Win or lose, the sun is setting on the Heat's run as LeBron's free agency looms

When Dwyane Wade and Pat Riley lured LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami three summers ago, LeBron famously yelled to the crowd at the welcome party that the Heat would win, "not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven.." championships before their time together ended.

After an up-and-down first season together that ended in a Finals loss to Dallas, James comments became a running joke. Fans and media alike ripped on LeBron and company for seemingly believing that they could simply join forces in Miami and immediately become a dynasty. Despite never having played a game together, other teams would merely wilt at the sight of James, Wade and Bosh together on the court.

The criticism remained as strong as ever right through Game 5 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, when Paul Pierce and the aging Celtics sunk Miami on their home court to take a 3-2 series lead. Many folks questioned whether the mix was working. Whether LeBron had the killer instinct, whether Wade and Bosh were being fully utilized, and whether the supporting cast was good enough. The pressure hit it's crescendo, and it looked as though the "dynasty" would end before it ever even began.

Of course, we all know what happened next. James, one of the most talented basketball players of all time, went off. He destroyed the Celtics in Game 6, putting up 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists, and the Heat didn't look back over the next 6 games. They finished off Boston in a hard fought Game 7, and then walloped the Thunder in five games in the Finals. The Heat were the champions, and after a 66-16 regular season this season, James famous cry appeared to be rounding into form.

But then something happened. The cracks began to show. Wade, now 31 and finishing his 10th NBA season began to suffer again from a sore knee. Chris Bosh, still only 29, has regressed mightily in these playoffs, averaging just 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. Wade looks injured, Bosh looks lost.

And Miami is starting to look mortal, and worse yet for LeBron, familiar.
LeBron has got to be getting flashbacks to his Cleveland days

Throughout the Heat's series with Indiana I have been unable to shake the deja vu feeling I've been getting while watching LeBron do seemingly everything for his team. The 2007-2011 Cavaliers have been reincarnated on South Beach, with James, now universally regarded as the league's best player running himself ragged while an underwhelming supporting cast tried to help just enough to push the Heat to victory.

As we saw in 2007, LeBron can power his way to the Finals in this fashion. And with his own improved game, and the still immense (although currently hidden) talents of Wade and Bosh, Miami is still a very realistic bet to win it all.

However, Miami's window is closing, and it is closing fast.

James, Wade and Bosh are all under contract for one more season guaranteed, but all have the ability to opt-out of their current deals next summer. For Bosh and Wade, it may be a tough call. They would each be forfeiting about $42 million in guaranteed money over 2 seasons, a number they will not approach on the open market. However they could decide to take a four or five year deal at less annual salary, and finish their career's in Miami.

For James, it's quite a bit different. He will be 29 years old next year and will assuredly opt-out and cash in on a max deal. The question then becomes, where?

For Heat fans this has got to be a terrifying notion, but there will be teams out there that can offer James a far better chance at kick-starting the next NBA dynasty than Miami can. After all, if James re-ups with the Heat next summer, he will be locking his remaining prime seasons into a partnership with a then 32 year old Dwyane Wade and 30 year old Chris Bosh. By the time the trio play their first playoffs together under their new deals, Wade will be 33, and Bosh 31. Considering how shaky the duo has looked in 2013, LeBron cannot be thrilled about how they will look from 2015-2020.

Potential James destinations are nearly endless, and difficult to speculate this far out, but you just know that Cleveland and their stable of young guns will make a run. The Lakers somehow will shed nearly all of their salary between now and next summer and figure to be in on James as well. There is also the Texas tandem of Houston and Dallas, and if the Bulls decide to amnesty Carlos Boozer next year they will be about $20 million under the cap.

If you are LeBron, who would you rather spend your age 29-34 seasons with; Bosh and Wade, or Rose and Noah? How about Harden and Dwight Howard (this would require Houston signing Howard this summer and then trading Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to teams under the cap)?

As crazy as it may have seemed even just a few weeks ago, if LeBron wants to take his best chance at multiple titles, Miami will not be his first choice come 2014.

Of course, Miami still employs Pat Riley, so do not expect them to go quietly into that good night. They could amnesty either Wade or Bosh to try and bring in a new star, but that alone still is not enough. With $76 million in salaries on the books for the 2014-15 season already, the Heat would need to find a way to shed both Wade and Bosh (at least one by trade) without bringing in any additional salaries in order to make a run at a younger running mate for LeBron. As shrewd as Riley is, this is incredibly unlikely.

So Heat haters, rejoice. The Heat may win tonight, they may beat the Spurs, and hell, they may win it again next year. LeBron is that good. But come 13 months from now, barring something unforeseen, LeBron is taking his talents away from South Beach.

And they will have won not seven, not six, not five, not four..

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