This upcoming NBA offseason could be even more fascinating than the one that landed the Big 3 in South Beach four years ago. There's literally dozens of Heat-centric offseason questions, and Miami's key figures will drive the decision-making league-wide.
Will the Heat's Big 3 act in unison, opting out (or in) their contracts simultaneously? Will Dwyane Wade try to secure a max deal this offseason from the Heat before his health declines further...and would that decision prompt LeBron James to opt IN to the final two years of his deal, wait until Kobe Bryant retires in LA, and join his offseason training partner Kevin Durant on the Lakers when both men can sign max-level, $100M four year deals in the summer of 2016 (and create a new title contender together along with the Lakers 2014 and 2015 lottery picks)?
LeBron is the only member of the big 3 who can confidently know a max contract awaits him anytime he opts out - whether now, next year, or two years from now. If he doesn't like any of the non-Heat options this summer, he doesn't have to re-up with the Heat and Wade for FIVE years - he can simply push his next his next decision a year or two down the road, seeing if Wade ever gets healthy, and if the Lakers shore up their cap situation enough and hit on their draft picks to be attractive title contenders for an elite free agent.
I think it has the potential to be an ugly situation. The reality is that the Big 3 all feel they deserve max-level deals, but Micky Arison has shown there are limits to his spending - amnestying Mike Miller instead of Joel Anthony, giving away a draft pick to trade away Anthony's contract, not using the mid-level exception this year - and if these decisions are an indicator of the future, Arison probably isn't willing to field a Brooklyn Nets-style $100M payroll team featuring three guys making a combined $65-70M, Mario Chalmers on a $6-7M deal, Haslem and Miller's last amnestied year under contract, Norris Cole's eventual extension AND 4-5 guys making the league minimum. He'd be paying lux tax through the nose for the next five years as the big 3 continually earned raises over the life of the deal. And again, you'd have to predict he's not willing to do that, because of the aforementioned cost-cutting moves already mentioned.
Not only would that team be the most expensive in the league, but it wouldn't be the favorite. The whole core would be aging, with their best basketball behind them, and no opportunities to improve (as a super-tax paying team, they'd have no full mid-level exception, and their draft picks would always be 29th-30th).
I think the one way to potentially sidestep that gigantic headache and all those myriad questions for the next several years would be for Bosh, Wade, and LeBron to make an even bigger financial sacrifice than they made four years ago, creating a Big 4.
If LeBron, Wade, Bosh, and Carmelo each got together with Riley and Arison and said, 'There's $56M available for the four of you to divide equally. It's a huge sacrifice financially*, because you'll start at $14M per year instead of the $21M+ you could command, but this is a great place to live, no state income tax, you can help recruit the rest of your league-minimum teammates, and you will continue to win titles together. And you probably can't get past the Thunder or Pacers anymore without each other.'
**(although, it might not be as big a financial sacrifice as it seems...Carmelo, LeBron, and Wade are three of the top 10 earning celebrity endorsers, and winning multiple titles opens up earning potential well beyond retirement too - see Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jordan, and Bill Russell as examples of guys who have made millions post-retirement in part because of their reputations as champions).
If they could make that happen, they'd renounce their cap hold on Chalmers, use the stretch provision on Haslem or convince him to opt out an re-sign him to a four-year, league-minimum veteran deal, and enter the season with the Big Four, Norris Cole, Birdman, this year's first-round pick (which would probably have to a backup PG, with NoCo entering the lineup in Chalmers' place), Ray Allen and Richard Jefferson on league minimum veteran deals, and maybe even Greg Oden and Michael Beasley. And of course Battier if he changed his mind, also at league minimum.
That team would once again be poised to contend for multiple championships, even during Wade's decline phase. With everyone once again fitting under the salary cap in the first year, they'd be able to absorb each star's annual salary increases without hitting the lux tax for two years, meaning they could avoid the repeater tax throughout this new four year, Big 4 phase.
My hunch is that this scenario is the only way the Heat can continue the championship level, free agent Superteam concept going forward beyond this season. There would be more options available to them (like simply giving the Big 3 max deals this summer) if Arison had proven that he'll pay unlimited sums of luxury tax to win it all. But the evidence is that Arison does indeed have a controlled budget, and thus the only way for the Heat to improve what they have is for the Big 3 to opt out, take a huge pay cut, and add another star willing to sacrifice financially to finally win a title.
To really put them over the top, the Heat would then HAVE to sign Darko Milicic to a league minimum contract as their 13th man just to be able to occasionally put all the top 5 picks from the greatest draft class in a generation on the floor together at the same time...and to show the world just how favorably Darko compares to those elite peers.