The Decision 2014: With options aplenty, LeBron may just end up back in South Beach

By Ben Bolch | Los Angeles Times Published:

LOS ANGELES -- Four years after LeBron James sat in a director's chair across from Jim Gray and picked the Miami Heat as a nation held its breath/stuck a finger down its throat, get ready for "The Decision: 2014!"

James presumably won't announce his intended destination on ESPN this time, having experienced roughly as many regrets about that as snubbed Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert did over his win-one-before-LeBron title guarantee.

In an ironic twist, Gilbert and James could team up again after James' agent informed the Heat on Tuesday that his client would exercise the early termination option on his contract, making him an unrestricted free agent July 1.

The Cavaliers are among a handful of teams that could potentially woo James away from Miami, though ultimately this may be much ado about bluffing. James won two championships and went to the Finals in each of his first four seasons with the Heat. That's going to be hard to top.

Sure, Miami was overmatched during a five-game Finals beatdown by the San Antonio Spurs, but James opting out and returning for less money could enable Heat President Pat Riley to make the kind of shrewd moves it will take to make it rain confetti once again inside AmericanAirlines Arena.

Here's a look at James' best options, followed by a predicted winner in what figures to be a whirlwind courtship:

1. Simply stay put

The Heat is the only team that can offer a maximum five-year, $127.7-million contract, but this was never about the money. James might be smartest if he convinces Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to also opt out and return on contracts paying them $15 million to $16 million each per year, giving the Heat enough financial leeway to significantly upgrade the margins of its roster.

Among the team's biggest needs are a new point guard (Kyle Lowry, anyone?), a legitimate center (Spencer Hawes?) and a young knockdown shooter (Jodie Meeks?). Carmelo Anthony is not the answer; his arrival would only further diminish the Heat's ability to improve in other areas.

Oh, and by the way: It's time to make Bosh the No. 2 scoring option and reduce Wade's role, perhaps to sixth man.

2. Make it sweet home, Chicago

Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah are James' kind of guys, super-talented grinders who put their team first. There's also the drawing power of Coach Tom Thibodeau, who has a MacGyver-like ability to make the most of any situation. Just imagine him with this kind of talent.

The downside is that the Bulls probably would have to jettison Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson to clear enough salary cap space for James, leaving them with questionable depth. Another worry would be Rose's knees, which have limited him to a combined 49 games over the last two seasons.

3. Hello (again), Cleveland!

James' wife, Savannah, nearly caused an Instagram implosion over the weekend when she posted a photo with the caption "Akron" and a star where the city sits on a U.S. map. "Home, sweet home!" she wrote. "The countdown is real! #330." Turns out Savannah was alluding to her summer vacation, not her husband's free-agency plans.

Still, the idea of joining forces with Kyrie Irving and the No. 1 pick in the draft (assuming the Cavaliers don't botch the selection like last year) has to be somewhat alluring. Plus there's that whole redemption thing for an Ohio native who spent the first seven seasons of his career there but never won a title.

4. Become the world's biggest booster Rocket

Houston might present James with the best core of players in James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons.

But James might be put off by Harden's defense, Howard's smiley-face personality and Parsons' prediction that James would leave Miami even before the Finals. The Rockets also have to find takers for Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, a pair of reserves owed starter's money (nearly $15 million apiece) in the final years of their contracts.

5. Take a trip to La-La Land

In 2010, the Clippers chased James in what seemed like a comical courtship. Who would have imagined that four years later the Lakers would be the L.A. laughingstock in pursuit?

The Lakers' roster is so depleted that James' arrival would form a Big Three also including Kobe Bryant and ... Robert Sacre. There's also the chance that Anthony could join James here, though those odds seem about the same as General Manager Mitch Kupchak winning Powerball and Mega Millions in the same week.

Joining the Lakers might have been a more realistic possibility for James had Bryant not sucked up $48.5 million in salary over the next two years, creating precisely the kind of top-heavy roster problems James is seeking to escape.

The Clippers have $73 million committed in salary for next season, according to salary cap expert Larry Coon, meaning they would either have to gut their roster in trades to acquire James or complete a sign-and-trade deal involving Blake Griffin. The team would be open to those possibilities but doesn't expect either to materialize.

And the winner is ... Miami. This decision will qualify as a rerun, even if it doesn't garner any Nielsen ratings.

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