It’s nearly impossible not to link the futures of both the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, two teams that played in consecutive NBA Finals, two teams that seem inexorably linked in spite of their differing styles and models of conception.
Their seasons are over now, the reflex of San Antonio’s swift and abrupt dismissal of the two-time defending champion Heat, with one of those championships bounding out of a 2013 win over San Antonio, who was just a mosquito-flap away from preventing the Heat from winning consecutive titles.
Both franchises, in spite of all this recent wonderful fortune and an uninspiring cast of potential usurpers to the throne, face uneasy futures. Miami stares its down more glumly than its Western Conference counterparts, partially in reaction to the way they were dominated during this Finals round, but mostly because the team (despite its proclamations to the contrary) can’t help but wonder if it could have done better than the two titles it earned in four years, and if that Finals run will be halted for good. Not so much in the 2014-15 season, but in the summer of 2015.
Famously, both LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh can opt out of their contracts next month. That provision was originally drawn up so the Heat’s Big Three could re-negotiate deals with the Heat, suspecting they’d be coming off of a string of championships, signing to the sort of market value that they had to leave on the table when taking less money to form this triptych in 2010.
Instead, Bosh remains a question mark of an offensive performer, even four years later an uneasy fit both alongside James and in Erik Spoelstra’s offense. Wade is in serious decline, the result of playing deep into the playoffs in many years while working with an erratic and knee-destroying sense of physical economy and provision.
And James? Sure, he tired toward the end of some of these losses to the Spurs, but his true market value is probably worth twice what he’ll eventually sign for, wherever he signs for.
It’s hard not to believe the three when they tell you that they love Miami, and genuinely haven’t conferred as to the best way to keep this together. Re-signing all three to the maximum immediately vaults the Heat over the salary cap, and though Udonis Haslem will opt-in for one more season and Norris Cole will still be around (and Justin Hamilton, on an unguaranteed contract, remains an intriguing prospect), the rest of the team’s roster is set to split. Chris Andersen will opt out and look for one last big payday elsewhere, Shane Battier is already gone and Ray Allen could be the next to go. Michael Beasley and Greg Oden didn’t work out, and free agent Mario Chalmers (who didn’t start in Sunday’s Game 5) remains a question mark.
The idea that Wade’s best years are behind him will come as duplicitous new news to his negotiating team, which will point to a sterling regular season and his work throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Bosh’s team will point out that Chris wasn’t brought to Miami to be a center, and that he certainly wasn’t brought here to act as Sam Perkins 2.0, dulling his stats in the process. And James’ people will wonder why it always has to fall on him to make less money, pointing out that if the Heat front office ran their team better – as, say, the Bulls did when Michael Jordan was making $31 million a season in Tim Duncan’s rookie year – he wouldn’t have to rely on reported earphone investments in order to carry a team to the Finals every season.
Fielding three superstars is reason enough to credit the way Pat Riley has put together the Heat, it’s been joked by some that Riley deserves the NBA’s Executive of the Year award in perpetuity as long as James, Bosh and Wade are together, all because of the work he did to combine the three in 2010. Miami has to be wary of the luxury tax and it remains capped out because of the presence of the stars, but Riley has shown little of the long term acumen in acquiring the sort of role players that put San Antonio over the top this year.
In years past Mike Miller, Shane Battier, and Ray Allen have done killer work late into June alongside Miami’s star trio, but look at those sorts of names. Look at Chris Andersen, and to a lesser extent Beasley and Oden. These are obvious names. These are the biggest names available, for that sort of (mid-level exception, lesser exception, or veteran’s minimum) contract. It’s not really fair to expect Riley to approximate the work of Spurs general manager R.C. Buford – who rightfully won the NBA’s Executive of the Year award this season in a lifetime achievement vein, not based around his midseason acquisition of Austin Daye – who took chances deep into drafts some 14 and 13 years ago, but the proof is in the pudding. Riley’s helpers were of no service to James in these Finals.
Nor was Wade, or Bosh. Which, again, will make this summer uneasy for James and the Heat.
In Marc Spears’ column from early on Monday, this was thrown out:
Heat fans have just reason to be nervous. A source close to James, however, offered a response that might ease the concern.
"Where is he going to go that is as good or better than Miami?" the source told to Yahoo Sports. "The San Antonio Spurs? The Chicago Bulls? The Los Angeles Clippers? Where is he [realistically] going to go?"
That’s not wrong. That’s quite correct, in fact. It’s June-level “correct,” though. Things can change.
The machinations that can take place in July once the expected salary cap numbers are confirmed and teams can legally begin exploring things are significant. It’s why, out of nowhere, Andre Iguodala can somehow end up with what seemed like a capped out Golden State Warriors team. It’s why, after just a few phone calls to the Vancouver Grizzlies, Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles seems like less of a joke and more of a reality. Players can be moved, several teams at a time can get what they want in deals even without ending up with the best player, and though James doesn’t live his life on whim to whim anymore, he can be swayed. Even out of Miami, which can offer him the most money and, well, Miami.
If not the security of knowing that he’ll have another great shot at another shiny ring.
And in the end, we’re exactly where we were nine months ago. LeBron doesn’t know. His teammates don’t know. The Heat probably like to think they have an idea, and the next batch of role players to reach out to, but they don’t know. And we don’t know.
We’ll find out soon enough, though.
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