LeBron James will unquestionably go down as one of the greatest players to hold a basketball. At just 29 years of age and with 11 NBA seasons under his belt, he frankly already holds the distinction. If he pulled a Barry Sanders and walked away now, that much would be cemented, though his place in the game would always be up for debate.
Fortunately James, an unrestricted free agent come July 1, isn’t packing up shop and dedicating himself to baseball, acting, or rapping any time soon.
It didn’t surprise anyone, not even Pat Riley, when James opted out of the final two years of his contract with the Heat to test the waters. He had $42.7 million remaining on his deal, but money is not now and never will be an issue for the King. His $30 million profit on the Apple purchase of Beats Electronics was enough to set him up for life, and he made more than double that in salary and endorsements last year alone. He’s good.
Many view James’ opting out as an opportunity to simply restructure his contract in Miami – a necessity from fellow stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as well, and they will follow suit – which would result in making a few million less a year, but would simultaneously allow the Heat to add a fourth big time star like Carmelo Anthony (who opted out with the Knicks to become an unrestricted free agent), shore up the point guard position (Kyle Lowry?), or revamp a bench that disappeared in the Finals against the champion Spurs.
Of all the options on the table, that’s the most likely.
But others seem to think James will use his new found freedom to test the waters. Could he join Anthony in New York? Bring some youth to an aging group of Nets? Go to Chicago alongside Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah? How about Houston with Dwight Howard and James Harden? Don’t forget Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, or Chris Paul and the Clippers. Dirk Nowitzki’s offered him the keys to the city in Dallas. Goran Dragic’s Suns are a strange option. Or what about a return home to Akron, Ohio, and the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Reality is they’re all long shots compared to just staying put – and, no, that’s not because the Heat actually traded up to draft UConn star Shabazz Napier (a LeBron favorite). But, in the remote chance he leaves, I’ll guarantee you this: there is absolutely no way LeBron James is leaving the Eastern Conference.
James seemingly doesn’t care about his salary; he cares about winning. If he wants to be considered the greatest to ever play the game, he’ll need rings. Not one. Not two…which he’s won in five tries between the Heat and Cavs.
Michael Jordan has six, same as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Bryant has five, just like career Laker Magic Johnson. Tim Duncan just grabbed his fifth. It seems unthinkable to reach, but beloved Celtic Bill Russell owns 11. No matter how you slice it, he has a ways to go.
On the one hand, you could give him credit for chasing winning and not dollars; rare in today’s sports climate (some reports, on the other hand, say that James is seeking a max contract after taking previous paycuts). Critics, of course, will condemn him for his strategy in doing so - recruiting Olympic-level talent to the same destination in an effort to appear in the Finals each and every year. Since leaving Cleveland, he’s four-for-four on at least making the last round.
In turn, the four-time MVP has developed a reputation for being someone who isn’t willing to carry a team on his back, as he had to do for years back home. No one but James could have taken a Mike Brown coached Cavaliers squad to the brink of a title.
Upon his arrival in South Beach after a poor “Decision,” he promised a Robert Horry level number of titles. It was laughable, but believable. Put enough talent together and winning typically follows.
But that can also be viewed as taking the path of least resistance, while a squad like the dynasty in San Antonio has spent nearly two decades drafting and developing winners behind a phenomenal coach, an all-time great in Duncan, and future Hall of Famers Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. That franchise has never been bad, or even a middling organization, but it has had to occasionally retool. Per Riley’s charge, however ignorant and foolish it was coming from him, Miami could be no different with a decade-plus of James leading the way.
If he did leave, however, he’d simply join up with stars elsewhere in the East, where it would be smooth sailing through the playoffs until at least the conference finals, where maybe the Pacers would challenge, as they have the last couple of seasons. Point being, there are no more than a few contenders in the conference year in and year out, and rarely that many. His spot in the Finals would be a virtual annual certainty.
Out West, James would have a challenge from every team he’s not a member of each and every round on the way to the championship bout between the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Blazers, Rockets, Warriors, Mavericks, and Grizzlies. Historically speaking – if public perception is any indicator – that’s not how James is built. Way too hard.
The fact that rumors surfaced of James trying to lure Anthony to Miami in the midst of the Heat’s recent Finals struggles is proof positive enough (although the Heat players have denied discussing the idea of bringing Carmelo to South Beach).
James may not care what people think of him, even if that view evolves into being known as a mercenary or hired gun. That’s his prerogative. Seemingly, he cares about rings and only rings, so long as they aren’t too difficult to attain.
Once James signs his new deal, that fact will be evident by the names that surround him. And probably, it'll be his same two buddies, along with perhaps another future Naismith inductee.
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