Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Heat’s fight to keep LeBron James officially begins

Allusions to boxing are entwined in the Heat. Coach Erik Spoelstra is a huge fan, especially of Manny Pacquiao. Players sometimes shadowbox each other as part of their pregame routine. Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been invited to address the team. Club president Pat Riley fought as an amateur back in his youth in the Irish neighborhoods of Schenectady, N.Y.

Well, now it’s time for Miami’s basketball team to put that element of its culture to use.

You want to keep LeBron James, Heat?

Fight for him.

Take everybody else’s best punches and make the last one your own.

James opened the ring to all comers Tuesday when his agent informed the Heat he planned to opt out of the remaining two years of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent effective July 1. That means the biggest superstar in American sports — the man who has led Miami to two championships and four consecutive NBA Finals appearances — will be untethered in less than a week and fair game for any other team to sign.

The line of those wooing teams, Miami’s competition, will be long. James instantly becomes the most sought-after free agent, hurdling Carmelo Anthony.

The headline and sound bite — ‘LeBron to opt out’ — sounds like something that would hit Heat fans with a sledgehammer, but for a couple of things. First, it was “fully expected,” as Riley said Tuesday. Second, it doesn’t mean he will leave, only that he will be free to explore options.

Spoelstra always talks about James’ “basketball IQ,” but his business savvy isn’t too bad, either. He’s due $30 million, for example, related to Apple’s recent purchase of Beats By Dre. So it’s no surprise he is being pragmatic in now fielding all offers before choosing the best one.

“To have flexibility as a professional, anyone, that’s what we all would like,” he said just recently, of his summer plans.

James’ opt out means he is forsaking $42.7 million in guaranteed money from Miami during the next two seasons. The better deal he will be seeking won’t be all about money, though. It will be about winning.

The Heat had a strong idea even before Tuesday that James would opt out, and it isn’t even a bad thing for Miami. Only if LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all opt out would the Heat then have the chance to restructure their deals and re-sign them in a way that would allow the financial flexibility to improve the surrounding cast. Wade and Bosh now also opting out would suggest a cooperative that could lead to all three re-signing here.

The Big 3 all opting in, by contrast, would have severely limited Miami’s ability to significantly improve the roster. And if losing the last three Finals games to San Antonio by a combined 57 points earlier this month served any purpose, it was to expose shortcomings and verify the Big 3 needs more help.

So LeBron opting out, though it seems ominous on the face of it, could be a positive first step if Wade and Bosh now follow suit and if each is willing to take less money for the greater good, as each did in 2010 when this thing first came together.

But this is where the boxing gloves come in.

This is where the fight starts.

Riley, frontman for Miami’s efforts to keep LeBron as its essential centerpiece, cannot assume James will stay just because. Overconfidence on this could invite a knockout blow. Riley is 69 now, in his 45th NBA year and 19th in Miami. Convincing LeBron to re-up, to stay with Miami, looms as his last big fight. It will be the victory that feathers his legacy, or the defeat that caps it in disappointment.

Riley is plying psychology with LeBron. Last week, he challenged the Big 3 to have the “guts” to stay together. After displaying all his championship rings four years ago in the recruiting process, “I’m not dropping championship rings on the table again,” he said. “They can drop their own.”

The Heat will not beg because Riley won’t beg. Other teams might buy billboards to court and woo James. Don’t expect to see such pandering along I-95.

Remember, though. James is astute. He’s smart. He doesn’t need psychological prodding. He doesn’t need his ego stroked with a billboard.

What he needs is assurances that he will have a lot more help than got in the Finals, in that final three-game stretch that Riley called “inept” even though James, a superstar alone, was scoring 81 points. The season ended with James experiencing the very reason he left Cleveland in 2010: the feeling of having to do it all himself.

The competition for James that will begin officially on July 1 is about what other teams will offer — but mostly about what Riley and Miami can assure James of. How much life does Wade have left in him at 32? How much willingness to “reinvent” himself as Riley said? Who will be added in free agency? How will the team get young, deeper and more athletic? Will owner Micky Arison (who upset James by not spending to keep Mike Miller) be willing to pay yet more luxury tax to spend as needed above the salary cap?

The right answers to those questions are the punches Riley must land.

Miami should be seen as the front-runner to keep LeBron. He and his wife and kids love it here. And, mindful of his image and legacy, James knows that, after the vitriol he endured four years earlier, leaving after one term in Miami might brand him a mercenary.

Besides, what alternative isn’t flawed in some way?

Going to any Western Conference team such as Houston, Golden State, San Antonio or the Los Angeles Clippers would immerse James in tougher competition that would make reaching the Finals less likely than Miami getting there through the weaker East.

Can he trust new Clippers owner Steve Ballmer? Can he trust the wacky owner and unproven coach at Golden State? Would he be a fit in Houston with paint-clogging Dwight Howard? Or on San Antonio’s aging roster?

And where in the East would be a better spot? Would it be in Chicago with its penurious owner and the direct shadow of Michael Jordan? Or back to Cleveland and the same owner who savaged him publicly for leaving in 2010? How about the awful, post-Carmelo dregs of the New York Knicks?

Meantime, the news of James opting out coming nearly a week sooner than it had to means the insanity has begun. The daily rumors and speculation and nonsense.

Already we have seen a false published report about James enrolling his two sons in an Ohio school. A thoroughly discredited Orlando TV report about James supposedly “storming out” of a meeting with Arison. And a social media flurry when LeBron’s wife Savannah extolled Akron, Ohio, in an Instagram post, even though all she was doing was saying how excited she was to visit there this summer.

Heaven forbid that LeBron should get takeout from a Boston Market. It would surely launch a viral Twitter feed about him signing with Celtics.

Two things might be said with some certainty as the latest incarnation of LeBron Mania ensues:

1. This a heavyweight fight Miami absolutely can win as long as Riley convinces James he will have more help and better cast than fell short in 2014.

2. LeBron will not, under any circumstances whatsoever, be announcing his eventual decision in a made-for-TV special.

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