It was an unusual preseason, and the training camp in the Bahamas wasn’t even the oddest and most telling thing about it. When Pat Riley hits every preseason stop along the magical mystery tour, including the rare Sioux Falls, S.D., to New Orleans back-to-back, then you know something out of the ordinary is happening.
And this is what’s happening: the pitch to keep LeBron James has already started, and the Heat has a huge head start on the field.
Now comes the hard part.
It has been the elephant in every locker room the Heat has walked into this preseason, so there’s no point in dancing around the topic. Here’s what the Heat needs to do to position itself as the unquestionable choice for James after this season.
1. Keep Dwyane Wade healthy.
2. Win a third championship in a row.
Do those two things and logic, reason, and even those close to James say he’ll most likely return to Miami. But fail on either one of those qualifiers, and all bets are off. Could James actually leave Miami even if the Heat wins three in a row? In a one-on-one interview with the Miami Herald after the Heat’s preseason game in New Orleans, James wouldn’t rule it out.
In other words, cue the panic on Calle Ocho.
Time to panic?
If Miami and the NBA at large thought the Heat’s three-year, two-ring traveling circus has been a little crazy, then the basketball world hasn’t seen anything yet. Year Four of Riley’s grand vision is going to be one of the more fascinating in the history of the NBA. For Miami, it will be a joyously excruciating saga from beginning to end.
What could be more riveting than a winner-take-all season? The thought of winner take none.
When asked Wednesday if his choice would be made for him if he won a third ring, James remained true to his preseason stance of neutrality. He wouldn’t entertain the question.
“When that bridge comes, I’ll cross it with my family,” James said. “And we’re going to make the right choice. We’ve been in this position before, I’ve been in this position before, and I’ll be excited about it, but we’ll see what happens.”
Pressed further, James answered firmly.
“Winning, that’s my only concern right now, winning,” James said. “I want to put a third ring on the guys that have two. I want to put a first ring on the guys that don’t have any and I want to put a fourth on [Udonis Haslem] and D-Wade. So, that’s my goal.”
Fans and detractors alike will latch on to James’ choice to ignore the impending out clause in his contract, but to interpret that business decision as a sign that he’s in some way less committed to his teammates would be a mistake. James knows this might be the most important season not only of his career, but also his teammates. Still, there is no advantage for him to address his contract before the end of the season. After all, any number of things could happen between now and June.
The Heat’s front office understands this just as much as James and also has positioned itself for multiple contingencies. Third-year guard Norris Cole is the only player on the Heat’s roster locked into a contract for the 2014-15 season, and even if the Heat wins its third consecutive championship, Riley, owner Micky Arison, Heat CEO Nick Arison and general manager Andy Elisburg will have some difficult decisions to make in the summer of 2014.