LeBron James shook the sports world yet again Tuesday, but those within the league expected this to happen — just not so soon.
James will opt out of the final two years of his contract with the Miami Heat and become an unrestricted free agent, his agent, Rich Paul, confirmed to the Beacon Journal on Tuesday. ESPN was the first to report James’ decision.
This move was expected. The timing, however, caught at least a few league executives by surprise.
James announced his decision nearly a full week sooner than necessary, and before even speaking with Heat teammates Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade about the trio’s future in Miami.
It is being viewed as a power move, and one that will maximize James’ leverage against the Heat while allowing other teams to take their best shot at obtaining the two-time champion and four-time Most Valuable Player.
James even hinted at such a move after the Heat lost to the San Antonio Spurs in five games in the NBA Finals.
“Being able to have flexibility as a professional, anyone, that’s what we all would like,” James said last week. “That’s in any sport, for a football player, a baseball player, a basketball player, to have flexibility and be able to control your future or your present. I have a position to be able to do that. ... There’s a lot of times that you’re not in control of your future as a professional.”
By opting out now, James has instantly increased pressure on not only the Heat to upgrade the talent on the roster, but also on Wade and Bosh to also opt out of their deals and give the Heat sufficient salary cap space to restructure their roster.
The Cavs, of course, are expected to aggressively pursue James. They’ll have the cap space to sign him and potentially other free agents and still retain Kyrie Irving — although doubts remain about how much the Cavs’ former and current stars want to play together.
The Cavs have a number of non-guaranteed contracts for next season, including Anderson Varejao’s partially guaranteed deal. General Manager David Griffin said after the season ended the Cavs could clear $26 million this summer with little maneuvering and could easily get that figure over $30 million, so cap space won’t be a problem.
Convincing James to return, however, might still be tricky. The relationship between James and the Cavs is markedly better than it was in the days after he left four years ago, but one league source with knowledge of the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of negotiations, said James still harbors resentment toward owner Dan Gilbert over the infamous letter he wrote in the hours after James departed. The Cavs also might not have a roster ready to contend for a championship immediately, even with the addition of James.
“LeBron doesn’t want to play with a bunch of kids,” one source with knowledge of James’ thinking said in recent weeks. “He wants to win.”
Those are just a few obstacles the Cavs must clear in the coming days for James to actually return. The Cavs have been expecting and preparing for this moment for months, even years, but a handful of sources polled in the last few weeks don’t believe James will return to the Cavaliers.
That won’t stop them from trying.
James is still widely expected to return to the Heat next season, but a number of people around the league also expected him to return to the Cavs in 2010. The Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks and both Los Angeles teams, among others, are expected to make a push for James, ESPN reported Tuesday.
It’s interesting to note current Hawks GM Danny Ferry was in Cleveland with James and the two maintained an amicable relationship after their departures, according to sources. But James is expected to base this decision solely on which team he believes will give him the best chance to win a championship next season and beyond.
Tuesday’s decision does not mean James will leave the Heat, it just gives him more options.
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.