By Ira Winderman Sun Sentinel
Pat Riley had to make up ground coming down the homestretch, but the Miami Heat president has secured his triple crown.
LeBron James is coming to South Florida to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on a team that is poised to jump from NBA also-ran to immediate championship contender.
“It’s a new challenge for myself,” James said. “I don’t have any doubts at all.”
In front of the national glare of ESPN’s cameras, James completed Thursday night what Wade and Bosh started Wednesday, a three-pronged partnership of All-Stars and Olympic teammates that could rival anything since the league offered Magic, Kareem and Worthy with the Lakers, and Bird, McHale and Parish with the Celtics.
“This league, you become a superstar individually, but you become a champion as a team, and I understand that,” James said.
The commitment of Wade, James and Bosh was so strong that all agreed to commit to the shared experience without being assured that they would receive their maximum allowable starting salary of $16.6 million for 2010-11.
“The numbers are not finalized,” James said. “All three of us are going to take less money, because we all wanted to play alongside each other and we feel we can be great together.”
Riley and his management staff worked through the day Thursday trying make the numbers work, while also maximizing the composition of a roster that could have as many as 11 players earning the NBA minimum salary of roughly $1 million next season.
With each, Riley secured a commitment that they would be willing to shave money off their deals in order to make the permutations work.
“I feel like it’s not a super team right now,” James said, “because the team, we don’t even have enough players to fill a roster.”
As the Heat’s own free agent, Wade is eligible for a six-year, $125 million contract. As free agents signing from outside teams, James and Bosh would be eligible for five-year, $96 million contracts. However talks were ongoing Thursday with the Toronto Raptors to try to place Bosh in a sign-and-trade deal, therefore allowing the power forward to also qualify for the $125 million over six years.
James said he took the shorter, five-year deal.
“I’m not getting a max deal,” he said. “I’m taking one less year and I’m getting a lot less being in Miami.”
Concerns about winning, not money, fueled James’ decision, as the forward prepares to play the first time in his seven-year NBA career with a team other than one that neighbors his hometown of Akron, Ohio.
He said he embraces the opportunity to be alongside Wade.
“The way we play on both ends of the court will not change,” James said. “We’ll just be united now. And that’s the same thing with Chris, also. We’re just going to raise each’s intensity up.”
James scoffed at the notion that such stars can’t co-exist.
“There’s no personal agenda,” he said. “We could have stayed where we were. This has nothing to do with being an individual.
“The friendship has been there from Day One.”
In leaving the Cavaliers, James dramatically altered the league’s power structure, with the Heat instantly vaulted into the Eastern Conference upper echelon, along with the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic.
While the free-agent negotiating period opened July 1, Thursday was the first day players could sign contracts. For the Heat, the signatures will wait.
So, too, will ticket sales, with the Heat having sold out all but its single-game 2010-11 allotment Thursday, hours prior to James’ announcement.
For Riley, Thursday was the latest step in building a management resume that rivals his coaching resume. Among others Riley has lured during his 15-year stewardship as team president were Alonzo Mourning, Eddie Jones and Shaquille O’Neal.
“He understands what it takes to be a championship team, the DNA of a championship team,” James said.
While Riley was a championship coach, a return to the bench is not impending, with Wade saying Wednesday he expects second-year coach Erik Spoelstra to continue to guide the team. James said he, too, welcomes Spoelstra as coach.
The Heat has recorded No. 5 Eastern Conference playoff seeds in each of the past two seasons. For James, though, the expectations are much greater, having failed to advance to the NBA Finals in either of the past two seasons despite his Cavaliers posting the league’s best regular-season record in each.
ESPN reported early Thursday morning that the Heat had emerged as the favorite to sign James.
The network later reduced the tone of that conviction, but continued to list the Heat as the front-runner right up until James’ announcement.
The Heat emphatically denied a report that it sent a team plane Wednesday to James and denied that James had met Wednesday night or early Thursday with Heat officials. The team also denied that Heat owner Micky Arison had reserved a restaurant for Thursday night in Greenwich, Conn., where James made his announcement.
Riley and Arison watched the announcement at AmericanAirlines Arena.
By midday Thursday, it was a story that continually took odd twists. US Magazine.com reported that James had rented six cabanas at the W Hotel South Beach this weekend to celebrate his decision, as well as 25 rooms. The hotel also is being utilized by Bosh, drawing a large media gathering Thursday.
James also had been linked to a significant real-estate purchase in South Florida.
The Heat, Cavaliers, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls all entered Thursday considered prime contenders for James’ services.
Thursday morning, though, the league’s attention turned to South Florida.
“I spoke with Miami early this week and they had no idea at that time what was going on,” a player agent said. “They weren’t even sure about D-Wade yet.”
James met with six teams, including the Heat, last week in Cleveland, with interviews also granted to the Cavaliers, Bulls, Knicks, New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Clippers.