Regardless of what happens on the court, 2014 might signal another new beginning for “King James”.
LeBron James will likely opt out of the final two years of his contract (the first year is an Early Termination Option and the second year is a player option) with the Heat after the season ends, regardless of whether or not the Heat win it all. James will turn 29 two days before the calendar strikes 2014, and he will be looking to score a mega-contract that will hold him over into his mid-30’s. He could very well stay in Miami, but it might not make sense to do that — especially given the fact that he has already left one team (the Cleveland Cavaliers), so there is no legacy in risk of ruining by virtue of playing for one team his entire career. “The Decision” in the summer of 2010 may pale in comparison to the hoopla and frenzy that James may face in the summer of 2014.
It makes a lot of sense for James to leave the Heat in 2014. The NBA around James is becoming younger and younger, a new wave of players are entering their primes and are poised to make serious waves in the NBA circuit. The Heat aren’t part of that trend. James’ sidekick, Dwyane Wade, who has been with the Miami Heat his entire career and had won an NBA title before James came to town, will turn 32 in the first month of 2014. 32 isn’t past the typical prime years for an NBA player, but Wade has an extensive history with injuries and is declining faster than his colleagues at the position. All of which makes it foolish for James to sign up for another five years of playing next to him. Wade’s game does not translate well with age and declining athleticism. The shooting guard bases his game on speed and driving with reckless abandon to the basket — not on shooting as his position might suggest. Wade’s best year behind the arc was in 2008-2009 when he made 1.1 three-pointers per game at a .317% clip — an atrocious mark for a shooting guard. This year, he has attempted just 13 three pointers in 20 contests and has connected on just four of them. He has kept his scoring numbers in check by virtue of playing off James’ superb ability to get his teammates open looks, as evidenced by his career-high field goal percentage of .541, but even his total scoring has declined every year for the last five seasons. Chris Bosh isn’t an option either. Bosh will turn 30 in March, 2014 and also will have to decide whether or not to pick up the final two years of his contract with the Heat — or try to land one more max deal. Bosh isn’t likely to get a five-year max deal from any team as he is currently averaging his lowest mark in points (14.8) since his rookie season, and a career-low in rebounds (6.2) and minutes (28.7). He would be wise to take the $43 million plus on the table with the Heat.
James needs to find a better team. And there may be one waiting for him where he started his career. The Cavaliers have been stockpiling young talent since James left them in despair four years ago, and now James could jump back on the ship right as it starts to set sail. 21-year-old point guard Kyrie Irving has quickly become one of the best at the position in his three NBA seasons and could help James transition into his 30’s; the two would represent the most lethal 1-2 punch in the game for the next handful of seasons. James’ impact on the Cavs wouldn’t end with Irving. The team is full of young talent with affordable contracts that could turn into fringe all-star players with James’ help: namely Tristan Thompson and 2013’s first overall pick Anthony Bennet. The Cavs, barring any mid-season trades this year, will have $36,294,677 in committed salaries for next season. James would command a first-year salary of $19,181,750 (as defined by the collective bargaining agreement that allows teams to give 35% of total salary to a player in 2014-2015). The salary cap is expected to be around $60 million. Andrew Bynum’s $12,540,000 2014-2015 salary isn’t guaranteed until July 11, 2014, if and when the Cavs decide to pick it up — which would depend solely on James’ interest of returning to the club. The Cavs would have enough cap space for a mid-level free agent, their rookie deals, and a max-deal for James. Not to mention is the LeBron effect, which suggests many veteran players would take smaller contracts to play alongside the best player in the world. They could easily become the deepest and most talented team James has ever been apart of.
Championships would likely come in bunches in Cleveland.
And that is precisely what 2014 might trouble LeBron with; no longer are the Heat the runaway favorites to win it all. Sure, the Heat figure to contend for another NBA title in 2014, which would be their third in a row, but it may not be so easy this time around. In years past, the Heat’s stiffest competition in the East came from several teams: the Chicago Bulls, the Indiana Pacers, the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks. But they passed each of those tests rather easily. And even though this year the Eastern Conference is extremely top-heavy, with only one other team posing a legitimate threat to dethrone the Heat in the East (the Indiana Pacers), the reality of it may be that the Pacers’ may very well be the favorites to win it all in 2014 — not James’ Heat.
The Pacers two best players, Paul George and Roy Hibbert finally have some real playoff experience and have transformed into all-stars; and in Paul George’s case, a legitimate candidate to strip James of his MVP trophy. The Pacers currently have a better record than the Heat (by a game and a half) and have split their two games on the season. Is it possible James has found his match in George?
The brightest spotlight on James is undoubtedly the 2014 NBA offseason. He definitely learned in 2010 on how not to approach an offseason, so there likely won’t be a televised special in which he will announce where he is going next, breaking the hearts of NBA owners around the country. That doesn’t mean he’ll avoid the media firestorm, desperate courting from team executives around the league and the explosion on the Internet from crazed fans around the world. If that isn’t enough to make 2014 the wildest year of James’ life, he has to worry about fending off several new MVP candidates and winning an NBA title before all that goes down. It should be fun to watch.