (now)."
There are days when Wade and James don't agree with each other at the office. They leave and remain friends.
I originally referred to the situation with Wade as "The Wade Dilemma," and it's largely because of what Rosenberg explained so perfectly up above. A dilemma is generally what you face when you have a decision to make where the options balance out. They may both be positive, or they may both be negative.
In this case, there's some of both.
Best Option for LeBron
LeBron must put his feelings aside and do what's best for his career.
Right now, he's in a rather unique position. How many other players in NBA history have been in the midst of their prime while surrounded by a workable situation with a chance to emerge as the greatest player of all time?
Even though he's quite clearly the best current player, LeBron still has a lot of work left to do in his quest for the G.O.A.T. Don't get me wrong about that. However, he's tracking toward that type of status if his career continues on its current trajectory.
He can't afford to let friendship influence him into making a decision that's not the right one for his future levels of success.
Here's the scary truth: LeBron has gotten so good that he's now hindered by a third superstar on the court rather than helped by him. It's a concept that economists refer to as diminishing marginal return.
When I was taught the concept, the example used was a spinning wheel. So imagine one sitting right there in your living room.
Right now, the spinning wheel is doing absolutely nothing, and the productivity increases greatly as soon as one person sits down to use it. When you add in the second person to help, it's beneficial, but the productivity level rises by less than it did when the first person sat down.
If a third person comes to help, it will still be aiding the cause. But that third person will be helping by even less than the second person did. This continues for the fourth person who tries to increase productivity.
However, when the fifth person comes along, he just gets in the way. He hinders the cause with his presence, and the marginal return is now negative. Too much help isn't always a good thing.
When LeBron sits down at the proverbial spinning wheel now, Wade is that fifth person. James just doesn't need his friend's help on the basketball court, which is reflected in the fact that Miami was more successful without the shooting guard.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Heat were much worse when Wade played throughout the postseason, as you can see from the chart below:
LeBron's game just doesn't mesh too well with Wade's despite the fact that they've been able to win multiple titles together. He'd be better off playing alongside a star who was comfortable spotting up without the ball in his hands.
The shooting guard's strengths help minimize damage when LeBron isn't on the court, but they don't necessarily help when both are on the floor together.
The NBA's reigning MVP may not have gone to college, but he's still one of the brightest basketball minds on the planet. Although he may not be willing to say it, you can be sure that all of this has crossed his mind at some point.
Whether he stays with the Heat or joins another team in the future, he's presumably well-aware that his best option involves ditching his close friend and current teammate. And if that future is in Miami, it means that Wade's is not.
A few months ago, I'd have said that was impossible, but that was before Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics parted ways.
LeBron's long-term future is brightest without Wade clouding it up. That will be tough for Miami to wrap its collective head around, but winning will ultimately be the best possible panacea.