MIAMI (CBSNewYork/AP) — LeBron James delivered his message loud and clear, without actually saying a word.
He’s willing to leave Miami, if that’s what it will take to win more championships. And what happens next will likely be up to not just the Heat, but Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as well.
Just don’t expect him to land in New York.
Through his agent, James informed the Heat on Tuesday that he has decided to opt out of the final two years of his contract, a move that means he becomes a free agent on July 1. He will be able to sign with any team, including Miami, and Heat President Pat Riley said he “fully expected” James to take advantage of his early termination option.
“We look forward to sitting down with LeBron and his representatives and talking about our future together,” Riley said.
The Heat have been preparing for this for some time. James, Wade and Bosh all got six-year contracts when they teamed up in Miami in July 2010, the last time free agency was accompanied by the sort of frenzy that will envelop the league over the next few weeks. But each of those deals came with options to leave either this summer or in 2015, in part to allow both the players and the team to have financial flexibility.
Part of that financial flexibility includes plans to woo Carmelo Anthony, ESPN reported earlier this month, though Riley recently called the prospect of adding a fourth superstar “a pipe dream.”
New York Knicks fans have a pipe dream of their own. The team has its work cut out to re-sign Anthony in free agency, and now some are calling for the Knicks to also make a run at James, who made the prospect of teaming up with Melo at Madison Square Garden nearly impossible by opting out this year.
The Knicks, facing severe salary-cap constraints, “had hoped” James would stick with his current deal in Miami and delay free agency until 2015, when the contracts of Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani come off the books, according to the New York Post. That scenario was actually part of Knicks president Phil Jackson’s pitch to Anthony, ESPN reported.
“But all hope is not lost,” wrote Frank Isola of the New York Daily News. “If James were to re-sign with Miami for one season and test the free agent market next summer, the Knicks could become players.”
The Knicks can offer Anthony, who has said has top priority will be landing with a winner, more money than any other team in free agency. There are other options, too. It’s been said that new head coach Derek Fisher could help lure ex-teammate Kevin Durant to New York in 2016. Or Jackson & Co. could make a run at Minnesota star Kevin Love.
James — who averaged 27.1 points this past season — was owed $42.7 million for the next two seasons, though that seems irrelevant in the sense that he’ll be getting plenty of money from the Heat or someone else for years to come. If he stays with Miami, he could sign a deal that would give the team room to maneuver within the structures of the salary cap and luxury-tax threshold.
So could Wade and Bosh, if they choose to opt out as well — and if both do, Miami would potentially have plenty of cash to spend on roster upgrades. Neither has announced their plans, though both have previously said they want to remain in Miami.
“No news here yet,” Wade said Tuesday.
James stayed silent as well, with agent Rich Paul being the one who informed the Heat of the four-time NBA MVP’s plan. But last week, while still dealing with the sting of losing the NBA Finals to San Antonio, James expressed how enticing the idea of flexibility is to him.
“Being able to have flexibility as a professional, anyone, that’s what we all would like,” James said last week. “That’s in any sport, for a football player, a baseball player, a basketball player, to have flexibility and be able to control your future or your present. I have a position to be able to do that. … There’s a lot of times that you’re not in control of your future as a professional.”
He’s in control now. He turns 30 next season. He might just be entering his prime.
James said last week that he, Wade and Bosh owed it to one another to have a conversation before deciding where to play going forward. It is unclear if those discussions have taken place.
And while James opting out was largely expected, the ripple effect of the move was seen all over the sports world.
The NFL, on its Twitter account, posted a photo of James dunking a football over the crossbar at the stadium his beloved Dallas Cowboys call home, light-heartedly asking him if he wanted to pass some time in a training camp while making his decision. And U.S. Soccer, also in a tweet, said it has a new team for him — then attached a photo of men’s national team jersey bearing James’ name and No. 6.
Even hockey got into the act.
“You know, you’d be 6-10 on skates,” someone posted to the Carolina Hurricanes’ Twitter account, in a message to James.
For now, all that seems certain is James sticking to basketball. What team, that’s now up for debate.
He’s been with the Heat four seasons, been to the NBA Finals in each of those years, winning two championships and winning more games than any other team over that span. He seems to have largely recovered from the hit his image took when he left Cleveland for Miami in 2010, often saying he’s much happier now as a person than he was then.
Plus, his life has changed. He married longtime girlfriend Savannah Brinson last year, and the couple is expecting their third child.
“Players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options,” Riley said. “The last four seasons have been historic and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Erik Spoelstra have led the Miami Heat to one of the most unprecedented runs in the history of the NBA.”
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