July 08, 2010
The former Cavaliers forward more or less held the NBA hostage during its final few rounds of the playoffs, the NBA's draft season and the early part of the free-agency period as he and his retinue of handlers and representatives made executives and fans in cities like Cleveland, Chicago and New York all feel as if he was set to take his talents to their particular teams.
In the end, though, he'll join Miami. To play with Dwyane Wade(notes), Chris Bosh(notes) and little else. Rumors persisted throughout Thursday that the Heat were well on their way toward setting up a three-way deal to dump young forward Michael Beasley(notes) — possibly not for any on-court reward, but so James, Wade and Bosh can get closer to a first-year salary that nears the maximum amount they're allowed to be paid. And that's what it's really come down to. A few more millions for the superstars, for no real reason at all outside of perceived respect, potential and roster-shaping be damned.
So now, for the first time since 2006, we're not speculating any more. We know LeBron James will be a Miami Heat for the next five years, and that a phrase like "will be a Miami Heat" just can't help but give you shivers up and down your spine. Legendary stuff. Snark aside, now that we have a team to plug him into, how will LeBron's choice hold up?
Well, for one, the Heat still have a team to build. If the deal with Beasley goes through, they will have just one player under contract (point guard Mario Chalmers(notes)) for next season as the Big Three's contracts get worked out. Add that triptych of All-Stars, and you still have 11 roster spots and six rotation spots to fill out with little money left underneath the salary cap.
How can they pull that off, legally? Well, once a team exceeds the salary cap they can add players making minimum salaries, but they will not have any of the larger-scale player exemptions that teams that entered the offseason over the salary cap get. So they can't work as Boston did this week, adding Jermaine O'Neal(notes) for around $6 million a year, or offer a fringe starter a cut from the mid-level exception, as the Lakers did this week with Steve Blake(notes).
No, they'll have to rely on players wanting to take less in order to play for Miami. Not just "less," too. We're talking minimum-salaried slots. And while you'd think that certain prospects would be chomping at the bit in order to sign with a team featuring James, Wade and Bosh, understand that money is money, and it drives players more than winning ever does.
[Video: Warren Buffett to LeBron: 'Call me']
On top of that, who is left? Chris Bosh has long been frustrated with having to play center, but unless the severely limited Joel Anthony(notes) returns to the Heat, he'll have to man the pivot and go up against Dwight Howard(notes) four times a season. James has long chafed at having to do most of the ball-handling work on his team without a pure point guard to help, but Chalmers struggled mightily in that role during his second season, and he's no sure thing at this level.
Then there's the structural issues. Erik Spoelstra's simplistic offense allowed for isolation after isolation for Dwyane Wade last season, getting to pound the ball while grabbing a screen and waiting for a decision. This is what James enjoys doing, as well, but neither are sound spot-up shooters to spread the floor while the other dribbles the clock away. And Bosh? The Heat could be paying a maximum salary for a guy averaging 12 or 13 points a game, as all the shots tend to go elsewhere. And with former forward Udonis Haslem(notes) heading elsewhere, Spoelstra will have to re-jig his zone-heavy defensive schemes.
This is a chance Miami had to take. When the best player in the NBA wants to play for the maximum deal for your team, you do everything in your power to satisfy him, no matter how distasteful. The Heat will now boast the NBA's best core, but in a league with five men to a side and 10 men to a rotation, the franchise still has quite a bit of work to do.
It's an enviable problem to overcome, though. You can quibble with the choice — Chicago already has two former All-Stars on its roster, one of the league's best young centers and a 17-points-per-game scorer in Luol Deng(notes) in its rotation — but Miami can work. And Cleveland? It's a miserable situation for fans of that team, but the Cavs made their bed in deciding to kowtow to James and his handlers years ago, and that team was unlikely to ever improve on its showings in 2009 and last season.
Miami has a huge task ahead of it. No team has ever been gutted to its absolute core like this, even if the demolition results in three All-Stars joining the squad. It will have to be precise and exacting in determining what sorts of players can complement a type of foundation like this. A foundation we haven't seen since Wilt Chamberlain joined the Los Angeles Lakers over 40 years ago. Wilt joined Jerry West and Elgin Baylor then, though that foundation failed to win a ring (with Baylor around, at least), as each of those superstars were well into their 30s.
James is 25, Wade 28, Bosh 26. This is a foundation for the ages. But in a team game, it can still be screwed up. Screwed up by bad coaching, by superstars who don't get along on the court and by a poor supporting cast. This isn't to say that we're expecting any of those things to crop up in Miami, but despite the hoopla, and the promise, there is still a lot that can go wrong.
Miami is pretty thankful, though, that James is going to give them the chance to get it right.
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