Break out your “take my talents” jokes from 2010. LeBron James reportedly has exercised his early termination option for the 2014-15 NBA season and will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
ESPN’s Chris Broussard reports Rich Paul, LeBron James’ agent, has informed the Heat of his client’s decision:
Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick has more insight into the decision:
CNN’s Rachel Nichols notes that things are going to get crazy with James hitting the open market:
Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated notes that the decision to opt out was a tactical one:
Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press reports that James has no idea where he’ll wind up:
The Miami Heat forward was due $20.59 million for next season, which could have been his fifth with the club. James’ six-year, $109.83 million contract carried early termination options for both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
Speculation about James’ potential departure has run rampant for much of the season. Almost half the league will have significant cap space this summer, most notably the Los Angeles Lakers. James will lead a free-agent class that also includes friend Carmelo Anthony, though it’s far more surprising to see the four-time NBA MVP’s name on the open market.
“At this point, I can’t,” James told NBATV in February, when asked if he could see himself leaving the Heat. “At this point, I can’t. We don’t know what can happen from now to July, so what I’ve been able to do this whole season to this point is just worry about what’s at hand, and that’s winning another championship.”
While understandably worrisome, James opting out far from ends his Heat career. Under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, Miami can offer him a five-year maximum deal worth roughly $115 million. Other teams are limited to a four-year pact maxing out at $85 million. That $30 million can make all the difference for even someone of James’ financial means.
Opting out merely allows James to assess his options.
Dwyane Wade‘s prime has either already been passed, or close to it.Chris Bosh has disappeared in three consecutive postseasons against the Indiana Pacers, and he turned 30 in March. Both have the same ETO as James.
Ray Allen turns 39 in July and is hitting free agency, Shane Battier is retiring, and Mario Chalmers can walk this summer. Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen each have player options, though it’d be a surprise to see either opt out.
There are a ton of moving components here, each of which will have to be solved by Pat Riley.
The Heat, despite their aging roster and noticeable foibles, have won two NBA championships and gone to four straight Finals over the past four seasons. It would have been an historical anomaly to see James walk away at the pinnacle of an ongoing dynasty. But Riley needs to provide James with a cogent plan on how to rebuild the talent surrounding the Big Three. Miami is well over the projected salary cap if you include cap holds, and it’s nearing the dreaded repeater tax bracket.
Given the Heat amnestied Finals hero Mike Miller to reduce their tax last summer, this is no longer the no-brainer situation James walked into.
There is also an underlying financial component.
James is risking his long-term earning power and maximizing it. His five-year max, had he opted into the 2014-15 season, would have been roughly $123 million. He’d be 35 by the end of his next five-year contract, an age at which not many players (Kobe Bryant exceptions aside) are handed massive paydays. Analytically speaking (per wagesofwins.com), ages 34 and 35 feature among the biggest drops inexpected performance.
Should James leave now, his four-year deal would end at age 33. He might even be able to force a third-year player option, which maximizes his potential of procuring max-level money into his late 30s. Doing so also means leaving $30 million guaranteed on the table.
There is a loyalty factor to consider as well. The biggest draw to Miami beyond winning has been the familial atmosphere Riley has cultivated. As Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald wrote in April, James may have played close to home when in Cleveland, but he never felt at “home” until he signed with the Heat. Beginning with the Big Three and on down the line through Riley and owner Micky Arison, these guys like each other.
But, as we saw in “The Decision” era, he is also a pragmatist. James spurned his hometown and engulfed his public reputation in flames to win in Miami. He’s older and more comfortable with his all-time standing now, yet James is understandingly unwilling to play out the remainder of his prime in mediocrity.
There were already ever-so-slight signs of slippage. Though he averaged his customary 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists, James was downright bad defensively at times last season. His effort waxed and waned, his rotations were sloppy, and there were countless moments when he’d eschew transition defense entirely to complain about a missed call.
Those are signs of the incredible wear James has put on his body these last few seasons. No player on the planet has played more minutes since the 2010-11 season, and only Kevin Durant is remotely close. With Wade breaking down, James might be reading the tea leaves and looking to repeat history—a situation where he can be The Man without having to carry the entire load.
Or he could just be looking for a fat new contract. Either way, Riley and Co. officially have their work cut out for them.