Miami Heat players, from left, Shane Battier, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James sit on the bench in the final minutes of Sunday's loss to the Spurs. (Reuters)
Four lopsided defeats in the NBA Finals raised questions for the Heat, but all is not lost in Miami. At least, not yet.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James went to four Finals and went 2-2 since their union in 2010. Two rings and 377 total wins later, the Heat enter the 2014 offseason not knowing if there will be another act.
James, 29, can opt out of the final year of his contract to reach free agency before his 30th birthday. Sidekicks Chris Bosh (30) and Dwyane Wade (32) can choose free agency or collude to set up their contracts in such a way that the Big Three remain as the best in show in the Eastern Conference.
If those stars opt out, only backup point guard Norris Cole is under contract for 2014-15.
If they do return, there's no telling what the supporting cast will look like in Miami.
Ray Allen completed his 18th season without much of a finishing kick and is considering retirement. Shane Battier already confirmed he is bowing out for broadcasting. Forward Chris Andersen will reportedly opt out of his deal and Udonis Haslem can do the same. Forward Rashard Lewis is a free agent.
No matter which way the contract business bounces, there are big questions to answer for president Pat Riley and the Miami Heat:
1. Is LeBron leaving?
Riley might need cardiac monitoring until this contract is resolved. James is owed $20.56 million next season and must inform Riley of his intentions by June 30. If he opts out, and entertains free agent offers, he proved willing with "The Decision" in 2010 to pack up for greener pastures. James was the lone bright spot for most of the NBA Finals and Spoelstra went out of his way to point that out. Luring another star to South Beach is not outside the realm of possibility, but to field a competitive lineup and deeper rotation, James could decide to return only if Miami can align him with a more complete team. That could mean saying goodbye to Bosh and/or Wade, or all three players taking far less than maximum salary to chase a third NBA title together.
2. Will Bosh remain cornerstone into his 30s?
Bosh's game is underrated in that he brings versatility to a lineup on both ends of the floor and with that flexibility to Spoelstra in scheming in-game and Riley constructing the next iteration of the Miami Heat. More than any other, Bosh talks as if he has no intention to walk away from Miami. He could agree, again, to accept a contract that pays him closer to $15 million annually than $20 million in exchange for a longer commitment in a new deal. As discussed above, Arison might not be averse to entering buyout territory with Wade or Bosh to keep the marketing and media cachet of the Big Three around. If Bosh, who turns 31 before the 2015 postseason, gets a five-year deal, it's doubtful he will play at his current level for more than two seasons.
3. Will the Heat pay to take another ride?
Owner Micky Arison gave a "100 percent" response when asked recently to gauge the likelihood of Miami retaining James, Bosh and Wade. How he gets there takes more than a cap calculator and creativity. Arison is at peace with losing money again, but how far is he willing to go into the red? Just by keeping the trio at their current deals -- meaning, if they don't opt out -- the Heat will have a payroll of nearly $65 million. The 2013-14 luxury tax threshold was $71.7 million. Next season it might rise to only $77 million. The Heat's 2013-14 payroll was $83.51 million. As luxury tax repeat violators, Arison would be paying a minimum of $2.50 for each $1 spent. Under those guidelines, with another $84 million payroll, signing Ray Allen to a $5 million deal would actually cost $15.5 million in cash.
4. Can Dwyane Wade still be Flash, even in brief bursts?
Wade was heavily criticized following a Finals series in which he was detrimental defensively against series MVP Kawhi Leonard and was unable to score consistently. He is owed $41 million over the next two seasons and given his declining skills, another megadeal is unlikely. Wade is surely approaching his final deal, and he'd be making a serious personal and financial sacrifice by opting out of the remainder of that deal. If he comes back, the Heat need to be comfortable with Wade's role. His knees require in-season preservation and a sixth man niche might be ideal. Against the Pacers, Wade nearly averaged 20 points per game but the inconsistency -- and steep fall-off in the Finals -- threatens to sap Miami of cash and cohesiveness. Spending on Wade, though, won't be Miami's choice just yet. And if Wade doesn't opt out, building quality depth will be another hurdle in 2014-15.
5. What to do at point guard?
Norris Cole might have a contract, but he is not built to defend most point guards for extended minutes. He's a bench-burst role player. Mario Chalmers is an unrestricted free agent. He lost more than his confidence and might have played his way out of a job and any middling offer from the Heat with his resounding dud in the NBA Finals. Chalmers was benched for Sunday's deciding Game 5 and said following the game he is willing to come back but is not sure it's even an option. In the deciding game, LeBron James was left to run the show -- something he is certainly capable of -- but Miami didn't have the shooters to dent the Spurs' defense when San Antonio collapsed on James in the lane. A tempo-setter who can break down a defense and score when James is on the bench is a must, and likely Priority 1 beyond the Big Three.