SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James was the best player on the floor in Game 5 of the Finals, and opened it with a blistering 17-point, six-rebound first quarter that briefly delayed what would become the inevitable — another blowout victory for the Spurs on the way to becoming the NBA champions.
“LeBron James is a great player,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said afterward. “He’s a great competitor. He’s a class act. And I know he’s feeling what we felt last year, and I don’t wish that on anybody. It’s tough. Most people never even have that feeling. Either the feeling of elation or the depression that goes with a loss. But he hangs it out there, and he’s still the best player on the planet.”
Being the best has its privileges — like getting to choose virtually anywhere in the league you want to play, for the maximum salary figure allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.
The Heat were dismantled thoroughly in this series, and very soon, there is at least the possibility that they may be taken apart quite literally.
James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all able to opt out of the final years of their deals to become unrestricted free agents this summer, thereby concluding what has been a glory-filled journey together to four straight appearances in the NBA Finals.
But still stinging from a loss in the championship round after taking home titles in each of the last two seasons, LeBron wasn’t willing to even begin to consider that option.
“I haven’t even really thought about that just yet,” James said. “Not disappointed in any of my teammates, just wish we could have came through, played a better series, but obviously we ran up against a better team this year. Like I said, I haven’t even thought about it yet.”
With a player of his stature potentially changing the face of the league by choosing free agency, the questions kept coming — even though LeBron wasn’t going to answer them.
“I’m not even nowhere near at that point,” he said, when asked if the team had enough to come back and win as currently constructed. “You know, we went to four straight Finals in four years. We’re not discrediting what we were able to accomplish in these four years. We lost one, we won two, and we lost another one. I’ll take 50 percent in four years in championships any day. Obviously, you want to win all of them, but that’s just the nature of the game. You win some; you lose some. You’ve just got to come back the next year and be better as an individual, as a team, and go from there. But I know me and D. Wade and C.B., not proud of the way we played. All three of us, that’s the last thing we’re thinking about is what’s going on this summer.”
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra echoed the sentiment of appreciating what was accomplished, even on a night where it would seem extremely difficult to do so.
“Even as painful as it feels right now, you have to have perspective,” Spoelstra said. “Even the team we’re playing against has never been to the Finals four straight years. You can’t be jaded enough not to appreciate that.”
Wade, perhaps more than James or Bosh, has the most intriguing choice. He looked physically like a shell of himself in these last two games, which could affect his value when it’s time to talk contract this summer. He reflected on the group’s journey, however, and similarly was able to talk up its relative success.
“I mean, we didn’t know what to expect when we decided to become teammates years ago,” Wade said. “We just knew that we felt as individuals that we could do it, that we could put our egos to the side and not care about the individual part of the game and become a great team and become two leaders of that team.”
“It’s been a hell of a ride in these four years,” he continued. “And when we decided to play together, we didn’t say, okay, let’s try for four years. We said let’s just play together and let’s see what happens.”
Those four years have now come to an end, and it’s decision time for everyone once again.
The odds are that James stays in Miami — he’ll opt out of the final year of his deal, and re-up with the team on a brand new one for five years on a max contract this summer. The stability of the Heat front office is the primary reason, and it’s what gives the team an advantage that is unmatched anywhere in the league, except (somewhat ironically) by these same Spurs that are the newly-crowned champs.
Pat Riley is as respected a team president as there is, and has a long-term track record of proven, sustained success. Spoelstra has emerged as one of the game’s top coaches, and his competency has him locked in at that position, further solidifying the Heat’s team vision — one that makes them the heavy favorites to retain LeBron’s services.
Once James commits, Wade and Bosh are likely to, as well. The years and dollars on those deals will be beyond interesting, because more than one if not all three will need to sign for less than the max in order to leave the team in a position to make the necessary upgrades to the roster.
But none of that has to be sorted out until July 1. And LeBron certainly wasn’t willing to get into it Sunday night.
“I will deal with my summer when I get to that point,” James said. “Me and my team will sit down and deal with it. I love Miami. My family loves it. But obviously right now, that’s not even what I’m thinking about.
“You guys are trying to find answers, but I’m not going to give you one,” he said. “I’m just not going to give it to you. I’ll deal with it when it gets to that point.”