Who Will Win an NBA Title First: Lakers or Celtics?

With 33 championships between them, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are without a doubt the cream of the NBA crop. But after decades of consistent dominance, both franchises have fallen on hard times.

How hard, you ask? Last season saw the Lakers and Celtics miss the playoffs in the same year for just the second time ever. With both teams on the rebuilding path, that got us wondering: Which of the two has the best chance of nabbing its next championship?

Two of Bleacher Report’s NBA columnists, Dan Favale and Jim Cavan (neither of whom are Lakers or Celtics loyalists), took up the debate. What follows are the fruits of the two’s three-day email exchange.


Dan Favale

This, to me, is really a case of what’s going to be more effective: the Celtics’ core or the Lakers’ free-agent ambitions. By conventional rebuilding standards, Julius Randle is really L.A.’s only cornerstone. Perhaps Ed Davis sneaks his way in there, but even if he does that’s rather unimpressive.

The Lakers’ ability to effectively rebuild hinges on their ability to recruit free agents. Restructuring through free agency has its incentives—see the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers—but at what point do the Lakers become appealing enough? It took LeBron James to render the Cavaliers real free-agency threats. The Lakers are in a similar situation.

Kobe Bryant isn‘t a selling point at this stage. That realistically means it could take until summer 2017 for the Lakers to land a big fish and start playing for something other than draft-pick retention.

This gives the Celtics a head start. They have a younger star in Rajon Rondo and an actual core to build around. To be sure, we don’t know who Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk really are yet. But at its heart, having plenty of overlapping and unproven youngsters beats having nearly none at all.

Question is, do they actually believe in this core?

Investing a max contract in Rondo, given how the roster is currently structured, would be a huge mistake. And if they lose him—however justified his departure is—they lose all their star power.

They also lack the immediate financial flexibility to replace him; they could have close to $50 million on the books in 2015-16 even without him, per ShamSports. Jeff Green’s and Gerald Wallace’s contracts constrict them in ways the Lakers don’t have to worry about.

They’ll eventually reach a point where they have to make Bradley-like decisions with Sullinger, Olynyk and even Smart. Are any of them potential stars, or do the Celtics risk dooming themselves to mediocrity?

At first glance, the Lakers’ blank slate is better than the Celtics’ semi-full plate. Kevin Love’s trade to the Cavaliers certainly hurt them, but Los Angeles’ market mystique—with and without Bryant—is going to help more than most people realize.

Superstars win NBA championships. Armed with cap space, free from the worry of having to overpay an incumbent star for the next four to five years (Rondo), the Lakers are on a faster track to getting that star than the Celtics and, effectively, completing their rebuild.


Jim Cavan

If you’re talking about the sheer pull of mystique, the Lakers and Celtics are on a plane apart from the rest of their peers. On this, my friend and I agree. But where Dan misses the mark is in assuming that L.A.’s superstar pull and cap space are more important than something in which Boston clearly has the edge: front-office competence.

Ever since the passing of longtime owner Jerry Buss, the Lakers have been something of a rudderless vesselKobe Bean Bryant’s $48.5 extension being exhibit A in the case.

Perhaps Jim Buss will eventually find his front-office voice. Perhaps last season—and the painful few in front of it—will help L.A.’s brain trust better identify the direction they want to go. But here’s the thing: Boston, while outwardly haphazard, actually has a plan in place.

Like the Lakers, it starts with cap space. Lots of it, per ShamSports. In fact, as things stand right now, Boston only has $16 million committed for the 2015-16 season. And while the team is sure to exercise a number of its options (Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger being the most likely candidates), merely having that bounty of options puts them on a much sounder footing than their L.A. nemeses.

As for Rondo, I agree the Celtics see him as having one foot out the door. They drafted Marcus Smart for a reason, after all, and no matter what Ainge and head coach Brad Stevens might have you believe, they aren’t playing them in the same backcourt long-term.

Unless Rondo’s willing to come back at a steep discount, my guess is Boston bids adieu to its mercurial floor general next summer. Even if Smart doesn’t quite pan out, the C’s will have more than enough cap space to chase an elite-level point guard if and when the time comes.

Boston might not boast Tinseltown’s Hollywood nightlife or SoCal sunshine. What they do have, now that the Lakers have lost their philosophical North Star in Jerry Buss, is a decided front-office advantage—from Danny Ainge down to Brad Stevens.

If teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat have taught us anything these past few years, it’s that having talent in the boardroom is just as important as having it on the hardwood.


Dan Favale

That a Celtics proponent like Jim (rightfully) points out the importance of cap space is what worries me most.

Kobe Bryant won’t appeal to free agents interested in playing for the Lakers. His imminent departure is perhaps the team’s greatest weapon. But the Celtics don’t offer much more.

I, too, see Rajon Rondo leaving Boston. But without him, what are the Celtics selling prospective free agents on? Jared Sullinger? Avery Bradley? Smart himself? That’s not much different than the Lakers using Julius Randle’s potential ceiling to attract available superstars.

Often overlooked, too, is how flexible the Lakers really are. Next summer, or the summer after, the Celtics should be able to afford one first-rate addition if they play their cards right. However, the Lakers will have the ability to pursue two between 2015 and 2016 if they spend accordingly. They could sell LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Marc Gasol or Rondo himself on the prospect of teaming up with Kevin Durant is one year’s time.

That’s going to mean something.

The Celtics don’t have that kind of flexibility. Sullinger will be eligible for an extension soon. Before you know it, so will Olynyk. The Celtics have to worry about paying those guys in addition to whatever star they might acquire.

It usually takes superstars to get superstars. Few all-world talents want to be the only all-world talent, left with only the hope another one arrives soon. If we’re to assume neither the Lakers nor the Celtics will have that incumbent star to sell, which team is more likely to reel in new superstars: the Lakers, who will have the flexibility to add a second rather quickly, or the Celtics, who will be waiting for one of their up-and-comers to maybe, quite possibly, develop into that second star?

This rebuild Ainge is staging remains, at its core, unproven. He’s done well acquiring draft picks, but he hasn’t turned those selections into anyone substantial yet. Of all the prospects the Celtics have now, not one of them appear on the cusp of significantly turning Boston’s fortunes around.

If this, in fact, comes down to both teams promising the delivery of something or someone not yet in their possession, I’m rolling with the party that has more immediate flexibility and, therefore, the means to turn things around in a more timely fashion: the Lakers.


Jim Cavan

I don’t disagree that the Lakers stand to have more cap space—and thus an ability to attract more top-tier free agents—sooner than the Celtics. I just think they stand a much better chance of making the wrong decision about who they reel in.

This isn‘t about who can “turn it around” more quickly; it’s about who can win a title first. While it might take years, and while the Lakers might well skyrocket back to relevance more quickly, I worry that said relevance will have been built on a faulty front-office foundation. For all the banners, this team has made terrible free-agent decisions before (Dwight Howard, anyone?).

Even if Boston’s youngsters don’t turn into stars overnight, they’ll boast more than enough in the way of redemptive promise to make for attractive trade pieces—perhaps in a deal to land a legitimate, proven star.

Pieces. Assets. Call them what you will, but Boston has recognized the best path forward lies in flexibility. And while cap space is certainly necessary to that equation, it isn‘t by itself sufficient.

We’re obviously still waiting to see what the prospect crop will look like, but suffice it to say Boston—with five picks in next year’s draft, per RealGM—should have even more intriguing prospects by the time training camp rolls around in 2015.

That’s not simply collecting assets for the sake of itself; that’s keeping with what’s proven to be the most effective path to competitive relevance. Add Boston’s fabled mystique to that equation, and you have a destination most should immediately recognize as easily the more promising and viable of the two.

In the end, Dan’s biggest arguments in L.A.’s favor are 1) the bullion, and 2) the beaches. We’ve already discussed the first, but let’s deal with No. 2 for a moment, shall we?

It’s 2014. Kevin Love—a West Coast kid through and through—just forced his way to what looks to be a long-term deal to play in Cleveland, Ohio. Do you know what they used to call Cleveland? “The Mistake on the Lake.” The Cuyahoga River once caught on fire, for crying out loud! It is not what we call a “destination city.” And yet, here he is. Why? Because Cleveland is built to win.

Make no mistake: L.A. will always be an attractive destination, both for its tremendous basketball legacy and its quality of life off the court. Considered in the full context of how the modern NBA team should operate, L.A. is still far too dependent on cultural clout and cap space alone magically saving the day.


Dan Favale

Drafting Smart reeks of uncertainty to me. While Rondo seems good as gone, why select his, for lack of a better word, clone to rebuild around? If the Celtics let Rondo walk, it will be because they don’t believe he can effectively headline their pool of assets. What makes Smart so different?

Banking on the Celtics’ ability to flip Smart—along with their other assets—into a cornerstone also feels counterintuitive. The time to do that is early, before ceilings are realized. Trading Smart three years down the line because of uneven performances equates to the Celtics slinging leftovers as five-star meals.

None of which means Smart, or any of his compadres, will go bust. Jim’s argument that the Celtics have more developing assets is fair and, frankly, correct. But while the Lakers—and the entire NBA—witnessed firsthand how less-desirable markets can turn assets into a position of power (into Love), look at what the Celtics are now up against.

LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Love may not figure it out all at once, but assuming James is sincere in guaranteeing he’ll retire in Cleveland, the Cavs—like the Miami Heat before them—are a team that will remain perched atop the conference totem pole for the next six-plus years.

The Western Conference is more wide-open. It’s deeper, and thus harder to win, but it’s also approaching a new dawn. The San Antonio Spurs will wind down sooner rather than later. Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder—thanks to shallow pockets—may have peaked; Durant himself could leave in 2016 if he hasn’t won a title by then. That’s going to matter.

It also, in a way, gives the Lakers more time to build from the ground up. Their draft-pick situation is in limbo these next few years, but once out of the commitment doldrums, the Celtics will still be chasing the uncatchable Cavaliers.

Finally, the Lakers have options outside cap space and historical awe. Their next two seasons may be largely fruitless, but the Celtics aren‘t looking at anything different—especially with James’ Cavaliers’ primed for lasting dominance.

Even if Boston executes its nebulous rebuild more quickly, the Lakers’ conference hierarchy—which, unlike that of their rivals, isn’t set in marble—makes their championship chances far more likely than Boston’s.


Jim Cavan

Regarding Cleveland: While its prolonged dominance feels like a foregone conclusion, there’s a reason James opted for a two-year contract—he wants to keep his options open.

Point being, if Miami’s Big Three taught us anything, it’s that nothing in the NBA is permanent. If James wins a pair of titles for Cleveland, who’s to say he won’t take on an altogether different challenge?

Moreover, I don’t think you’re giving nearly enough credit to just how deep the West really is. As you stated earlier, stars go to play with other stars, and the Western Conference is loaded with them. To my mind, I don’t see the West relinquishing hemispheric hegemony anytime soon. That is bad news for the Forum Blue and Gold.

Getting back to Boston’s rebuilding efforts, allow me to flip my own logic on its head for a moment and assume Rondo actually stays. By all accounts, his recovery from injury has gone pretty smoothly. Unlike Derrick Rose, Rondo has never been a point guard who relies almost exclusively on explosive athleticism.

If you’re a top-tier NBA talent staring down the barrel of free agency, who would you rather team up with: Another alpha-dog scorer or a player proven to make everyone around him better? Even if you’re getting a Rondo at 85 percent, that’s basically the Rondo we saw in the 2008 Finals, before he really rose up the league ranks.

Now, I still think there’s a good chance Rondo bolts. But if Ainge is hammering away at the phones the way I think he is, gauging the temperatures of every first- and second-tier free-agent star from now until 2020, Rondo has to entertain the possibility of sticking around.

With as many assets as Boston has, all Ainge would have to do is orchestrate a trade for a disgruntled star (say, DeMarcus Cousins), and use the resulting Rondo-Player X core to entice a third star—Durant, for instance—to join the fray in free agency.

Easier said than done? Sure. But unlike Jim Buss, Ainge has proven he can strike the game-changing deal while the iron is hot.

Is L.A. just as hell-bent on pulling themselves up by their basketball bootstraps? Absolutely. I fully expect the Lakers to reel in a star or two at some point in the next two or three years.

Rather, it’s in giving up what little the Lakers already have in order to attract those stars and—more importantly—what the Lakers will have left to surround them, that makes L.A., to my mind, much further from nabbing banner No. 17 than the Celtics are from No. 18.


So, where do you stand? Does L.A.’s impending cap space make it more likely to reel in title-ready talent? Or will Boston’s more coherent rebuilding plan prove the sounder path to a championship?

Feel free to continue the discussion down in the comments section. But as always, please be respectful.

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Flip Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves Ace First Test in Post-Kevin Love Era

Kevin Love gave Minnesota Timberwolves president-coach Flip Saunders no choice.

After unofficially officially demanding a trade at the start of this summer, Love made a few things clear: He needed to be moved sooner than later, and he had to sign off on the destination.

Nothing about the situation was unique.

Love was following the footsteps left by stranded small-market stars before him, and the Wolves scoured the NBA landscape for the best possible return package. That was where the narrative changed for Saunders and his organization. While their superstar loss hurt just as bad as the rest, they were the first ones to leave the negotiating table with a star of their own.

As Saunders noted at the press conference discussing the deal, he deserved a pat on the back for potentially squeezing out a premier player in top pick Andrew Wiggins.

To be clear, Wiggins is not a best-case scenario. The only one that existed in this situation was not being forced to give up the player who posted 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists a night last season.

But Love took that option off the table, forcing Minnesota to act. And no matter which potential trade partner the Wolves tabbed, they weren’t going to find another Love.

History had already taught that lesson.

Teams in Minnesota’s position don’t win these trades—they simply hope to survive them. That almost always means gambling on potential (Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Derrick Favors, Chris Paul etc.), but never before has it yielded someone with Wiggins’ ceiling.

“He’s raw, but his ceiling is high,” reigning MVP Kevin Durant said of Wiggins last November, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. “He can be like a Hall of Famer, All-Star, for sure.”

Granted, there’s a pretty wide gulf between All-Star and Hall of Famer, but Durant’s words do a good job of framing Wiggins’ intrigue.

Physically, he is a generational freak. He has terrific size (6’8″, 200 lbs), great length (7’0″ wingspan, per DraftExpress) and better genetics (his dad played in the NBA, his mom was an Olympian track star).

The 19-year-old is still learning how to consistently maximize his natural gifts. He needs a lot of work. But he has already flashed a devastating combination of instinct and athleticism that hints at his massive potential should he ever fully figure things out.

His future is packed with promise, but his present isn’t without its own perks. He could play an impact defensive role out of the gate, and his transition offensive game could be among the best in basketball.

“Offensively, the way this game is played, he was by far the best finisher in college basketball,” Saunders said at the press conference. “His ability when he got the ball on the break, he finished at the rim as well or better than anybody. Those are things that transcend into the NBA with the open-floor games that we play.”

It’s a style the new-look Wolves should wear quite well next season, and one that helps Minnesota earn its best possible marks for the transaction.

The Wolves didn’t just find a talented player in Wiggins. They may have discovered their personality.

“Adding Wiggins gives Minnesota an immediate direction, and that was the single most crucial element of any trade involving Love,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Golliver. “Floundering without a foundational piece would have been a cataclysm.”

Wiggins was the backbone of Minnesota’s return package, but he wasn’t the only piece headed to the Gopher State. The Wolves also picked up Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, and Thaddeus Young, who averaged 17.9 points in the Philadelphia 76ers‘ fast-paced attack last season.

Along with newcomer Zach LaVine, the 13th selection in June’s draft, Minnesota’s arrivals bring with them an identity.

The Wolves—thanks to Saunders’ discipline, patience and savvy negotiating skills—now know what they’re building. And with Love no longer building the pressure to perform, they can construct something substantial at their own pace.

This isn’t exactly like hitting the reset button. That option doesn’t exist for a franchise trapped in a 10-year playoff drought.

But their moves will no longer be viewed under the lens of helping or harming their chances to keeping Love. The 2014-15 season will be a chance to see what Minnesota has assembled, not an 82-game recruiting pitch to keep the second best player in franchise history happy.

And it should be the debut for a young, athletic core that could form the franchise’s nucleus going forward. As Saunders told reporters, there is a pattern behind Minnesota’s roster reshaping:

With the additions of Wiggins, Bennett and Zach LaVine this summer, we have brought in three exciting young athletes who all have the potential to have an impact in this league. All three of them complement each other very well and we believe they will be foundations of our team for years to come. In Young we are getting a proven NBA player who is entering the prime of his career. Our fans will enjoy watching these exciting players this coming season and beyond.

This team should be looking to run at every opportunity, and that should only help athletic incumbents Ricky Rubio, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad. Dieng is the oldest of these six at 24, so the Wolves’ facelift should fit for years to come.

That potential sustainability is important to remember, because things are likely to get worse before they start getting better.

Minnesota’s roster features an awkward mix of win-now pieces and future assets, but the majority of its most prominent players fall into the latter.

That could lead Saunders and Co. to eventually turn more of these proven commodities into parts to be used at a later date. If the Wolves want to build around Rubio (23 years old) or Wiggins—or both—they have the time to manufacture the right environment around them.

It’s a daunting task for a franchise forced to practice patience for this long, but the team’s work this time around litters the road with high hopes. The Wolves were put into a situation they could not win. They emerged with their dignity in hand and a possible star within their ranks.

More tests are sure to follow, but Minnesota aced the one that matters most. The Wolves might not be better without Love now, but they gave themselves a chance to be just that in the future.


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Kyrie Irving on his first three years in Cleveland: ‘I didn’t really have help from anybody’

The Cavaliers guard spoke about the changes in leadership and his own role.



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Austin Hatch makes first appearance for Michigan

Austin Hatch, who survived two plane crashes, played in his first game as a Wolverine.



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Anthony Davis Fills Alpha Dog Void in Team USA’s First FIBA Tune-Up vs. Brazil

CHICAGO — The night started as Derrick Rose’s homecoming. It quickly turned into Anthony Davis’ coming-out party.

Both Chicago natives took the court at the United Center during Team USA’s 95-78 exhibition win over Brazil in a prelude to next month’s FIBA Basketball World Cup. Emotionally, the night was all Rose; he gave the pregame address to a crowd heavy on Bulls fans, and he got the loudest cheers by an order of magnitude. But once the action tipped off, the night belonged to Davis, whose unmistakable unibrow is going to be the face of the NBA sooner than later.

Every incarnation of Team USA is headlined by its established superstars, but defined by the ones it makes. 2010’s FIBA World Championship tournament was a transformative event for Rose, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. All three used it as a springboard to play the best basketball of their careers the following season, becoming household names in the process. In the wake of Saturday’s tune-up ahead of September’s World Cup, it was clear that it’s Davis’ turn.

For basketball freaks, Davis’ otherworldly talent isn’t exactly news. Still, since his 2012 NCAA championship run with Kentucky, he hasn’t spent much time on the national stage. New Orleans has missed the playoffs in each of his first two seasons and played just a handful of games on national TV. But it’s not going to be too much longer until he singlehandedly becomes appointment television the way LeBron, Durant and Blake Griffin have.

He’s one of the league’s emerging stars,” Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “We hope what happened to a lot of those guys in 2010 will happen to him in 2014, where this launches him.”

This isn’t Davis’ first stint with the national team, but it’s his first time with this kind of responsibility. He was a member of the gold-medal-winning squad in the 2012 London Olympics, but he was hardly a first option. The Anthony Davis who played for that team was a kid with no NBA experience deferring to the LeBrons, Carmelos and Chris Pauls on the roster; the Anthony Davis who was on display Saturday was the main event, and he was impossible to ignore.

“I learned a lot right away,” Davis said of his first Olympic experience. “What the system was about, what Coach K wanted from me. It’s quite a process. I wasn’t afraid that I didn’t play or anything. I was just 19 years old. I’m just happy that I finally get my shot now.”

That shot isn’t only to help Team USA win gold at a fourth consecutive international tournament. The World Cup title would be great, but for Davis, it’s an opportunity to grow on his way to even greater heights.

There was no facet of the game that Davis didn’t dominate on Saturday. In 25 minutes, he finished with 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, along with eight rebounds and five blocks. He threw down a couple of highlight dunks and consistently knocked down mid-range jumpers. He was the best player on the floor for either team, and it wasn’t particularly close—no light praise for a man sharing the floor with Rose, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

Throughout the week of training in Chicago, Davis’ teammates and coaches have raved about his development since the London Olympics, particularly his filling out a once-lanky 6’11″ frame.

“I saw him in London when he was a young guy getting ready to go into the NBA,” Krzyzewski said after a team practice Thursday. “He’s about 20 to 25 pounds heavier. He’s more of a man now.”

That added bulk will be hugely important for Davis on a team with few other big men. The Brazil team he faced on Saturday featured three physical, NBA-level bigs in Nene, Anderson Varejao and Tiago Splitter. To capture the gold medal, Team USA will likely have to go through Spain’s front line of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka.

Davis’ competition isn’t going to let up when the NBA season kicks off in October. The Pelicans face a steep uphill climb to make a possible playoff run, and Davis will have to reckon with a revolving door of superstar big men on a nightly basis in a crowded Western Conference. It won’t be an easy task, but it becomes much more palatable for Davis if he’s coming off a World Cup tournament still holding his own against those names like he did Saturday.

Even if it takes Davis and the Pelicans a few years to become a playoff mainstay, the FIBA tournament that kicks off in two weeks is going to be most fans’ first taste of the future of the game. He’s coming into his own in the buildup to the FIBA World Cup. Soon, he’ll be everywhere.

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Kings sign first NBA player of Indian descent

Sim Bhullar, 7-5, joins a team owned by Indian Vivek Ranadive.



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Coach Hammon: ‘Why couldn’t I be the first?’

Becky Hammon hopes to inspire others to dream bigger in sports, she told USA TODAY Sports.



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Florida, Georgetown meet in Atlantis first round (Yahoo Sports)

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Final Four teams Florida and Wisconsin could meet in the semifinals of the fourth annual Battle 4 Atlantis.

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WATCH: James Harden throws out shaky first pitch for Astros

Earlier today, we posted an video of Milwaukee Bucks rookie Jabari Parker throwing out the first pitch at a Milwaukee Brewers game but Jabari wasn’t the only NBA notable to throw out a first pitch. Houston Rockets guard James Harden got the opportunity to throw out the first pitch of today’s Houston Astros-Detroit Tigers. Check out Harden’s first pitch that had a high release but ends up crossing the plate: Your browser does not support iframes. *** Harden image courtesy of Getty Images

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Big 3 Opting Out First Step in Rebuilding Miami Heat Super Team

Thanks to the concerted action of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Phase One of the Miami Heat‘s offseason overhaul is complete.

Per Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com:

After agreeing to all opt out of their contracts together, Miami Heat stars LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have been discussing financial terms of new contracts among each other, sources told ESPN.com.

Bosh’s agent says his client has not decided officially on whether to opt out, but sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard that the All-Star big man will indeed follow suit and choose free agency by Monday’s midnight ET deadline.

Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, top-tier free agents almost always opt out of their contracts at the first opportunity because the chance to ink long-term extensions is generally a good business move.

But this is different.

The Big Three aren’t opting out to lock in multiyear, max-level extensions. They’re opting out to take less money—at least that’s what it seems like.

Calling this development inevitable is probably a bit of an overstatement, but it was widely expected. Heat president Pat Riley had this to say on June 24, per an official team release:

I was informed this morning of his intentions. We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise. As I said at the press conference last week, players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options. 

Here’s his (prepared) reaction to the next wave of opt-outs:

Today we were notified of Dwyane’s intention to opt-out of his contract and Udonis’ intention to not opt into his contract, making both players free agents. Dwyane has been the cornerstone of our organization for over a decade … We look forward to meeting with Dwyane and Udonis and their agent in the coming days to discuss our future together.

If Riley and the Heat brass weren’t surprised, they must have been at least slightly relieved.

That’s because all these opt-outs pave the way for Miami to build yet another super team.

Practically speaking, the opt-outs had to happen. Without them, the Heat had no way to substantially improve the roster because the contracts of the Big Three alone would have pushed the Heat right up to the brink of the projected 2014-15 salary cap of $63.2 million. That would mean Miami’s options for roster improvement would be limited to veteran’s minimums and the mid-level exception.

Sound familiar?

It should. That’s essentially how the Heat have operated in recent seasons, and this past campaign proved a new approach was in order.

It’s unclear exactly how the Heat will proceed from here. Much depends on the extent of the pay cuts the team’s stars will accept. Make no mistake, though; even with relatively minor salary reductions for James, Wade and Bosh, the Heat will almost certainly have enough cash to pursue another impact player.

From there, Miami can exceed the cap to bring back whichever of its own free agents it desires. So if Ray Allen, Chris Andersen or even Rashard Lewis figure into Riley’s plans, they could return. (The Heat could renounce their rights for all of their ancillary free agents to free up as much cap space as possible, then re-sign them after inking the Big Three.) After that, the Heat can rely on the championship appeal of an improved core to attract more ring-hungry vets at a discount.

More important than the practical, necessary flexibility the Big Three’s triple opt-out allows is the unity of purpose it conveys.

NBA teams are made up of different personalities with different agendas, which makes consensus ridiculously difficult to achieve. By agreeing to walk away from millions of guaranteed dollars, theoretically committing to take much less in the short term, James, Wade and Bosh are making a decision that would seem unprecedented if they hadn’t already done it in 2010.

The fragility of the Heat’s plan is difficult to overstate.

If any one of the Big Three had refused to opt out, the scheme doesn’t work. And Wade deserves more credit for his sacrifice than either James or Bosh because for him, the $41 million he’s giving up over the next two years will be nearly impossible for him to recoup on the open market.

Miami’s grand plan is far from complete, and things could fall through at any moment.

James could wake up on July 1 and decide the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets offer him a better chance to win rings. Maybe he’ll feel that familiar tug of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe he’ll suddenly decide he wants to be part of the next Los Angeles Lakers dynasty—a legacy-building position if ever there was one.

The same is largely true for Bosh, who is still young and productive enough to potentially field a max offer from another club.

The dangers of unrestricted free agency are real, and even if there’s already some kind of pre-arranged deal between the Big Three to return to Miami, it’s hard to discount the options that have suddenly become available elsewhere.

We can’t call this process a success for the Heat until all three of their stars are back under contract—along with another impact free agent and at least three or four starter-quality veterans to complete the rotation. We’re a long way from that end point right now.

But the first step is complete.

So, in a summer everyone thought would involve player movement that could redefine the power structure in the NBA, it turns out the biggest moves might be the ones that preserve the status quo.

In a strange way, this all feels familiar.

Nobody thought the Heat could pull such a complicated, risky plan together four years ago, but they did. And in executing that plan, they created a super team that visited the Finals in every season of its existence.

Now, Miami is effecting an even bolder gambit, and to the dismay of the rest of the league, it looks like it’s going to work.


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