LeBron James has exercised the early termination option in his contract, a surprise for those expecting the 29-year-old superstar to opt in for another year of his deal with Miami. A few thoughts on the latest turn of events:
• Going rogue: Miami’s Big Three do not appear to be acting in concert -- yet. These are ominous early signs for Heat fans, who would be far more comforted had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh opted out of their contracts simultaneously with James. That scenario would have strongly indicated that the three of them had a plan for returning to Miami. This scenario gives the appearance that James is either putting pressure on Miami to make the choices he wants, or that he has one foot out the door.
• Finals not a factor? James has indicated that the result of the Finals has no bearing on decisions happening right now. While this could be true, you have to wonder if Miami had a Finals disastrous enough to change one’s vision of its future. After a season of carefully managing Wade’s minutes, he looked old and ineffective for much of the Finals. The Heat went from being considered a roughly even bet against San Antonio to losing by the most points per game of any Finals team in history.
• What about Wade? The educated guess is that if James leaves, Miami’s on the hook to pay Wade the remainder of his expensive contract. If Miami isn’t contending with a returning James, there’s little incentive for Wade to opt out of his deal right now and take a pay cut. If Wade does opt out of his deal right now, that’s a positive indicator that James is returning.
• Remember Serge Ibaka: NBA history may have turned on Ibaka’s calf, as the injury compromised the Thunder’s effort against the Spurs. The Heat matched up much better against Oklahoma City than against the San Antonio team that ended up throttling Miami. It’s hard to envision the possibility of James leaving had the Heat just won a third title –- as opposed to the current reality of James making this choice in the aftermath of the Heat losing three consecutive games in embarrassing fashion.
• Panicky Pat Riley: He’s the definition of cool, but Riley seemed less than in control during a June 19 news conference in which he exhorted other people to “get a grip.” If James leaves, certain Riley quotes will seem telling in retrospect. For instance, Riley said of his exit meeting with James, "He was restless. He wanted to get out of town with his family." On his relationship with James, Riley didn’t exactly betray a close working bond: "It's a texting relationship. It's a short meeting in the hallway. He knows I love him. He knows I respect him."
• Remember Mike Miller: Would Miller have been the difference against the Spurs? Probably not, but James was reputedly less than happy to lose a versatile floor spacer because owner Micky Arison wanted to save money. After getting amnestied by Miami, Miller had a fine season with Memphis. He was sorely missed by a Heat team that relied on his production in past playoffs. If Miami wishes to keep its Big Three at a discount, there’s perhaps hypocrisy in ownership asking for monetary sacrifices from players after Arison refused to foot the bill last season.
• LeBron gets lambasted for leaving: There’s a pattern to this, as we learned in 2010. Few criticize James till he finally chooses a new team and incurs the wrath of 29 LeBronless fanbases. He won’t be pilloried for returning to Miami. Fair or unfair, he will likely suffer an image hit if he does leave to compete in a more favorable situation. That’s the reality of spurning a fan base that’s rooted for you over a long period of time. Its pain gets amplified by the jealousy of others, and it builds into a storm of ill will directed at James and his newest team. That’s what happened when he left Cleveland. Ironically, this calculus is different if he actually comes back to Cleveland, as many have a sentimental preference for LeBron returning to his home state.