Basketball / Sports

First domino falls: LeBron headed to NBA free agency

MIAMI -- The first domino of a complex Miami Heat offseason has fallen.

Now the question is how the rest of the Heat's summer will fall into place.

A source close to LeBron James confirmed Tuesday to the Sun Sentinel that the forward has informed the Heat he has opted out of the final two years on the free-agent contract he signed with the team in July 2010.

The source said agent Rich Paul had contacted the Heat with the formal decision to exercise the early-termination option on James' contract. James had two seasons left on his contract, at $20.6 million for 2014-15 and $22.1 million for 2015-16.

Later Tuesday, Heat President Pat Riley issued a statement that read, "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."

James had a June 30 deadline for his decision, as do teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who hold similar early-termination clauses in the contracts they, too, signed with the Heat in the 2010 offseason.

Wade and Bosh are now expected to follow James' lead, moves that could make it easier for Riley to rework a roster that has advanced to the past four NBA Finals, winning championships in 2012 and '13.

Neither Bosh, Wade nor Udonis Haslem, who share common representation, have yet to inform the Heat of their opt-our decisions.

By opting out, James is now eligible for a five-year, $115 million contract from the Heat, or a four-year, $86 million from an outside team. Any new deal, however, is expected to have similar early-termination clauses to the one he had in his Heat contract.

James, Wade and Bosh were represented by the same agency when the three signed with the Heat in 2010, with James since moving to an agency headed by long-time friend Paul.

James now becomes a free agent on July 1, with Wade and Bosh also expected to become free agents that day, as well. While the free-agency negotiating period opens July 1, free agents cannot sign until July 10, when the offseason personnel moratorium ends.

Just last week, Riley implored his impending free agents to remain with the team and work their way back to championship heights after falling 4-1 to San Antonio in the just-completed NBA Finals.

Had all three of the team's stars remained locked into their contracts, the Heat would have had limited flexibility this offseason, likely to return with a similar roster.

With James next to play under a new contract, it could afford the Heat the opportunity to become major players on the free-agent market, depending on whether James, Wade and Bosh agree to lower 2014-15 salaries, potentially in exchange for additional years on their contracts beyond the two they had in place at season's end.

James hinted at his decision in the wake of losing the Finals to the Spurs.

"Being able to have flexibility as a professional, that's what we all would like," he said last week. "I understand what this team, this franchise, brings to the table."

As was the case in 2010, when he left the Cavaliers, James is expected to receive pitches from multiple suitors, with the Rockets, Bulls, Clippers, Lakers and Cavaliers among teams linked to interest.

By James making his announcement in advance of Thursday's NBA Draft, it will afford potential suitors, including the Heat, the opportunity to restructure their rosters in advance of James' decision period. The Cavaliers hold the No. 1 overall pick, having been linked to several veterans in exchange for that selection. James spends his offseasons not far from Cleveland, at his home in Bath Township in Ohio.

James just completed a Bahamas vacation with 2013-14 Heat teammates James Jones and Ray Allen, expected to shortly meet with his star teammates, as well as Riley. Allen is expected to return if James returns.

"We've earned that from each other, to have a conversation and see what could happen," James said of meeting with Wade and Bosh to discuss their plans going forward. "For me, I just want to win, and that's all that matters to me."

James now also could wind up recruiting other free agents to the Heat, with players generally allowed to contact other impending free agents in advance of the July 1 date when team executives can get involved.

Forward Carmelo Anthony, who on Monday formalized his plans to become a free agent this summer, has been linked to the Heat in recent weeks, an approach that would require substantial salary givebacks from James, Wade and Bosh, as well as salary concessions from Anthony.

With James opting out, it could position the Heat to become a team operating with salary-cap space for the first time since the 2010 offseason. Such an approach also could alleviate the Heat and owner Micky Arison from an onerous luxury-tax burden.

(c)2014 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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