"The only reason we play this game is to win championships."
That's what LeBron James told ESPN four years ago, the day he decided to take his talents to South Beach.
Judging from his obvious frustration during the 2014 NBA Finals -- as he watched his Heat juggernaut toppled by a deeper, fresher, and (yes) more talented Spurs squad -- it's clear that LeBron's motivation hasn't changed. He still plays to win.
So as LeBron ponders where to take his formidable skills next season, he should be viewing each option through the lens of one question above all others: Where do I have the best shot at another championship?
Real-plus minus (RPM) reveals the surprising truth: If he wants the best possible chance to match Michael Jordan's six rings, LeBron would be wise to make one more move -- this time to the West Coast.
As LeBron learned four years ago, jumping ship to chase rings comes at a cost -- outraged cries of betrayal from rejected teammates and fans (and owners) and hard-to-shake labels like selfish and disloyal.
Given all that has gone before, it's a safe bet that he would rather stay with the Heat, if possible -- that is, if he decides they will be serious title contenders next season and beyond.
But can they? Not if they stand pat.
The Heat weren't that good last season. Sure, they stumbled to a deceptively solid 54-28 record in an epically weak Eastern Conference. But if we turn to a more telling metric, their schedule-adjusted point differential (SRS) -- a measure similar to the Hollinger Power Rating -- we find Miami posting by far their worst mark of the LeBron era.
In fact, the Spurs were better than the Heat by nearly 4 points per game, an edge that would make San Antonio a whopping 2:1 favorite to win any head-to-head game on a neutral court.
So, what caused Miami's dropoff last season?
One thing is certain: It had nothing to do with LeBron. He once again posted the highest real plus-minus (RPM) rating in the league (+9.2), far ahead of nominal MVP Kevin Durant (+6.4). James is still the best player on the planet.
But Miami's big three is now really just a big one.
Four years ago, Dwyane Wade (+5.9 RPM) was one of the 10 best players in the NBA. But this past season? His RPM (+2.0) didn't even rank in the top 10 among shooting guards. And in January he turns 33, an age at which most 2-guards face precipitous decline.
Chris Bosh has held up better, but his RPM of +3.7 last season still wasn't good enough to crack the league's top 30. And Bosh turns 31 next season, his 12th. Bosh is still a very good player, but he's past his prime, and he'll probably never again play at an All-NBA level.
Clearly, if LeBron is going to win more titles in Miami with Wade and Bosh, the trio will need major help -- a lot more than they received last season. That means the team has to create enough wiggle room under the salary cap to woo quality free agents. That means a pay cut for the Big Three. It's their only viable path to improvement. And they've clearly done the math, since all three players recently opted out of contracts in excess of $20 million next year.