CLEVELAND -- The Miami Heat are the defending NBA champions, currently on a 23-game winning streak that has put a historical stamp on their dominance. Their superstars, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, seem to be on the precipice of establishing the sort of dynasty they dreamed of three seasons ago.
So why are some Cleveland Cavaliers fans, who spewed hatred when James first returned to Quicken Loans Arena in 2010 to face the Cavs, considering whether to cheer for him Wednesday night?
It's because James may be just 15 months from free agency again, which means that Cavs fans can dream again -- dream of the return of the Ohio native who wore the wine and gold Cavaliers uniform from 2003 to 2010.
Yes, 2014 could be 2010 all over again. One thing is certain -- there will be another decision.
And Cleveland figures to be an option for LeBron, something that is not lost on local fans.
"My only focus now is to win another championship, I can't worry about speculation or rumors," James said recently when the subject was raised. "What we're doing on the floor right now is what it's all about. We're playing good ball right now. We're trying to win a championship."
Last season, James issued an olive branch to his former fans by talking about returning to play for the Cavs someday. And in the meantime, Kyrie Irving, a friend of James, has emerged as the young star the Cavs never had and always wanted alongside LeBron.
Speculation, while still rather quiet, is circulating around the league. Denver Nuggets coach George Karl said publicly in January what many have said privately when he told Fox Sports, "I could see LeBron maybe doing that [returning to the Cavaliers]."
In the foreground, the Heat continue to bask in the glory of their 2010 coup as they chase another championship. But that coup created quite the backlash in the league. There's an entire section of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, ratified in 2011, that could be titled "the Anti-Heat rules."
The reasons for those new rules are a complex mix of philosophical differences and plain jealousy. But in any case, very soon, the Heat franchise will face challenges in keeping its glittering team together. One might say that some of the other owners wanted to see LeBron take his talents from South Beach.
Wednesday is supposed to be the first day of spring, but you wouldn't know it in Cleveland -- the forecast calls for snow, strong winds and a high of 30. (It will be 84 degrees in Miami.) The Cavs have lost three straight, will be without their top three players (including Irving) and will host the team with the second-longest winning streak in NBA history. The talk of the league remains the streak.
But with NBA teams already working on their plans for 2013 and 2014, it's also time to talk about how things will unfold for the game's most dominating player. It's a question that hovers over Cleveland, and the entire NBA: What is LeBron's future?
LeBron's early termination option
Fans fixated on LeBron's infamous, if lighthearted, wish of "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" titles in Miami might not realize that LeBron committed to only four seasons in Miami. While his contract runs to 2015, as do the contracts of Wade and Bosh, Miami's Big Three can terminate their deals next season. (They can also extend to 2016, if they like.)
As of now, it seems almost certain James will use his early termination option and become a free agent in 2014, regardless of whether he intends to stay in Miami.
Several reasons, in no particular order:
One, James is making less than the maximum salary possible because he agreed to take less money in 2010 when he joined the Heat. He would be able to get a raise by opting out, up to the new max, whatever that turns out to be. Perhaps he'll choose to take less again, but in any case, opting out would give him the freedom to decide.
Two, he would be able to get up to five guaranteed years. Even if decided he to stay in Miami, simply signing an extension rather than seeking a new contract would limit him to four years.
Three, starting a new deal would allow him to create new opportunities to opt out in the future, which he couldn't get with an extension under the new rules.
Four, opting out would give him the maximum amount of flexibility and leverage to choose his future team and teammates.
James will be nearly 30 years old and probably looking toward where he wants to play the remainder of his prime years -- so he'll probably opt out and either return to Miami or look for a better situation. While that decision might seem especially loaded with meaning because it's LeBron, it's also a very normal development in NBA terms, one that happens every season around the league.
The next decision
James, like Wade and Bosh, has the luxury of not having to worry about his free-agency decision before July 2014. He can wait and evaluate the landscape of the league at that time and make a decision then, without worrying now about salary-cap management or guessing what various rosters will look like.
When James signed with the Heat, his final decision was made late in the process (despite accusations of a long-term conspiracy). James saw the chance to partner with Wade and Bosh in Miami and made his choice in June after the three had a series of conversations. This is likely the kind of decision-making process James will employ again.
In fact, he doesn't even have to decide whether to opt out until June 30, 2014.
Sources close to James insist that there is no plan in place for 2014 and no decisions have been made.
Of course, teams hardly have the same luxury -- they have to plan ahead, because of the complexities of salary-cap and roster management. Going into next season, it will be fairly obvious, just as in 2009-10, which teams are plotting to make a run at James. While teams cannot talk publicly about players on other rosters, their intentions are often well known.
In addition to the Heat, three teams are mentioned most often as potential bidders: the Cavs, Lakers and Bulls.
Cleveland is in the midst of a long-term rebuilding project, relying mostly on the draft. As the Cavs move toward playoff contention, their hope is to use their salary-cap space to add veterans in the future, with James expected to be at the top of every team's list of desirable free agents, including Cleveland's.
The Lakers' situation is complicated by the presence of Kobe Bryant, a major rival of LeBron, but the league's most glamorous franchise can clear its books for the most part if it chooses to make a run at James. Bryant's contract expires in 2014, and he has hinted at retirement, although his intentions aren't clear yet.
And many around the league believe that Chicago, spurned by James three seasons ago, can put itself in position to make another run at him. By using the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer and letting Luol Deng's contract expire, the Bulls could have the cap space to chase James again in 2014.
Bad news for the Heat
Why would James even consider changing locales? The answer is found in the new collective bargaining agreement, which might restrict Miami from surrounding him with as much talent as the franchise has amassed in the past.
Heat owner Micky Arison had perhaps more incentive to see the 2011 lockout end than any other owner, with the clock ticking on his Big Three era, and indeed he won an NBA title seven months later. Yet he voted against the new CBA because its regulations will make it extremely expensive for him to keep his stars together -- and will limit his ability to add talent around them, even more than the previous CBA. Overall, it was a bad long-term deal for the Heat.
The new CBA includes a punishing new tax structure, including a new "repeater tax" that could triple or even quadruple what the Heat would pay in tax in 2014 if Wade, Bosh and James were to re-sign.
The SuperFriends era has not been about money. Arison has shown the willingness to spend and has gone deep into the luxury tax over the past two years. Most of the players on the Heat roster, including all three of their stars, have given up a significant amount of salary to be in Miami and allow the franchise the cap space to fill out the team with talent.
The problem is, the new CBA was meant, in part, to be a superteam killer, with new rules about how teams over the tax line can acquire players. The new limits might reshape the Heat's roster. Simply put, restocking the team's roster with supporting players to replace aging veterans Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem is going to be significantly tougher.
Arison was concerned about this, which is why he attended most collective bargaining sessions personally even though he wasn't on the owners' labor relations committee.
(Furthermore, in building their ready-to-win roster, the Heat also have traded away four first-round picks in a six-season span, which will make it even harder for them to add high-potential players on reasonable contracts.)
"The original intent of the owners was to have a hard [salary] cap, which would've basically leveled the playing field between teams," Arison said in an interview after the CBA was ratified. "Instead, because of players' refusal to accept that, they just made it extremely expensive."
Had there been a hard cap put in place, the Heat might have had to break up their team immediately. Instead, because the rules were phased in, the Heat were guaranteed having three seasons of keeping their All-Stars together. But after that it gets extremely expensive, as Arison said, and maybe too challenging.
With these restrictions and the penal tax structure, the Heat may have to examine making a trade involving one of their three stars and breaking up their All-Star core.
With James as Miami's key figure and Wade as a Heat legend who will be 32 next year, the most likely candidate to go probably would be Bosh, who has lots of value around the league. Moving Bosh would give them a chance to restructure the roster to keep Wade and James while putting new, cheaper supporting pieces around them.
Of course, the Heat wouldn't do this lightly. But despite the sensitive and complex nature of the situation, Heat president Pat Riley probably will have to consider such a move between now and next season.
Regardless, these are the factors that appear to be working against Miami as LeBron approaches his next big decision.
Good news for the Heat
Still, the Heat have a lot going for them.
The new CBA did not force the immediate breakup of the Heat, but it did cause some of their title competitors some problems.
The Oklahoma City Thunder did not have the same timing on their side and decided they had to trade James Harden, although they have recovered nicely from the shock of that October surprise to contend again in the Western Conference. The Memphis Grizzlies had to trade Rudy Gay, although likewise they have thrived since their big trade.
The CBA's tenets against superteams affected those teams immediately. The Heat have the option of pushing off the tough decisions for another whole season.
If anything, the new CBA only made James and the Heat look savvy for making their big moves when they did.
And let's not overlook one very important piece of the puzzle -- there is no CBA that can stop players from taking less money, as James, Wade and Bosh did in 2010. Very few people believed that they, or any other superstars, would take less than the max. Yet they did, and in the process they allowed players such as Haslem and Mike Miller to come aboard. It was that decision, as much as any other, that created a championship team in Miami.
It's a decision that LeBron and his teammates might make again.
The Heat have other factors in their favor, as well. For one thing, the franchise has not used the amnesty provision yet. If the Heat decide to release Miller this summer, as is expected, they can reduce their tax burden for 2014-15 by perhaps as much as $10 million.
In that case, their books will be in very good shape overall. Other than Miller, they don't have a bad contract.
With Miami's popularity as a destination, and with LeBron and his superstar teammates as a draw, the Heat can continue to appeal to free agents willing to take less money to join up -- just as Ray Allen did in 2012. As LeBron evaluates his options, that might help keep him in Miami, as well, knowing he can stay there and bring in teammates ready to make future title runs.
The Heat have used their limited free agency well over the past two seasons, landing Battier and Allen on low-cost deals that have proven to be favorable. There's no reason to believe that Riley won't be able to continue leveraging his desirable city and strong core to attract free agents who wouldn't consider cold-weather cities.
Where the Cavs stand
James stayed in Cleveland for seven seasons, and then left because he saw a chance to play with better teammates and win titles.
In 2010, the Cavs were capped out with underperforming veterans and were largely devoid of young talent after having traded away four first-round picks in a seven-season span. The future, LeBron aside, was dim, and that's exactly how it played out in his absence -- the Cavs won only 19 games without LeBron in 2010-11, a drop of 42 wins.
Now the future is starting to look a bit brighter. Yes, the Cavs are headed to the lottery for the third straight season without James. No doubt it has been a miserable run for the franchise.
But the result is they are now stocked with young talent, putting four players in the rookie-sophomore game over All-Star Weekend. Cleveland has two more first-round picks coming this season, including one probably in the high lottery, and could have as many as three first-round picks in the potentially loaded 2014 draft.
James never played with a star in Cleveland like the Cavs now have with Irving, who was an All-Star before his 21st birthday. James also has a relationship with young developing forward Tristan Thompson, as they share the same agent.
The Cavs' foundation is structured much differently than it was when James starred there. They also have lots of salary-cap flexibility and could be in position to add several free agents in 2014 because their young players are on inexpensive rookie-scale contracts. Even though the Cavs were coming off back-to-back 60-win seasons when James left, the Cavs' outlook in 2014 could be much better than it was in 2010.
Of course, it's easy to talk about potential. Right now, all these rising prospects don't even amount to a playoff team.
There's another reality: The Cavs and owner Dan Gilbert already have been burned badly by James once. Sure, they can probably get a meeting with him if they want to in July 2014, but are they willing to set themselves up for another disappointment? Can they do so without losing some of the fans who hate LeBron? Can they do so after Gilbert's scathing letter condemning LeBron for leaving?
But they don't have to worry about that now. They are on the right track, and they have another offseason, another season and two more drafts to make themselves more appealing to James. And they have Kyrie Irving.
The Heat outmaneuvered the Cavs three seasons ago, mostly because the Cavs were trying to win a title right then while the Heat were able to plan for the future. The roles are now reversed. But, of course, that doesn't necessarily mean the results will be.
Still, some Cavs fans will hope. And some will cheer LeBron on Wednesday night.