If you think the screeching screeds and ultra-rapid overreactions have been bad in the Finals, just get ready. Because when this series ends, whether the Heat win or lose, the real insanity will begin. This offseason is when LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade will all opt out of their contracts with the Heat.
And then what?
Will they go their separate ways? Will they take a little less and make room for a fourth star? Will Bosh leave to go be The Man somewhere else? Will Wade be exiled like a defeated alpha lion, doomed to wander the desert (or Phoenix) till the end of his days? Will James head back to Cleveland to play with a younger star?
That’s the real question, after all: What will LeBron do?
The answer’s simple: stay.
It seems like ever since James shocked so many by leaving Cleveland and the local-boy-makes-good storyline, when he abandoned that myth and forever lost a certain kind of white fan, people everywhere have speculated about where he might go next. Some even believe he would go back to Cleveland. Jesus is supposed to come back, too, you know.
Expecting James to leave seems logical given that his pro career is, for many people, still defined by his capital D Decision to change teams. But if you broaden the scope to include just about every other second of James’ life, it seems obvious that he will stay in Miami, and that he will do what he can to make sure Bosh and Wade are there with him.
Look at the people James keeps in his life. Maverick Carter handles James’ marketing. Rich Paul is James’ agent, and has become a rising star in the sports world in part based on that connection. Both men are boyhood friends of James, who were with him during the high school years that, for a teenager, were a crucible of immeasurable scrutiny. These are the people he trusts with his most important asset: his public presence.
There have been ups and downs as far as that presence is concerned, just as there have been ups and downs for James’ Heat on the court. Well, mostly ups. But the parallels are easy to see. Like Paul and Carter, James’ teammates, really the entire Heat organization, from Pat Riley to the video coordinator dreaming of being the next Erik Spoelstra, know what it’s like to be LeBron James.
James believes he is “the easiest target” in sports, as he told ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. This is the mindset that four years in Miami has produced, and whether or not you agree—and it’s awfully hard to disagree at this point—it’s one that his teammates understand and share.
After Game 2, even Heat coach Erik Spoelstra echoed the theme, this time in reference to Chris Bosh. “Everybody’s so critical about his game. He’s stable. He has championship DNA. He understands he’s going to be criticized.”
Bosh gets this. He expects to be mocked. “I’m easy to pick on,” he told Dan Le Batard. “People love hammering me. It hurt at first. It is cruel. The world is cruel. But I grew up quick. Learned a lot real quick. Had to. You either get stronger or you wilt.”
It may be possible for James to replace the talent of his Heat teammates in another city, but it is hard to imagine finding players who will be ready to jump into that fire with him because they know how hot the hate is.
Just playing with James opens players up to a level of scrutiny and criticism that few in any walk of life can appreciate. Fewer can withstand it. Fewer still thrive under it. It may be possible for James to replace the talent of his Heat teammates in another city, but it is hard to imagine finding players who will be ready to jump into that fire with him because they know how hot the hate is.
And keep in mind, the nitpicking would be even more absurd because whomever James chose to play with would not only have to deal with James’s attention, but comparisons to the players James left.
Wade and James have a famously complicated relationship. Wade has called him his “best friend,” but many close to the team insist Udonis Haslem is closest with Wade day-to-day. James and Wade’s relationship might be better understood as family than friends. They can be close, and fiercely loyal to one another, without being best buds all the time. In some ways, the intensity of their partnership would seem to dictate such an arrangement.
The interpersonal relationships within the Heat are often confused with what the Big Three are doing on the court, but just as the Heat have figured out how to exist under the burden of James’ historic expectations, so have they learned to amplify their respective talents on the court.
Wade moved off the ball. Bosh moved off the block. Both so LeBron could be maximum LeBron. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t immediate, and they aren’t finished. They keep getting better at being together, as evidenced by how all three set career highs in True Shooting this year. The more they play together, the more they can mold their games to best complement each other.
The molding has really been Wade and Bosh’s duty. James’s game has expanded accordingly—his role is to be everywhere, but that’s only possible because he knows where Wade and Bosh will be.
Miami’s Big Three earned this dynamic, and not lightly. Spoelstra is in some ways the fourth member Miami’s power cadre because he too has developed professionally and personally in the shadow of James’ talent. He and his staff have been instrumental in coordinating the incredible efforts of the Heat’s roster.
How to live together. How to play together. How to win together. Such institutional knowledge in Miami is a tremendous and irreplaceable resource.
Compare everything James has now, and everything he’s built in Miami with what he left in Cleveland. It’s no comparison. Will he stay? It’s an obvious decision.
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