LeBron James will be a free agent. The fact of it alone is enough to make you dizzy with possibility. From general managers in the hunt for his services down through fans who otherwise don’t much care for the offseason, anyone even remotely associated with the NBA can feel the shockwave. It’s like hearing that someone has won PowerBall. It’s not you, but it is someone.
In that small way, it’s like any of us—well, any NBA team—could sign LeBron James. And that’s positively staggering, given how good he is, his track record, and where James is in his career arc. When James left Cleveland in 2010, it changed the course of the league in more ways than one. This time, his free agency is even more momentous, simply because James is such a better player. But it’s also way more predictable.
The Heat are dead; long live the Heat. When LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade joined forces, it was by design a flexible, time-sensitive arrangement. The three of them had empowered themselves by choosing to take their talents to South Beach (or in Wade’s case, keep them there). It simply wouldn’t have made sense for them to sprout blind loyalty overnight and lock themselves into anything long-term. They got to this team by gaming a contract system that assumes maximum player greed and insecurity; the city of Miami and the Heat organization were lucky enough to be a fit for their needs.
Sure, there were extenuating circumstances: Wade’s loyalty, the lack of state income tax, the weather and scenery. But make no mistake: The Heat could lose the Big Three for the same reasons they were able to get them in the first place.
It’s just as misguided to say, as some will, that the Heat experiment would be a failure because of the way it ended. Yes, at a certain pep rally that all involved would probably prefer to forget, James, Bosh and Wade promised the city of Miami way more than two titles. Let’s assume sincerity there: They would’ve loved to have started a dynasty and stuck with it. The Heat model, though, was about banding together to win titles because it made sense. From this standpoint, going down with the ship, or coming back just to see what happens next in the life-cycle of the franchise, is a waste of time.
Maybe the Heat fell short of the loftiest of expectations. Yet as we contemplate the possibility of LeBron James changing teams, there’s little question that he would be looking for a similar opportunity, one where he can join forces with fellow superstars in, say, Houston or Chicago. The Heat may be done winning titles but their example has never been more relevant. James is a no-nonsense competitor looking to maximize his chance at more titles. The teams pursuing him in earnest have to be able to match his template. James used Miami to write his own script, one where he held up his end up the bargain and earned the right to either expect reinforcements or move on.
In a way, Miami having won two titles only strengthens the case for James leaving, if he so chooses. He’s shown how great he can be and how he can win. Asking him to compromise that would be an entirely new level of hypocrisy. We expect athletes to behave like martyrs, but martyring talent is something else altogether.
And James is not alone in approaching free agency this way. The exciting thing about this summer is that we won’t just be watching teams make a case to stars as if it were a sales job. We’ll be seeing how they might overhaul their roster to accommodate a star. It’s real change in the hands of the players, not a song and dance designed to lock them into an overly-long deal. We can talk for days about the example the Spurs have set over the years. It’s LeBron, though, who is turning unpopular choices into common sense and challenging common sense at every turn. It’s the kind of gravity he now exerts around the league—he can not only call his own shots but also influence our perception of them.