The eyes of the basketball world will be set on the 2014 NBA Finals on Thursday night, but the focus may be on the fate of the NBA's most prominent star, LeBron James. Whether the Miami Heat win or lose the best-of-seven series, James faces the option of leaving the club after a highly successful run since his arrival in 2010.
The 29-year-old is in the fourth year of a six-year contact, but he can opt out of the deal on July 1. James is expected to test free agency, and look for an even more lucrative contract.
With James as their most prolific player, the Heat have been the most dominant team in American professional sports. The Heat have made the NBA Finals each year, and many experts are expecting them to win their third title in a row.
Even if James has no plans of leaving, he’s likely to opt for free agency. Doing so would ensure him a new, lucrative contract, and the team that signs him will offer the most money that the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allows.
Not only does Miami’s string of success give them the advantage, but they can also offer James much more money than any other team. While the Heat can give James to a five-year contract at the maximum amount, the rest of the league can only sign him to a four-year deal.
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The Heat are allowed to give James an estimated $115 million, which includes a fifth year that would pay him over $26 million. Another team with enough space under the salary cap can give James over $85 million, and no fifth year.
However, making the most money might not be the biggest factor in James’s decision. If he doesn’t feel the Heat offer him the best chance to win, there’s a chance he’ll sign elsewhere. When James signed with Miami in 2010, he took $15 million less than what the CBA allowed, so the team could also sign Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Eight NBA players made more money than James this season.
Joining forces with two of the league’s best players made James the NBA’s top villain, but it also made him a perennial winner.
"I have not had a full max deal yet in my career — that's a story untold," James told ESPN last year. "I don't get (credit) for it. That doesn't matter to me; playing the game is what matters to me. Financially, I'll sacrifice for the team. It shows for some of the top guys, it isn't all about money. That's the genuine side of this, it's about winning. I understand that.”
James makes so much money in endorsements that it could soften the blow of potentially leaving $30 million on the table. According to Forbes, he earned approximately $60 million last year, even though his NBA salary paid him $17.545 million.
Signing with another team that has young, talented players could give James a better chance to win more rings in the near future. However, the salary cap will limit his options. The projected cap for the 2014-2015 season is $63.2 million, and teams with a payroll that exceed the cap won’t be allowed to sign James.
A team like the Los Angeles Clippers, who James met with in 2010 and currently has two of the league’s top stars, is committed to a payroll over $73 million next year. The Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks will have money to spend, though they are longshots to sign James. The Chicago Bulls could make some moves to get under the salary cap, as well. The New York Knicks reportedly are looking at James, though their salary cap situation gives them almost no chance of being a legitimate contender.
Many of the league’s top organizations will be over the salary cap threshold, and only one team stands out as a legitimate threat to Miami’s chances of keeping the four-time MVP.
James failed to win a championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven seasons. The Cavaliers didn’t have the pieces to win a title when they had James, but that may no longer be the case for the All-Star’s hometown team. In addition to star point guard Kyrie Irving, the Cavs own the No.1 draft pick in this month’s draft, which has been described as the deepest draft in a decade.
James will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the NBA’s all-time great players, and the comparisons to Michael Jordan have been made for years. Winning a title in Cleveland, though, would elevate him to another level. James has often been criticized for joining a team with established stars in order to win a championship. Winning multiple rings with the Cavaliers, who haven’t won a title in franchise history, would greatly enhance his legacy.
Despite all the talk about James’s place in NBA history, he contends that winning championships remains his top priority.
"My legacy will speak for itself after I'm done playing," James told reporters this week. "It's something I can't control. I worry about what I can control, and that's how I approach the game on and off the floor, every single day."
The pursuit of James will likely be the biggest story in the NBA this summer, but he doesn’t have to become a free agent. His contract pays him $20.59 million next year, and over $22 million in the 2015-2016 season.