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MIAMI — The latest twist on the Miami Heat’s free-agency approach isn’t much of a twist at all: LeBron James wants to be paid like LeBron James.
Reports by Yahoo and ESPN confirmed that James is seeking a contract starting point over $20 million for next season. The approach comes as a surprise neither to the Heat nor to fellow Heat free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who have agreed to return at considerably less.
Based on the approaches of James, Wade and Bosh, who all opted out of the remaining two seasons on their Heat contracts in the past week, the Heat will have a clear salary hierarchy next season should all three return, as expected, led by James, followed by Bosh and then Wade.
The three had almost identical salaries the past four seasons, after they signed to play together with the Heat in July 2010.
James, Bosh and Wade met last week, with NBA free agency opening Tuesday. Veterans cannot sign until the July 10 end of the off-season signing moratorium.
The approach by James, who can receive upwards of a $20 million starting salary next season under collective-bargaining rules, still would leave the Heat in position to sign either a single higher-end free agent this off-season or allow the team to add players through a variety of salary-cap exceptions totaling more than $10 million.
James is eligible for a Heat contract for up to five years, limited to a four-year deal should he sign with an outside team. However, James has maintained flexibility with the lengths of his previous contracts and is expected to have similar flexibility in any new deal.
The Heat spent the weekend sorting out free-agency approaches, with Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry expected to be among the initial outside targets.
Competition for several potential Heat targets figures to be intense, with the Washington Wizards already moving to re-sign Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat; Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol already with interviews in place with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors and Chicago Bulls; and New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony with an interview itinerary that does not include the Heat.
While Heat President Pat Riley has downplayed adding another star, he acknowledged he had similar thoughts at the start of 2010 free agency, when he landed James, Wade and Bosh.
“That’s a pipe dream,” he said recently when queried about Anthony and others. “But everybody thought 2010 was a pipe dream, too. I don’t harbor that thought. That’s not where we are headed. That’s not what we’re thinking about.”
Based on James’ salary decision, it likely is not a direction the Heat can navigate.
After his team fell in the NBA Finals to the San Antonio Spurs, Riley said he embraced this challenge ahead.
“I’ve been a leader and a decision-maker,” he said. “That’s my level of expertise. I’ll do everything in my power to retool this team.”
His players appear to have similar confidence, with James, Bosh and Wade yet to reveal plans for free-agency interviews with other teams.