"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.
The cost of disloyalty
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.
Why the decline?
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.
The South Beach Cure
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.
Though it has been reported that LeBron is seeking a full max salary this summer, the guess here is he's willing to take slightly less than that because of all of the money he earns from endorsements (he earned a reported $53 million last season alone). Even if he cared about maximizing income above all else (which we doubt), leaving a few million on the table to show his "loyalty" to Miami would more than pay for itself through enhanced goodwill with the public (and potential endorsees) and help give the Heat more room to fill out his supporting cast.
The following scenario outlines one such path to roster upgrade. It has the team (a) signing free agent Kyle Lowry as a massive upgrade at point guard; (b) bringing back Chris Andersen and Ray Allen on reasonable short-term deals; (c) retaining Rashard Lewis and Udonis Haslem on minimum contracts; (d) recruiting massively under-rated veterans like Ekpe Udoh, Vince Carter, and Anthony Tolliver to play for the veterans' minimum; and (e) using the bi-annual exception to snag C.J. Miles as a quality backup wing.
This isn't the only combination that works for the Heat to improve, but it's one that sticks closely to news reports and the Miami M.O.
The resulting Heat roster works under the salary cap, it avoids the luxury tax, and -- most importantly for LeBron -- it yields a major upgrade on the court. Such a lineup is projected to have a higher SRS (+9.0) than any previous Heat roster -- and to be better than last season's Spurs team. It should win about 65 games.
Window closing for Heat?
Such a hypothetical Heat roster suffers from one key limitation: It's not built to last. Bosh is past his peak, and Wade is already in steep decline -- and yet those players would be locked into long-term deals with Miami in this scenario (in exchange for accepting less money up front). Simply put: While such a rebuilt Heat team could probably contend for a title next season, its window would close rapidly. And weighed down with albatross long-term contracts for Wade and Bosh, Miami would have limited ability to upgrade moving forward unless the salary cap rises dramatically.
The upshot is this: LeBron has a better option to win multiple rings in the years ahead: Form a new Big Three in L.A.
The chance to be historically great
The Clippers' epic run of bad luck looks like it's finally run its course: Donald Sterling is (nearly) out, Steve Ballmer's (almost) in, Doc Rivers has imported his Ubuntu mojo, and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are leading the Lob City revival of exciting, winning basketball.
And, as it turns out, the Clippers are LeBron's best possible landing spot this summer.
To figure this out, we ran the real plus-minus numbers on dozens of possible scenarios -- LeBron with the Rockets (with or without Carmelo Anthony), LeBron with the Warriors, and then the Cavs, the Lakers and so on.
No other option comes close to the Clippers.
And, remarkably, there are two completely different ways the Clips could land LeBron and still be historically great: (a) by clearing cap space by offloading several tradable players; or (b) by working with the Heat on a sign-and-trade of LeBron for Griffin.
Naturally, the team would strongly prefer to keep Griffin. No doubt LeBron would also find it much more enticing to join the Clippers with Griffin still on the roster. So, we'll focus our analysis on that scenario -- but while noting that swapping Blake for LeBron also yields a Clippers roster that can be historically good.
To free up enough cap space to sign LeBron as a max-level free agent, the Clippers would need to find a taker for the following players among teams with the cap room to absorb their contracts: DeAndre Jordan (owed $11.4 million next year), J.J. Redick ($6.8 million), Jamal Crawford ($5.4 million) and Jared Dudley ($4.2 million).
According to RPM, Jordan is an elite starting center, and he's on a reasonable contract, so there would be no shortage of suitors for his services, even if the other team also had to take on Dudley's and/or Redick's contract to make it happen. Likewise, elite sixth-man Jamal Crawford is priced attractively enough to move without difficulty.
And, if all else failed, LeBron could conceivably use his leverage to coerce Miami into a sign-and-trade with the Clippers for Jordan and others (a better option for the Heat than simply watching LeBron walk away).
Here's what the resulting Clippers lineup might look like:
Leading a new, ridiculously talented Big Three, LeBron would find himself on a team that -- if healthy -- projects as the most dominant team of all time in terms of its schedule-adjusted point differential (SRS of +12.7).
Such a team would be dramatically better -- to the tune of roughly four points per game -- than any likely LeBron-led Heat roster next year. And even while playing in the fiercely competitive Western Conference, the LeBron-led Clippers (if properly assembled) would be prohibitive favorites to win the title next season, and the season after that, and the season after that.
The ball is in LeBron's court.
He can choose to be loyal to the Heat -- and be rewarded with a decent shot at another title next season -- or he can choose to jump ship again for a shot at historic greatness.
RPM stats are provided by Jeremias Engelmann in consultation with Steve Ilardi. RPM is based on Engelmann's xRAPM (Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus). Play-by-play data provided by Basketball-Reference.com. Amin Elhassan provided background information for this article.