Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Opt-Out

Lebron James' decision to explore free agency early is not a surprise whatsoever.  The challenges facing the Miami Heat as the Big Three tried to carry a shallow bench leavened the schadenfreude of this year's NBA's final with a sense that the Big Three actually did as much as they could but the other key players, namely Mickey Arison and Pat Riley did not bother to meet James, Bosh and Wade halfway.

When Lebron gave his pre-game pep talk leading into Game 5 of the finals with the Spurs this year it seemed to be an underwhelming effort at motivating his teammates and it was not the first time that he had struggled to do that during these playoffs.  It may have been a matter of not knowing what else to say or perhaps a superstar's ability to rise to the occasion on the court is something that he finds it difficult to put into words.  The promises of "we'll get it back to Miami" and the insistence that the Heat follow his lead were backed up by his performance through the first quarter of the game but James' voice at that moment and in the post-game press conference as well seemed constricted, less rich with expression and emotion than it normally is.  By the way, when do leaders actually use the word "lead" or go as far as to say "follow my lead"?  Time for a speechwriter, no?

Whether following a narrative that spans the last 12 months to the previous Spurs-Heat final or a longer story going back 47 months to the formation of the Big Three, something about James' voice during that pep talk and during the press conference that followed the game that night revealed that the strain on James was perhaps something other than the wear and tear of four straight seasons to the finals with an Olympics thrown in to burn off a good portion of one of those summers.  Chris Bosh as his wont to as the reflective Iron John of the trio, disclosed that the season was not particularly fun and that was easy to tell from the strain in James' voice.

It had been clear throughout the 2013-14 regular season that the Heat lacked the depth that helped it to its two championships.  During the headier days of the Big Three in 2010, there was the bemused speculation about Penny Hardaway interest in coming out of retirement to join.  Given how little the bench contributed this year, the more sardonic might suggest that Penny could have made the team this year.

Heading into 2013-14 the additions of Greg Oden and Michael Beasley - each Webster's calibre entries under the heading reckless gamble "reclamation projects" were all Riley stocked the bench with.  The Heat have been hamstrung by the CBA, but Pat Riley's press conference at the end of the season did little to acknowledge the responsibility that ought to fall to him for the results of the 2013-14 season. Did Riley roll the dice on the rest of the league imploding the way the Pacers did?  It had to be tempting to write off the Spurs this time last year and assume that the Thunder or Clippers would be the challengers coming from the West.  A badly played gamble on Riley's part perhaps and his ploy of putting the pressure on the Big Three to stick it out and take the pay cuts to allow him to re-stock is more bluster than Riley has the grounds to come up with and James by opting out has called him on it.

Lebron knows he has more options than Riley, Bosh and Wade and that there are likely 6-10 teams that have better talent in spots 4 through 12 or even 3 through 12 given Wade's rate of decline that surpass what Riley has at the moment and conceivably what Riley could put together over the summer, especially if Bosh and Wade choose to opt into their current contracts.  Jurgen Klinsman would gladly point out the issue the Heat are going to have with Dwyane Wade's contract if he opts in and the consequent challenges for their salary cap.

While on holiday before announcing to opt out, Lebron likely asked himself if he saw the chances for the Heat improving and also asked himself if the 2013-14 season was an experience that he would likely to repeat.  If the challenges of leading an undermanned team were what left the strain on his voice before and after Game 5 he likely concluded that he would be better off looking beyond Miami.  He may still opt to stay put but he is definitely putting the pressure on Riley and Arison to put a little more skin in the game.