If Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Broussard are to be believed, LeBron James will ultimately decide between doing one of two things during his
endless self-promotion show ESPN special tomorrow: staying home in Cleveland, or joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami to form some sort of superteam the NBA hasn't really seen before. I don't want to make an ultimate prediction, per se, because nobody really knows what is going to happen.
However, I will say this: I would be very, very surprised if LeBron actually goes to Miami. This has nothing to do with silly arguments about whether LeBron can actually accept not being the "alpha dog," or whatever the kids call it these days. It also has nothing to do with LeBron's marketing potential in Miami (as if that really matters in 2010 anyway).
No, the reason I don't see it happening is because it'll be a nightmare for the Heat to actually field a full roster under the current rules of the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement.
First of all, the major problem the Heat have right now (key words: right now) is that they can't actually afford to give LeBron a maximum contract without the Raptors or someone else helping them out. As we noted before the free agency period began, the Heat do not currently have enough room for three maximum contracts. They're close, but they aren't quite there yet. Assuming Wade and Bosh sign maximum contracts, as has been reported, the Heat will only have about $14.3 million left over to offer James. Maybe James takes a pay cut, but I don't see it.
There is one way the Heat can get enough room for James to also get a max contract: find a way to unload Michael Beasley. Beasley makes just under $5 million, so getting rid of him for more cap space solves the Heat problem. That's why you're hearing so much noise about Bosh ultimately coming to Miami in a sign and trade. Realistically, it's the only way Miami can clear enough cap room to also afford James.
But the problem there is that it requires the Raptors to actually want Beasley. They might, but they might prefer draft picks and a trade exception instead, as Ken Berger notes:
A combination of former No. 2 overall pick Michael Beasley, point guard Mario Chalmers, and the Raptors' 2011 first-round pick -- previously traded to Miami -- would not be a conversation-killer, multiple sources said. If Toronto so chooses, it could take back one player or no players and maximize the size of the trade exception it would receive in the deal because Miami is under the cap. At the February trade deadline, when abject panic will set in among owners who suddenly realize their bloated payrolls are going nowhere near the playoffs, will be in all-out selling mode. A viable replacement for Bosh could be had at that point for a song, as jittery owners instruct the very same general managers who've enjoyed carte blanche under the lame-duck collective bargaining agreement to commence dumping.
It's possible the Raptors budge and take Beasley, but it's also possible they prefer picks and a trade exception (I know I would take the latter). Miami could always issue a Beasley-or-nothing ultimatum, which could work, but Toronto might also call their bluff and take back nothing so they get more future salary-cap flexibility. All this still has to be worked out in less than 48 hours, which is a tall order regardless.
But whatever, let's assume for a second that Miami pulls all this off and gives LeBron a maximum contract. They now have a major practical problem: how do they fill out the rest of their roster? Remember, the Heat do not have any salary-cap exceptions, because they started the summer well under the salary cap. They also will not have exclusive rights to any of their own free agents, such as Udonis Haslem, Jermaine O'Neal and Quentin Richardson, if they sign LeBron, because they needed to renounce those rights to afford a max contract for him. Finally, they don't really have any trade assets, since they have no other players on the roster. Therefore, the only way they can fill out spots 4-13 on their team is through guys with minimum contracts.
Technically, this is possible. The Heat already have four second-round picks on minimum contracts to fill out the roster (Dexter Pittman, Jarvis Varnado, Da'Sean Butler and Latavious Willians), and they could still keep Mario Chalmers, which would mean eight spots are accounted for. And as Tom Ziller notes, a team with LeBron, Wade, Bosh and minimum-salary guys would still be a title contender.
But that still leaves five spots to be filled by other minimum-salary guys, which means the Heat need to find five players willing to accept massive pay cuts. There's no doubt that Wade, Bosh and James want to play with other solid veterans, and there's no doubt such veterans want to win, but we're talking about some huge pay cuts. Mike Miller, for example, could probably sign for more than the mid-level exception (i.e. about $7 million/year) elsewhere; if he were to come to Miami, the most he could make is about $1.4 million (the value of the veterans minimum for players with at least ten years of experience). This is true for Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem, Shaquille O'Neal, Jermaine O'Neal, Brad Miller and pretty much any other veteran. Everyone wants to win, but not if they can make seven times as much somewhere else.
The Heat could instead sign five hungry young players to fill out the roster, so I'm not saying it's actually impossible. I am saying, however, that it's difficult to do. There has never been a situation in NBA history where a team has had three huge salaries and 10-11 minimum salaries, and while it's technically feasible, I'm not believing it'll happen until I see it.
But what about the Karl Malone/Gary Payton Lakers, you say? What about the Olajuwon/Barkley/Drexler Rockets? My answer: those aren't fair parallels. Both teams had their other stars under contract, allowing them to use their free agent exceptions. Malone came to the Lakers via the veterans' minimum, but Payton didn't, coming instead via the mid-level exception, which Miami doesn't have. The Rockets traded for Barkley, who was already under contract, and then used their salary-cap exceptions to sign Eddie Johnson and Kevin Willis to provide depth, which they could do because they were over the salary cap to start the summer. Again, Miami can't do that, because they had to renounce their exceptions to afford Wade, Bosh and (maybe) LeBron. So no, there's never been a situation comparable to what Miami faces right now.
I'm not saying LeBron to Miami is impossible. It could happen. I am saying, however, that it's going to be very, very difficult for the Heat to practically make it work. Therefore, if you're a betting man, bet on LeBron staying in Cleveland tomorrow.