In a move that will add major intrigue to the NBA offseason and could potentially shift the balance of power in the Eastern Conference, four-time MVP LeBron James opted out of the final two years of his six-year deal with the Miami Heat.
The move makes James a free agent, just as he was in 2010 when he made the controversial decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for South Florida.
League sources said James has not ruled out staying with the Heat on a reworked deal, but would like to keep his options open.
The Heat reached the NBA Finals in all four years James was with the club, winning two titles. But Miami’s weaknesses were exposed in this month’s Finals loss to the Spurs, where the Heat lost four times by double-digits.
James’s cohorts Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh failed to deliver their expected performances, especially the 32-year-old Wade, who showed signs of aging.
In the postgame interview after the Heat were eliminated in Game 5, James refused to commit to returning to Miami, saying he would determine his fate following a family vacation. He had until June 30 to inform the team of his decision.
Heat president Pat Riley said last week that the club intends to reload and challenged James, Wade, and Bosh to remain in Miami for the long term.
Riley released a statement Tuesday morning, hinting that James’s decision wasn’t a shock.
“We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise,” Riley said. “As I said at the press conference last week, players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options. The last four seasons have been historic and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Erik Spoelstra have led the Miami Heat to one of the most unprecedented runs in the history of the NBA.
“We look forward to sitting down with LeBron and his representatives and talking about our future together. At the moment, we are preparing for the opportunities in the draft and free agency as we continue with our goal of winning NBA Championships.”
James opting out means little for the Celtics, who don’t have the cap space to offer James a maximum contract or roster to compete for championships.
But there is expected to be a plethora of suitors looking to lure the league’s most prominent free agent in decades. The Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Bulls, and Cavaliers all are expected to prepare a package to attract the superstar.
The Lakers have enough salary cap space to sign James to a maximum contract to join Kobe Bryant but after Nick Young opted out of his contract, only three other players — Kendall Marshall, Robert Sacre, and Steve Nash — remain under contract, leaving James with anything but a championship cast.
The Rockets have been chasing major free agents for the past three years and would have to trade former Harvard standout Jeremy Lin and big man Omer Asik, who will earn a near combined $30 million next season, without taking salary in return.
The Clippers would have to execute a sign-and-trade deal for James, perhaps giving the Heat back one of their premium players in the transaction. Playing for Doc Rivers is an attractive possibility for James and he is also close with Los Angeles point guard Chris Paul.
The Bulls cleared cap space four years ago to chase James and Chicago-native Wade but came up empty. This time, the Bulls could use the amnesty clause to remove the $18.8 million from their salary cap for Carlos Boozer, then trade Taj Gibson to create space for James to team with a healthy Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah.
And then there’s the Cavaliers, James’s former team. Despite several premium draft picks since James left, they have been unable to build a winner but do have the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — for the third time in the past four years — and have the cap space to sign James to a maximum contract.
“I just want to win, that’s all that matters to me,” James said last week. “The decision comes down to me and my family. If my family [is happy], then I’m happy; I’m able to perform at a high level. My family plays a huge part in it. As a professional, to be able to have that flexibility is something we all love to have.”