The Miami Heat’s Dilemma and LeBron James’ Power

This free agency class is the best one since the summer of 2010. There aren’t as many true max players on the market as unrestricted free agents, but the restricted free agent market is outstanding and LeBron James plus Carmelo Anthony make this a summer to remember.

Teams probably have as much cap space as they ever had before. I don’t have an exact figure, but the number of teams with cap space to either retain their free agents or provide max deals for others is unprecedented. Exactly 15 teams started off free agency with under $50 million dollars being spent toward their payroll. That isn’t a mistake–they knew there was a possibility the market would be shaped the way it is.

Teams have become more conservative with the deals that they dish out because of the new collective bargaining agreement. Teams like Washington are using their cap space to retain key guys. Teams like Philadelphia, Orlando and Utah are using their space to acquire assets and eat bad contracts from teams looking to make a splash. And just about everyone else is looking to land either LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and whoever else may become readily available.

And if we’re being honest, all of this is happening because of LeBron James. James has the star power to make any team into a contender and that’s something more valuable than any other player in the league has to offer. James is the league’s equivalent to the immunity idol on the Survivor Reality TV show. With James, you can’t be voted off of the island no matter what you do. He’ll always be there to bail you out. That’s a pretty powerful tool to have in your arsenal.

James has been to the NBA Finals in all four of his seasons with the Miami Heat. That’s an unprecedented feat that hasn’t happened since the late 80’s. That’s how special James’ ability is in combination with the talent of other star players. He elevates things to a point where it’s nearly impossible to fail with him–he’s just that good. That’s why, even if there’s a slight chance and a small opportunity, teams will go through hell and back to acquire James’ services.

What makes this free agency period so special, and James special as a player, is that he’s fully aware of that and he acts like it. James has repeatedly said that he’s underpaid by the Miami Heat. But let’s be real: He’ll be underpaid by the Heat and whoever else he plays for because of the salary cap. James’ true value would be an unprecedented mark if teams were really able to pay him at that figure.

Over the last four years, James has made $64 million dollars with the Miami Heat organization on the basketball court. If paid his true worth–just for basketball, not endorsements and off the court opportunity he creates–James would probably make that and more in just one year. He’s that valuable of a player. ESPN’s Darren Rovell has valued LeBron James as being worth over $160 million over a three year period. Rovell accounted for ticket sales, merchandise and the like.

James being aware of what his value is puts teams in a peculiar situation, because they’ve got absolutely no leverage when dealing with him. He can ask for whatever he wants and they’re all at his mercy when it comes to giving him what he wants. This year, he asked for something out of the ordinary for him.

James has never solely been the highest paid player on any team that he’s played for. This past season, he was tied with Chris Bosh as the highest paid player on the Heat.

This offseason, though, it was assumed that the big three would all opt out of their deals and take pay cuts. Bosh and Wade have indicated that they’d be willing to do this, but James has made it clear that he wants the maximum amount of money he can possibly get. And he wants this while getting an upgraded team around him.

And that’s where the story really begins. James asking for a max deal has opened the door for other teams to come in and make offers to James that he’s going to have to consider. The reason why is because Miami can’t upgrade their roster drastically without the big three providing wiggle room for them to do it. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports explained it a bit with this tweet.

If LeBron is really looking to come back to Miami, the max deal puts them in a nearly impossible situation. They’d have to dedicate around $20.2 to James’ figure–where he was at before he opted out. But it’s rumored that James won’t take a long term deal in Miami because he wants to test the market once teams around him are better. But that puts Miami in another bind.

Because of that, it’s hard to get players to commit to Miami right now without a commitment from James. Even Chris Bosh, who has made it clear he wants to stay in Miami, is mulling his options. It’s rumored that Bosh would rather take a near max or max deal from another team than take a significant pay cut in Miami to keep James around.

Bosh is still a pretty good player and there will be a max dollar market for him if he makes it known that he’s available. The Houston Rockets have obvious interest and the Dallas Mavericks probably will, too. Why sacrifice long term financial security for title hopes that you don’t even know will be there if James leaves? That’s something that Bosh really has to consider for himself and his family. He’s right to take that action.

So Miami may lose out on two of their stars because James wants a max deal. Bosh isn’t going to take anything significantly lower, so just for the sake of argument, lets say he takes an $18 million deal. That dedicates $38 million to the cap. The salary cap is at $63.2 million. That’s a solid amount of room to work with after signing two stars, but lets not forget Wade in this picture.

If Wade takes around $15 million, again, for this argument, Miami will have $53 million going into the cap in three players. Luol Deng, a free agent that the Heat are looking at and a good piece for the Heat to have, is rumored to be looking for $12 million per year to sign with any team. An Isaiah Thomas deal starting at $6 million or $7 million–a generous figure–will put the Heat almost right at the cap. We can’t forget to include their draft pick in Shabazz Napier and Norris Cole, who is still under contract.

The only thing they could do at that point is sign more veteran minimum guys, and that isn’t exactly improving and adding the meat and potatoes they needed to be good last season.

If LeBron James wants the Heat to improve, taking a max deal is probably not the way to go. It’s rumored that James is upset that people expect him to take a pay cut and that’s why it’s so imperative that he gets the max this time around. But James also has to realize that team improvement comes with financial flexibility. This collective bargaining agreement forces players to choose between title chasing and money. Carmelo Anthony is going through the same thing.

James’ commitment to winning titles shouldn’t be questioned, but his dedication to the Miami Heat should. He doesn’t owe them anything and doesn’t have to take a pay cut, but he should be aware that he’s dictating the market and has the Heat in a stranglehold right now.

The Heat, just like every other organization in the league, are waiting on  James to make his move. Teams are walking around on eggshells trying not to ruin their chances at getting James. No one is dedicating money to anything but attracting him to their organization and rightfully so.

So James’ intentions are the key factor here. Since they aren’t clear, and never really were, we should expect anything to be possible. It’s just like 2010 all over again.

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