Without LeBron James, Heat down but not out

Without LeBron James, Heat down but not out
July 11, 2014, 11:30 pm
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Mark Strotman

There was no hour-long TV special this time around, there were no burned jerseys on the streets or snarky letters written in Comic Sans to signal his departure, but LeBron James' decision to sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers early Friday afternoon ended an historic era in Miami and, for a few hours, set off the panic button in South Beach.

And for good reason. Love or hate James — though his heartfelt essay announcing his decision to return home is making it tougher to do the latter — it was a monumental blow for the Heat to miss out on the 29-year-old do-it-all with two championships and four MVPs already to his name. Miami had rightfully catered to James' every need in free agency, holding out hope that he'd buy back in to team president Pat Riley's vision for what the future could be following an embarrassing performance in last month's Finals.

James' decision might have been in part basketball-related, as he'll join a raw yet talented roster in Cleveland that includes newly maxed-out Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and last month's No. 1 pick, Andrew Wiggins. All those players are 23 years or younger, and there's a possibility that Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert might try and swing a deal for Timberwolves forward Kevin Love, thrusting the Cavaliers from a 33-win team stuck in the mud three months ago to NBA-title contender.

[MORE FREE AGENCY: Carmelo reportedly down to Bulls and Knicks]

Miami, on the other hand, is left to pick up the pieces. Four years ago the Cavaliers found themselves in the same predicament following "The Decision" and failed miserably. In the four years after James left, the Cavaliers won 19, 21, 24 and 33 games, and if it weren't for the luck of the ping-pong balls blessing them with the No. 1 pick and Irving in 2011 those win totals would have been much worse and perhaps James doesn't entertain the idea of returning home.

But that won't happen in Miami.

Because the panic-mode button that went off in South Florida around just after noon on the East Coast was quieted, at least for now, by the back-up plan Riley had waiting if the unthinkable — No. 6 leaving — occurred. With the Big Three all opting out of their deals at the end of June, the Heat had an NBA-record $55 million in cap space to work with this summer. Riley knew he'd have the money to spend to rebuild post-James, he just had to recruit again.

The first shoe dropped when center Chris Bosh, who appeared destined for Houston and a max contract the moment James chose Cleveland, opted instead for the five-year, $118 million deal Miami offered him ($30 million more than Houston's four-year offer). Soon after that Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski indicated the Heat were closing in on shorter deals with veterans Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, both of whom have played their entire careers in Miami.

[MORE NBA: How LeBron's decision to go home changes the NBA landscape]

Assuming Wade's deal gets done — and it should — the Heat also plan to use that record-setting salary cap to fill the void left by James with either Luol Deng or Trevor Ariza, both unrestricted free agents expected to garner eight-figure deals on the open market. Ariza is coming off a career year at age 29 and would give the Heat the desired spacing to run Erik Spoelstra's offense, while the veteran Deng has plenty of miles on him but was playing the best basketball of his 10-year career before the Bulls dealt him to Cleveland mid-season.

A 33-year-old Wade, Bosh being asked to do more and one of the two aforementioned forwards isn't enough to throw a parade in Miami or forget about King James, but if the deals go through as expected it's a sign that these Heat aren't going anywhere and will make noise in the East. Before James went home to Cleveland, Riley secured one of the more underrated free agency scores in Josh McRoberts, as well as Danny Granger.

Depending on the size of Wade's, Haslem's and the small forward's deals, Riley will attempt to once again build a roster from scratch like he did in 2010 (he's already got Norris Cole and first-round pick Shabazz Napier in tow). It won't be as easy, considering the chance to play with James and chase a ring was the main recruiting pitch free agents heard four years ago, but Bosh re-signing was hardly expected, and neither was Wade. Riley will have a few more tricks up his sleeve this summer that will make the Heat, at the very least, formidable in the East. He doesn't need to construct a roster capable of going through the gauntlet in the West, and while the Cavaliers may be a year away from competing (depending on Kevin Love) and the Bulls may miss out on Carmelo Anthony, it's hard to see the Heat competing in a fifth straight Finals without the world's best player. Still, today's actions post-James decision showed that the Heat are down but certainly not out.