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One year after returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers in one of the biggest free-agent signings in recent NBA history, four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James has elected to decline the $21.6 million player option he holds for the 2015-16 season and re-enter unrestricted free agency this July, according to an ESPN report.
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This was a widely anticipated move, one that many have seen as a simple matter of course ever since James and his representatives negotiated an opt-out clause into the two-year, $42.2 million contract he accepted to rejoin the Cavaliers after spending four seasons with the Miami Heat. Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said during his season-ending news conference that he expected both James and power forward Kevin Love to exercise their rights to tear up the final years of their deals and enter the free-agent market. Love did so earlier this week.
For one thing, with the salary cap projected to rise to $67.1 million for the 2015-16 season, the starting maximum salary next season for a player with as much service time as 12-year veteran James slots in just under $22.1 million. Opting out and signing a new deal, then, allows James to pick up an extra $500,000 or so for nothing, and would give him a higher starting salary off of which to base the year-over-year raises he'd receive if he were to sign a multi-year deal.
LeBron is not making decisions solely over that comparatively small sum, though; rather, he's making them based on the flexibility that opting out affords.
If James goes for a carbon copy of the deal he signed last summer — a two-year pact with the first year fully guaranteed and a player option for the second — he opens up the option of re-entering free agency again in the summer of 2016. That's when the influx of new money from the NBA's massive new nine-year, $24 billion broadcast rights deal will inflate the salary cap to a projected $89 million. The first year of a maximum-salary contract is based on a set percentage of the cap rather than a straight dollar amount, meaning that as the salary cap rises, so does the value of the max; in this case, the spike would bump LeBron's first-year max up to an estimated $29.3 million.
If he wants to keep the good times rolling with one-and-one contracts, James could then opt to once again hit the market in 2017, when the cap is expected to hit an unprecedented $108 million, which would push James' '17-'18 max salary up to a whopping $35.5 million. That would be the highest single-season player salary in NBA history, topping Michael Jordan's $33 million deal to play for the Chicago Bulls during the 1997-98 season. And so on, and so on.
Going year-to-year also allows James to avoid being locked into a long-term deal as the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association ready for their next round of collective bargaining negotiations. Either side can opt out of the existing CBA, signed prior to the 2011-12 season after a lockout that resulted in a substantial lowering in the share of basketball-related income that players receive each year, following the '16-'17 season.
The players union — now led by no-joke-at-all trial lawyer Michele Roberts — is widely expected to exercise that right, opening up negotiations on a slew of financial and system-based issues that could drastically change the nature of the way players' contracts work. Nobody knows quite yet what a brave new-CBA world might look like, but with uncertainty on the horizon, ensuring flexibility seems a prudent approach, which surely hasn't escaped the notice of James ... who, by the way, recently ascended to the No. 2 slot in the union's player hierarchy.
Beyond the dollars and cents, though, James' preference for shorter-term deals that afford him maximum decision-making flexibility each summer puts constant pressure on GM Griffin and Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to do everything in their power to keep the team competitive. As I wrote last summer, "What stronger motivator could there be for a front office to make win-now moves than the specter of LeBron deciding to leave again?"
James seems intent on exercising that influence come this summer, according to Chris Haynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group:
The contract situations of Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and to a certain degree Brendan Haywood are expected to be resolved before the Cleveland Cavaliers re-sign the world's most dominant player.
James will take a wait-and-see approach while the Cavaliers tend to their housekeeping matters, league sources told Northeast Ohio Media Group.
The four-time MVP has a player option deadline of Monday, and he will decline to pick up that deal for next season.
The belief is James wants to observe how management goes about retaining and accumulating assets keep the organization in win-now mode and improve the roster.
The chance of James bolting the city of Cleveland for a second time is slim, but his approach will allow him to assess the Cavaliers' moves before re-signing. It also applies pressure on the organization to do whatever is necessary to strengthen the team.
The organization will accept the consequences of working under that pressure because it's worth it to continue employing The King.
In what was by his all-time-great standards something of a down year, James ranked third in the NBA in points per game, seventh in assists per game, sixth in assist percentage, 18th in steals per game and sixth in Player Efficiency Rating. With him on the court during the regular season, the Cavaliers outscored their opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions, an elite number that would've been the second-best full-season "net rating" in the league, behind only the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. With him off the court, the Cavs were outscored by nearly seven points-per-100, which would have been the fifth-worst mark in the league, ahead of only the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers — the teams with the four worst records in the NBA last season.
James' remarkable return to Ohio resulted in 53 wins, the Cavaliers' highest total since the 2009-10 season, his final season before leaving for Miami, and nearly as many as they'd won in the previous two seasons combined. He capped the campaign by leading Cleveland to the NBA Finals and absolutely carrying a decimated squad — no Anderson Varejao, no Kevin Love and, after Game 1, no Kyrie Irving — to a 2-1 lead over Golden State through sheer force of will.
He'd eventually tire and slow just enough for the deeper and substantially more talented Warriors to overwhelm the Cavaliers, winning three straight games to earn their first championship in 40 years, but James' performance led many to argue that he deserved Finals MVP honors, even in defeat, a la Jerry West in 1969. Warriors swingman Andre Iguodala took home the trophy, but it's LeBron's work that left the most indelible mark in our collective memory.
James said after the Game 6 defeat that he hadn't started thinking about next season, but he did briefly cast his gaze forward in responding to a question about whether he felt the incredible workload he'd taken on during the playoffs, and the toll it had taken on his body, was worth it if it didn't result in a title (emphasis mine):
Well, of course you question it, especially when you get to this point. I always look at it would I rather not make the playoffs or lose in The Finals? I don't know. I don't know. I've missed the playoffs twice. I lost in The Finals four times. I'm almost starting to be like I'd rather not even make the playoffs than to lose in The Finals. It would hurt a lot easier if I just didn't make the playoffs and I didn't have a shot at it.
But then I lock back in and I start thinking about how fun it is to compete during the playoffs and the first round, the second round, and Eastern Conference Finals. If I'm lucky enough to get here again, it will be fun to do it.
But put my body through a lot, you know, but it's the price for your body feeling this way for winning. Did I win? I didn't win a championship, but I've done a lot of good things in this first year back, and hopefully I can continue it.
James' decision to opt out puts the onus on Gilbert, Griffin and company to make whatever moves are necessary — and to shell out as much money of Gilbert's money as it takes — to put the Cavaliers back in position to compete for the Larry O'Brien Trophy again next season. It seems unthinkable that he'd leave Cleveland just one year after his dramatic return; then again, coming off four straight Finals trips and two championships, it seemed unthinkable to many that he'd leave Miami when he exercised his early termination option last summer.
Realities and fortunes can change quickly in the NBA. That's why, even though they've been expecting this day to come, you can bet the Cavaliers' decision-makers are feeling a little hot under the collar as they set about the business of re-upping all the King's men to make sure that Quicken Loans Arena remains his home court.
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