Three years after LeBron James' first big free-agent decision, we're right back where we started (sort of). The buzz is already building around James' choice next offseason. Our panel takes an early look at how it all could play out.
1. Should LeBron James re-sign with the Heat in 2014?
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: No. He's already given Heat fans more championships in the past two seasons than 20 NBA franchises have had in their entire existence, so they'd have no excuse to be mad if he left. However, there's one fan base that still feels deprived by LeBron, so he should head back to Cleveland to make amends for jilting Cavs fans. Besides, by 2015 Kyrie Irving will be a better sidekick than Dwyane Wade.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Sure, if he thinks they give him the best chances of winning titles going forward. The biggest variable for LeBron will likely be the health of his buddy Wade, who turns 32 years old in January. Of note: Wade's postseason PER the past three seasons has fallen from 26.3 to 22.0 to 18.7. If Wade limps through another postseason with bad wheels, LeBron will have plenty to think about.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Yes. Definitely. I firmly believe players of LeBron's stature shouldn't go team-hopping. He's already made one free-agent jump. That's plenty. When you're LeBron James, you don't use up Miami until it's no longer useful and then bolt to the next town with more fertile championship ground. You turn to Pat Riley and say: "Let's reload around me. Me and you together will keep the Heat at the top. I'm the key to the championship."
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: No. Let's be real here: LeBron will be a max player for much -- if not all -- of his career. I don't think the same can be said right now for Wade or Chris Bosh. The smart play for James might be to take a wait-and-see approach on Wade's health and/or Bosh's improvement for one additional season, then commit one way or another in 2015.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: No. (Heat fans, please read to the end of the paragraph before chasing me -- more than usual -- with pitchforks). A "win" for the Heat next summer may be for LeBron not to opt out of his contract and to roll over his decision to 2015. When LeBron committed to the Heat for four seasons in 2010, they were set up to be a dominant team for that time frame. As of now, the Heat roster heading into the 2014-15 season is a mystery, and youth is not on the side of the current iteration. If the Heat reload -- and they could have as many as 12 free agents and $50 million in cap space to do so -- by adding younger premium talent by next summer, LeBron may well take a new long-term deal. But until then, he'll be waiting and seeing, as he should.
2. What are the current odds LeBron stays in Miami?
Adande: 67 percent. He's comfortable, and all of the moving around he had to do as a kid might make him psychologically predisposed to wanting to plant roots. If Pat Riley commits to staying, LeBron could have faith that Riles would surround him with the right pieces.
Haberstroh: 60 percent. So much can happen over the next 10 months so I'm reluctant to push it higher than "they're the favorites." Put it this way: If the Heat three-peat, the number is 99.9 percent. If they lose, I'd put it at a coin flip.
Stein: I don't speak "odds" very well -- help me, Jimmy Shapiro! -- so I'll put it at a 90 percent chance. Tempted to bump that up even higher to about 95 percent. LeBron is as close to Dwyane Wade as two superstars can possibly be. He and Riley have a special bond after the two titles. Now D-Wade has to take one for the team and help out by taking a pay cut in free agency to give the franchise more flexibility, because he's not an every-night max player anymore, but I can't see LeBron leaving Miami if his two fellow icons are there. It would take something bizarre like Wade abruptly and stunningly leaving to change the climate there.
Wallace: 75 percent. Depends on the fan base or media market. If James values the same things he did when he made his decision to come to Miami in 2010, then the odds should lean strongly in Miami's favor.
Windhorst: They are the clear favorite, though it's hard to put a number on it when there are so many unknowns with the roster after this season. If they win the title again, I think you'll see everyone try to hang together for another season. If they don't, there could be a pretty big makeover.
3. What are the current odds LeBron leaves for the Lakers?
Adande: 5 percent. Take what I said about Pat Riley above and apply the opposite to Jim Buss. And LeBron has spent enough time around Kobe Bryant to know Kobe won't hand over the keys to the Lakers as easily as Wade handed over the keys to the Heat.
Haberstroh: 5 percent. Let's say Bryant suffers another career-threatening injury; the Lakers somehow trade Pau Gasol for Kevin Love to put Gasol alongside his countryman, Ricky Rubio; and the Heat's season ends in turmoil. Then maybe it could happen. Maybe.
Stein: I'll go with 1 percent ... only because you never say never in this league. But I cannot fathom LeBron joining the Lakers. He was savaged for The Decision, hated all that negativity and would expose himself to getting hammered on a similar scale if he made that move. I firmly believe he'd be branded as one of sports' all-time heartless mercenaries if he decided that he needs a move to Lakerland after just four seasons on South Beach. All the informed whispers emanating out of L.A. suggest that the Lakers are going to chase him hard and think they have a legit shot. But I don't.
Wallace: Far less than 24 percent. And I say that as a total play on Kobe's jersey number. I don't see LeBron wanting to play with Kobe, assuming Kobe stays. And I certainly don't see the Lakers pushing Kobe aside or rushing him to make a decision to appease James. Besides, what can James do for the Lakers, from a legacy standpoint, that Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem and Jerry West haven't? Now, the Clippers? Playing with CP3 and for Doc Rivers if other contracts are moved? Hmmm. That would be a completely different story.
Windhorst: Not great. First, I don't think LeBron has much desire to play with Kobe. Their interactions with Team USA were often more utilitarian than anything. Second, the Lakers would have to attract at least one more young superstar to come play in L.A. to truly compete with what the Heat could offer. Getting someone to take the Chris Bosh role with Chris Bosh talent will not be easy, even for L.A. And don't assume Kobe is a big hook at this point in his career.
4. What are the current odds LeBron returns to the Cavaliers?
Adande: 17 percent. The chance to return to Ohio and play with a talented young team has to appeal to LeBron. And if you think there's no getting past Dan Gilbert's Comic Sans letter, you haven't been watching Keith Olbermann back on ESPN2. #Bygones.
Haberstroh: 15 percent. I think this number is way higher next time LeBron hits free agency. If winning is indeed the top priority, I don't think the Cavaliers are ready to contend right away. Let's check back in a few years when Kyrie Irving enters his prime.
Stein: Five to 7 percent, since this is the only other place I can see LeBron playing. And only because rejoining his home-state Cavs could theoretically heal some of the deep wounds that were opened when he left and bring him some inner peace.
When it comes to pure basketball, I repeat: LeBron James is LeBron James. Players of that stature don't go running off to a new team just because hooking up with Irving could create all sorts of new championship possibilities. Players of that stature stay put and let management build around their once-in-a-generation gifts ... like San Antonio did with Tim Duncan. Timmy won titles with three different teams around him. I'd like to see LeBron pull off the same trick.
Wallace: 15 percent. LeBron's loyalty has been -- and always will be -- to Akron, not necessarily Cleveland. Unless he feels completely indebted to the Cavaliers, which he's given no indication he does, then it seems more of a pipe dream than a serious possibility. But credit the Cavs for doing their best to move on, as well.
Windhorst: Probably in the neighborhood of 25 percent. The Cavs have the chance to mimic what the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors did over the past year. If Kyrie Irving has a season like what James Harden and Stephen Curry just had, and makes the playoffs, the Cavs will become a more attractive destination. A year ago you wouldn't have predicted those two teams would be right there for top free agent Dwight Howard this summer.
The Cavs have the ingredients for the same formula, including upcoming cap space. But like the Lakers, they need to figure out a way to get another star on the roster. It's safe to say LeBron would be more interested in joining forces with Irving than Kobe, but the Cavs also need a Bosh type to really compete with Miami.
5. What's better for the NBA: LeBron stays or LeBron goes?
Adande: LeBron goes. Even David Stern has come to recognize that movement is better for business than loyalty. Curiosity replaces stagnation (admit it, you have Heat fatigue) ... and just think of all the new jerseys that could be sold. The Decision was the best thing to happen to the NBA. Another LeBron move is just what the league needs -- maybe without a TV show this time.
Haberstroh: Stays. It's a transaction league, but in this instance, I'm guessing the NBA would rather see LeBron try to build a dynasty to rival Michael Jordan's Bulls than to jump ship again. LeBron chasing MJ? That sound you hear is the "cha-ching" from the league office.
Stein: Don't have a super strong view on this one, but I suppose it's better for the NBA if he stays and keeps winning titles in Miami. When there's one highly successful team that's widely loathed outside of its own city borders, everyone else has someone to shoot for. Which isn't the worst formula.
Wallace: Doesn't matter. As long as LeBron stays healthy and suits up for an NBA team, the NBA wins. The only team that truly benefits from these next several months of speculation is the group of buddies and handlers LeBron surrounds himself with until decision time again. It's their season.
Windhorst: What's best for the NBA is for LeBron to be on a compelling team with big stars who play an attractive style that will contend for titles. It doesn't have to be in a big market -- Heat owner Micky Arison will expound how Miami is actually a small market -- but it has to be a team with a big name.