James, Wade and Bosh all have the option to become free agents this summer and all have different situations. Wade, who just turned 32, has battled knee issues over the past few years. He would not be able to command the same $42 million he's owed through 2016 in a new contract. The Heat, however, will likely ask him to opt out so they can perhaps extend and restructure his contract to help manage the rest of the team.
Bosh, 29, is having a strong season. He will likely be able to get a maximum contract offer elsewhere if he opts out -- the Lakers and his hometown Dallas Mavericks being two obvious options -- and the Heat will probably have to re-recruit him if they want him to take less money again.
The Heat are facing the reality of being the first team in history to have to pay what is known as the repeater tax, an added penalty for being a luxury tax team four out of five years. To put this in perspective, this season the Heat are about $10 million over the tax line and paying about $15.5 million in taxes. If they are at the same area next year, they would pay about $26 million in taxes alone.
If Bosh, Wade and James all decline to accept pay cuts, the three of them will alone account for $61 million. If James and Bosh request pay increases, they can each make about $21 million, which is where you can see how the Heat would be greatly helped if Wade was willing to redo his deal and accept a pay cut. James, Wade and Bosh have worked well together and all seem content. But it is hard to predict how they will feel by the summer. If all three want to maximize their earnings, the Heat will be in a challenging position both in terms of money and flexibility in the coming seasons.
The Heat and general manager/cap specialist Andy Elisburg have handled the cap masterfully in the past but have needed the cooperation of players. Wade has already cautioned, though, not to expect history to repeat.
"There are different times and different mindsets that you deal with. That was 2010," Wade said earlier this season. "I'm not saying that LeBron James or Chris Bosh, if they get the opportunity again, are going to leave $17 million on the table [as they did in 2010]. No one can say they should do that. You have to do what is best for you."
These uncertainties plus an aging roster -- Shane Battier is likely to retire at season's end and Ray Allen's contract is also up -- are why rival teams have prepared plans in the event that an opportunity arises.
The James contingency has been examined by the Clippers, sources told ESPN. The Heat, one of the most thorough and thoughtful organizations in the league, are quite aware the Clippers could end up being a competitor if James elects to opt out. Perhaps the most serious competitor of all.
Primarily this is because of James' relationships with Paul and Rivers. Paul is one of James' best friends and the two have talked about playing with each other since they were in high school, when they met on the AAU and prep All-Star circuits. Paul is godfather to James' son Bryce and they were in each other's weddings.
In a classic "what if" moment in recent history, James urged the Cavs to attempt to draft Paul in 2005 but the team didn't have a first-round pick that season. Cleveland's attempts to trade into the draft were unsuccessful. The two stars later won gold medals playing together in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics for Team USA.