Despite disappointing Finals loss, Heat may be LeBron's best option next year

SAN ANTONIO – A stoic LeBron James walked briskly with his jersey untucked as he led the Miami Heat to the locker room after losing in the NBA Finals on Sunday night.

As soon as the San Antonio Spurs claimed their fifth title, all the talk about where James will play next season heated up.

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?"

James can become a free agent this summer by opting out of the final two years of a contract that pays $20.5 million next season and $22.1 million in 2015-16. It's safe to assume that at the very least James will explore his options.

The Heat's NBA Finals loss could prompt LeBron James to think about exploring free agency. (AP Photo)
The Heat's NBA Finals loss could prompt LeBron James to think about exploring free agency. (AP Photo)

James' camp says that a free-agency decision hasn't been made and there isn't yet a plan going forward. One thing that is certain is that this time around there won't be "The Decision," the much-ridiculed prime-time TV show in 2010 in which James announced he was joining the Heat.

James said after the Heat's season-ending 104-87 loss in Game 5 of the Finals that he plays for his teammates, but it's safe to assume he will make the decision that is best for him.

"You guys [the media] are trying to find answers," James said. "I'm not going to give you one. I'm just not going to give it to you. When I get to that point, I'll deal with it."

When James gets to that point, where could he actually go this summer? The options simply aren't that promising.

His home state Cleveland Cavaliers? The Cavs haven't made the playoffs since he left and are about to hire their third coach of the post-James era. The ugly aftermath of James' departure likely can't be forgiven.

[Slideshow: See pictures from the Spurs' championship celebration and victory over the Heat]

The Bulls could have the available money, and they have Derrick Rose and arguably the league's best defender in Joakim Noah. Chicago would have to amnesty forward Carlos Boozer and likely trade forward Taj Gibson to get the needed salary cap space. But can you really see James with an Eastern Conference rival that couldn't beat the Heat even when Rose was healthy?

The big-market Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, neither of whom made the playoffs, won't have the necessary salary cap space until 2015.

The Houston Rockets have the money, but it's tough to say if James would be a good fit with center Dwight Howard.

The Phoenix Suns will have money, but they didn't even make the playoffs this season.

Dirk Nowitzki and the aging Dallas Mavericks? That ship has likely sailed.

The Los Angeles Clippers? Well, a source said James and his wife, Savannah, love Los Angeles. LeBron James also is close with Clippers point guard Chris Paul and he admires coach Doc Rivers. But the Clippers already have at minimum $66 million in committed salary next season, which leaves no room for James' max salary.

So once again, the options are limited.

"I will deal with my summer when I get to that point," James said. "Me and my team will sit down and deal with it. I love Miami. My family loves it. But obviously right now that's not even what I'm thinking about."

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Bosh told Yahoo Sports he is confident the Heat's "Big Three" will remain intact. He also reiterated his plans to return to Miami either by opting out and signing a new contract or staying in his current deal. He appeared confident that James and Dwyane Wade, who can also become a free agent, would follow suit, and the trio would remain together for a fifth season in 2014-15.

Chris Bosh says he is confident the Heat's 'Big Three' will remain intact. (AP Photo)
Chris Bosh says he is confident the Heat's 'Big Three' will remain intact. (AP Photo)

"I know everyone wants to know and the whole speculation thing. I think everybody is going to make it work out," Bosh said. "We have a chance to continue to play at a high level."

James, Wade and Bosh have played in the Finals in each of the four seasons they have been together since joining forces in 2010 and they have won two championships. And by the looks of the Eastern Conference, the Heat could very well be back in the Finals for a fifth straight season to once again face the best the very dangerous West has to offer.

"I don't think it's just the Spurs," James said. "It's the whole league. The whole league continues to get better every single year. Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It's just how the league works."

Even if James, Wade and Bosh return, the Heat's supporting cast will be different.

Guard Ray Allen said he still loves playing, but is considering retirement after 18 seasons. Forward Shane Battier is retiring after 13 seasons. Free-agent point guard Mario Chalmers told Yahoo Sports he would like to re-sign with the Heat, but he struggled in the postseason and lost his starting job in Game 5. Forward-center Chris Andersen will opt-out of his contract to become a free agent, a source said. Longtime Heat forward Udonis Haslem has a contract option for next season. Sharp-shooting forward Rashard Lewis is a free agent also, and the Heat will have competition for his services, a source said.

"I hope we stay together," Chalmers said. "I think we have a good thing going."

The Heat have strong ownership led by Mickey Arison and respected management led by Hall of Famer Pat Riley. James' two young boys enjoy South Florida and play AAU basketball, and James' wife opened a juice bar in Miami last year. After four seasons in Miami, James' ties run deep.

"He's been amazing," Arison told Yahoo Sports before Game 1 of the Finals. "He has been fantastic for the franchise, fantastic for the city. Honestly, if having the best player in the world is part of your organization, you can't beat that."

By the look of things so far, it's going to be hard this summer for James to find an option better than Miami.