What's next for LeBron?

What's next for LeBron?
June 20, 2013, 10:45 pm
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Congratulations to the Miami Heat for winning the 2012-13 NBA championship.

Winning two-straight titles and making it to three-straight Finals definitely validates LeBron James’ controversial decision in the summer of 2010 to bolt his home state of Ohio and join forces with fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but what does the future hold for the “Three Amigos” on South Beach?

Remember, all three of the "Super Friends" put in opt-out clauses after year four of the six-year deals they signed back in 2010, meaning all three could become free agents again next summer. Bosh won’t opt out, considering he’ll be grossly overpaid in the final two years of his contract, somewhere in the neighborhood of $43 million. And don’t look for Wade to opt out, either. He’s been the face of the franchise since Pat Riley drafted him back in 2003 and even though 10 years of physical abuse have slowed him down, Wade is likely to finish his career right where he started.

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Which leads us back to LeBron, the center of the NBA universe. Brace yourself for another year of NBA fans held hostage as the national media speculates over where James might end up in the summer of 2014. One thing we know for sure, LeBron will opt out of the contract he signed in 2010. Remember, both James and Wade took less than maximum money to accommodate fitting all three stars into Miami’s salary cap. Ironically, only Bosh received a maximum deal and you can bet Riley will explore options to trade the least talented of the "Big 3" for a legitimate center sometime in the next couple of seasons.

James said during this past season he was willing to sign a less-than-max deal back in 2010, but he would use the opt-out provision to make sure he’s properly compensated going forward. So, that means any number of teams with cap room will make a pitch to bring James to their franchise next summer, but only one or two figure to have a chance to steal him away from a city where he’s already won two titles. James says he regrets how “The Decision” was handled back in 2010 and still spends his summers in his hometown of Akron, so don’t rule out a potential return to Cleveland. The Cavs have a number of intriguing young players in Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson, plus they hold the No. 1 overall pick in next week’s draft. By next summer, Cleveland’s future might look more promising than a capped-out Miami team featuring declining stars like Wade and Bosh.

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And, don’t rule out the Lakers, who always seem to be in play for every major star. If Mitch Kupchak can re-sign Dwight Howard this summer, the Lakers will make one more run with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, then clear out the roster after the season. Only Howard and Nash would be on the books for 2014-2015, which means the Lakers would have the cap room to bring in James to play alongside Howard. If LeBron wants to make a serious run at Michael Jordan’s six championships, it might be hard to pass up a chance to join the second-winningest franchise in NBA history.

What about the Bulls, you ask? Well, given the fact John Paxson, Gar Forman and Tom Thibodeau had a three-plus hour meeting with LeBron back in 2010, it’s hard to imagine what they could do differently this time around. The Bulls will still be a contending team, built around the talents of Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson, plus likely European addition Nikola Mirotic. The front office would have to use the amnesty clause on the final year of Carlos Boozer’s contract and not re-sign Luol Deng to create enough cap room to make a serious offer for James, but they could free up enough money to get in on the bidding. Still, my feeling is, after battling James’ teams in the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, there’s probably too much competitive tension built up for LeBron to seriously consider donning the Bulls' colors.

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Which takes us back to Miami. Yes, Wade figures to be in serious decline by next summer. He’ll turn 32 in January and have 11 seasons and countless injuries on his resume by the time James hits free agency. And, Bosh isn’t likely to re-emerge as a big-time scoring option, if he’s even still on the team. But never underestimate the power of Riley to convince James he can put a championship-caliber team around him every season. The Heat have done an amazing job of getting veteran role players like Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Chris Andersen and countless others to embrace the prospect of chasing a championship ring in Miami for relatively low compensation. With James on the roster, many more talented players will come to South Beach for veterans’ minimum deals.

James was hit with all kinds of national criticism for his unpopular decision to abandon Cleveland for a better chance at winning championships. When next summer rolls around, he should learn from his past mistakes and stay right where he is, trying to add to his championship total by taking on all challengers as the unquestioned leader of the Miami Heat. LeBron might never catch Jordan’s six titles, but he doesn’t want his legacy to include jumping from team to team in a never-ending search for the easiest path to a crown.