It didn’t take long for the questions to shift from the dethroning of the Miami Heat to the potential dismantling of the team’s roster.
Four questions, to be specific.
Four questions into the Heat’s news conference after the NBA Finals, and LeBron James was asked about the future of his team.
“I’m not even nowhere near at that point,” James said. “You know, we went to four straight Finals in four years. You know, we’re not discrediting what we were able to accomplish in these four years.”
By the end of Sunday night’s session with reporters, however, it seemed James himself had already begun the process of shifting from defeated former champion to motivated future contender.
Asked what the Heat needs to add this offseason to remain competitive, the four-time NBA MVP dropped some major hints. Imitating coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ blueprint would be a good start.
“The whole league continues to get better every single year,” James said. “Obviously we would need to get better from every facet, every position. It's just how the league works.
The Spurs continue to get better. Obviously, they kept those three guys intact, but they continue to put guys around them, high-basketball-IQ guys around them, high-energy guys around them that fit into the system of what Pop wanted to do.”
The Spurs’ core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili just completed its 12th season together. During that time, San Antonio has won four NBA championships and competed in the Finals five times. The success of that run was highlighted over the last week with some of the best basketball the NBA has ever seen.
The Spurs didn’t just defeat the Heat for its fifth crown since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997. San Antonio set a Finals record for margin of victory (14.5 points per game) while also notching the highest field-goal percentage (52.8) in Finals history.
“Exquisite basketball,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called it.
That’s the standard James would like to achieve. To get there, some tough decisions will need to be made.
James repeated on Sunday that he hasn’t begun to think about the 2015 offseason, but that’s not entirely true. It’s no coincidence that every player on the Heat’s roster save for Norris Cole (Chris Andersen opted out of his contract Monday) will either be a free agent this summer or have options on their contracts to renegotiate current deals.
The deadline for player options is June 30, so time is ticking. Free agency begins on July 1.
The biggest decisions facing James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh is whether to opt out of their contracts and test free agency, or begin work on rebuilding the Heat’s roster.
James was coy about his plans on Sunday, but he made it no secret that the Heat needs to upgrade. Shane Battier is retiring, Greg Oden never panned out, Michael Beasley fell out of favor once again and Mario Chalmers faded badly in the Finals.
All those players could be gone next season, but that’s just the beginning of the Heat’s long free-agency checklist. Contracts for Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen, James Jones and Toney Douglas also expired after the NBA Finals.
The bottom line is if the Heat’s dynasty is to continue into the next decade like Pat Riley has envisioned, then it would help if James, Wade and Bosh opted out of their contracts and then restructure their deals for far less money spread out of several more years. Wade alone has an option on his contract paying him over $40 million over the next two years.
If the Spurs’ model is truly the Heat’s goal, then that’s going to take some significant sacrificing financially. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili played for significantly less money this season than James, Wade and Bosh. Parker earned the most at $12.5 million.
Consider this: the Heat potentially already has more salary on its books for next season with only James, Wade, Bosh, Cole and Udonis Haslem returning than the bulk of the Spurs’ significant contributors.
If Wade opts in this week, the Heat’s options seem to be limited.
“It’s been a hell of a ride in these four years,” Wade said. “And when we decided to play together, we didn't say, OK, let's try for four years. We said let's just play together and let's see what happens.
“We've been successful in the sense of what we tried to accomplish, and that is going to the Finals, and we did it. We’d love to be four for four, it just wasn’t in the cards for us to be that. We have no other reason not to be proud of each other for what we’ve accomplished on and off the court for these four years together.”