LeBron James genuinely doesn't know what he's going to do with his future.
No matter the rumors floating around or assumptions being made, James offered lengthy consideration of his uncertainty and desire for flexibility at his final news conference of the season Tuesday. Both of these feelings are genuine.
Between now and the end of the month, James will take five meetings before he comes to a decision on free agency:
• First, he will get away with his family and talk to his wife about their priorities.
• When he returns from vacation, he will gather his tight inner circle. They will discuss weighty topics they haven't broached in months because the group made personal agreements not to.
• Then he will have a meeting with the Heat, specifically team president Pat Riley, coach Erik Spoelstra, owners Micky and Nick Arison and general manager Andy Elisburg, to hear their plan.
• After visiting with the Heat, James will contact Carmelo Anthony to hear his plans.
Until this process plays out in full, making a projection on what James will do is not much more than a guess. The only thing that is clear within his circle right now is that nothing is fully clear.
This means three things to the NBA:
1. The Heat's position is a little shaky.
After finding a championship formula in Miami, which led to four consecutive Finals appearances, not to mention a beautiful, warm-weather city to call home, James is still undecided on whether to stay. The Heat have hoped that James would be so pleased with these past four years that this phase would have been just a formality.
That is just not the case -- but it is not catastrophic, either. The Heat have built plenty of trust and capital with James and have established a track record of stability and success that is almost unmatched in the league. The ability to follow through on promises made is rare in the NBA, and the Heat, for the most part, have kept them. Miami also has an unmistakable advantage just by playing in the Eastern Conference.
However, a victory for the Heat at this stage likely means getting James to commit for one more season. Again, this is not ideal. When that infamous "not five, not six ..." speech was delivered, James was under the impression that he would be staying in Miami for a second long-term contract. Despite a strong and historic run, James isn't ready to commit to that given the current state of the team.
The Heat are the favorites; this is not in question. But there is a window of doubt due to the way the season ended, Wade's health and some bitterness James harbors that Micky Arison put the brakes on spending over the past year.
With that in mind ...
2. The door is open for another team, but it has to act. And now.
How did the Heat get James in 2010? They were the most proactive, aggressive and biggest-thinking team. They went out and landed Bosh, and then James crossed the bridge and made a decision to join him and Wade in Florida.
At the moment, there is not a clear alternative for James that doesn't carry some sort of unsavory risk. In 2010, James had two or three viable options if he left Cleveland. There were free agents to match up with and teams ready to compete instantly with his addition. That isn't so clear this time around.
If a team wants him and wants to grab his attention the way the Heat did in 2010, the time to make a move is at hand as the NBA moves into transaction season.
Trade for Kevin Love. Make a deal to open cap space. Swap out a high draft pick for a proven star who is ready to go now. Rip a page from the Heat's playbook and try to beat them at their own game.
James is in a position of power -- so make a power move because James won't be buying the pitch of potential. The clock is ticking.
And finally ...
3. James is going to apply pressure.
No player deals with a heavier burden to perform on a daily basis during the season than James does. He is now in position to transfer that to the organizations and his peers. That is why his most likely path is to opt out of his contract after the draft so that he will maximize his flexibility while putting teams on the clock.
James can command any sort of contract he wants. He has two years and $42 million left on his deal with the Heat with another option after next season. If he voids this deal, he could sign a new one with the exact same terms with the Heat, or any other team, in mid-July.
This would force the Heat to take action on the free-agent market to improve the roster and, essentially, spend money even though they are facing significant luxury-tax penalties. It would also buy time for James to meet with other teams and examine plans and for rival teams to make trades or signings to potentially make them more attractive. Some deals are more likely to happen in July rather than in late June.
Trust that James knows all of this. He follows the league closely. He talks to people. He knows the salary cap and is intelligent and business savvy. He has been through this before. He's not afraid to make big changes. He badly wants to win more titles and is concerned about his legacy. He thinks long term about money. He thinks short term about winning but is also extremely pragmatic.
And nothing about basketball scares him.
Most importantly, he doesn't care what anyone says or thinks anymore. He is simply going to do what makes him happy and gives him the best chance to win. He was strong in 2010. He's much stronger now.