You're going to hate me, Miami.
Many of his best moments have come alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and this Big Three may have another championship left in their tank. Come 2014, when LeBron will be wined and dined by a foray of suitors, those moments will mean almost nothing.
Less than one year from now, LeBron has a career-defining decision to make. Again. A decision that may lead him to seek the comfort of a different team and a different life.
The Third Championship Conundrum
Is LeBron more likely to stay in Miami if the Heat win a third straight title? Is Bud Light Shane Battier's Gatorade?
Yes, and yes.
You're more likely to order sushi from a five-star restaurant than a bodega that doubles as a motorhome, and LeBron is more likely to re-sign with a team that has won three consecutive titles than with one that hasn't. That should be obvious.
But just as coming up short won't guarantee he leaves, winning yet again won't ensure he stays.
"I have absolutely no idea," James told ESPN's Chris Broussard of his free-agency plans. "I would love to spend the rest of my career in Miami with this great team and great organization as we continue to compete for championships. That's ideal."
Idealized visions aren't always actualized. Even if the Heat win another title, LeBron could find something better. He's grown accustomed to a certain level of winning, one which Miami may no longer be able to provide.
Forget about age—I'll ruin your day with that later. Let's talk dollars, cents and automobile insurance, minus the automobile insurance.
Punitive luxury taxes could force the Heat's hand financially. Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen previously detailed how Miami's current roster could cost owner Micky Arison more than $140 million after all is said and done. That was before the Heat amnestied Mike Miller; but still, the roster is going to be expensive.
Arison's net worth, much like Chris Berman's antiperspirant, has its limits.
No way in hell does he voluntarily bid farewell to LeBron. There's not enough money in the world (or alcohol in South Beach) to make those in charge pass on LeBron.
The same likely holds true for Wade. But what about Bosh, who can also become a free agent? He could opt into another year of his deal instead of exploring the open market, but the Heat could also dump him via trade if money is an issue.
For optimism's sake, let's say money is no object (it is). Say the Big Three don't disband (they could). Other problems exist if Miami wins a third title.
Battier is entering the last year of his deal and, at 35, he could retire after a third championship. Ray Allen could forego the last year of his contract and retire with three rings too (one with the Boston Celtics).
Mario Chalmers will also be a free agent. Who's to say he won't take his three championships and flee for a team prepared to let him actually be a point guard? And who's to say the Heat will meet whatever asking price he's after?
Serious changes will await the Heat next summer whether they win or not; LeBron is going to be a flight risk whether they win or not.
"But we don't know what may happen from now to the end of the season," LeBron explained to Broussard. "That's the nature of the business. It's the nature of not knowing what tomorrow brings."
Teams must sign players based off what they can do now, not what they've done in the past (remember that when and if Wade becomes a free agent, Miami). LeBron must make The Decision, Part II according to where the brightest future lies.
'Ship or no 'ship, that may not be in Miami.
Chances Are Heat Don't Win a Title in 2014
Saying the odds are stacked against the Heat winning a third straight ring isn't as much an insult as it is merely the acceptance of reality.
There are 28 other teams seeking that same championship. I say "28" only because rumor has it the Philadelphia 76ers are actively trying not to win a title. Chances are the Heat don't beat out every single one of them.
That's not to say it's impossible. Chances were they wouldn't win in 2012. Or 2013. Yet they did. The hope is alive. Should the Heat fall victim to statistics, though, LeBron's decision is left to chance (there's that damn word again) more so than it would be if they won.
Two championships in four years is nice. Heck, one championship in four years is nice. Neither is indicative of a dynasty. Two in four comes close, but no cigar.
Were LeBron to return, he'd be going after three in five. Would that be a dynasty? Or would he then need four in six?
Absolute regimes are subjective and vary depending on whom you talk to. Creating a close-to-universally accepted dynasty would make it easier for LeBron to rationalize remaining in South Beach. He won't have done that if the Heat fall short next summer.
Arguments will be made that two titles in four years is enough. It's not. He would need at least one more. And if he still needs one more next summer, there are more reasons for him to leave.
Re-upping with a winning team will make more sense than committing to a near-dynasty. That's all assuming that hoarding rings is still of interest to LeBron—which it will be. He essentially said as much to Broussard above.
Losing forces LeBron to think about his current situation. It forces the Heat to think about the supporting cast they have put around him. And it increases the likelihood that "The Chosen One" chooses to leave.
Miami May Have Peaked
Like we previously noted, the Heat are headed for change.
Throw LeBron by the wayside and you still have the futures of Battier, Allen, Wade, Bosh, Chalmers and others to consider. More important than anything is the future of the Big Three; they'll define next summer.
If each and every one of them opts out, the Heat suddenly have some money to play around with. More than $61 million would be coming off Miami's books from them alone, leaving Pat Riley with enough coin to re-sign LeBron and go after younger superstars.
Theoretically, that sounds nice. It may also be impossible.
The NBA is a business, but the success in Miami was founded upon friendship. LeBron, Wade and Bosh are more than just teammates. We know this. Though the Heat would slight anyone and everyone to retain LeBron, his doing the same can be seen as betrayal.
Asking the Heat to part ways with Wade would be like Dwight Howard demanding the Los Angeles Lakers amnesty Kobe Bryant. Maybe it won't be as bad since LeBron actually brought more than a winning smile and self-serving ego to Miami. Still, it would be bad.
That's if he could even bring himself to make such demands at all. Both players are his friends and betraying those who helped bring him to Miami—specifically Wade, who was there first—is a great way to desecrate the image he's spent the last few years rebuilding.
At the same time, LeBron's legacy can't afford for him to make this decision with his heart. If he wants to amass titles, if he wants to catch and exceed Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, he has to do what's best for his career.
Wade will be 32-going-on-33 next summer, still operating on a set of fragile knees. The remnants of his postseason trials and tribulations from 2013 will still linger, especially if they prove recurrent in 2014.
Bosh will have put his 30th birthday in the rearview mirror as well. While injuries haven't dampened his tenure in Miami, a steady statistical decline has.
LeBron himself will be one year away from 30. Time won't be on his side. Faced with the prospect of demanding the Heat abandon his friends in search of superstars in their prime, he may find it easier to leave; to start over somewhere where he has no ties to the players who will be ousted in favor of himself.
Just like he did in 2010.
Looking Over the Fence
Honeymoons are like Kardashian marriages—they're temporary.
The Heat aren't always going to be championship favorites. Sooner or later a bigger, badder super-team will emerge from the same smoke LeBron did in 2010. And LeBron may want to be a part of that team.
Options abound next summer like they did three years ago. Kobe's Lakers have set themselves up for a run at the King, and the very team he smutted, the Cleveland Cavaliers, will be in play as well. Derrick Rose's Chicago Bulls might be there too. They'll have to let Luol Deng walk and amnesty or trade Carlos Boozer to attend the party, but they can be there.
One or more of these situations—and any that haven't surfaced yet—could put Miami's to shame.
Los Angeles could have $50 million or more to spend on LeBron, another superstar and Kobe, provided the latter takes a pay cut. Cleveland gives him the opportunity to play alongside Kyrie Irving and either a rejuvenated Andrew Bynum or, perhaps, another star of his choosing.
And in Chicago, he could team up with Rose, the only player to have won an MVP award other than LeBron in the past five years.
Once again, that's not including other scenarios that are bound to present themselves. Plenty of star players figure to hit the open market. LeBron could join forces with 'Melo and Andris Biedrins in Utah if he wanted to.
Bombarded by options, LeBron will find it difficult to say no at least once. More difficult than it would be for him to waive goodbye to everything he helped build in Miami.
Making the Decision
I'm not saying LeBron will spurn the Heat. Nor am I saying he'll stay in Miami. I don't know, you don't know—no one knows. Not even LeBron knows.
All we know for sure is that LeBron will have a decision to make, no matter what. He could win a third title or miss out on the three-peat. It doesn't matter. Next season will play a role in framing his decision, but so will the future and all it holds.
"LeBron surely wants to wait and see just what happens next summer," one general manager said, according to ESPN's Brian Windhorst. "We've seen radical moves and star player movement the last few years and he'll want to see what he can do to improve his situation."
Improving his situation may dictate he leave Miami. We would be fools to believe otherwise. Los Angeles is waiting. Chicago could be waiting. Cleveland, and its prodigal-son storyline, will be waiting.
The entire NBA is waiting. Just like it was in 2010, when he left the Cavaliers for the Heat.
Just like it will continue to wait into 2014, when LeBron could realistically decide to leave the Heat for someone else.