The smart money is still on the Miami Heat.
Because of Heat President Pat Riley and his one-of-a-kind track record. Because of these past four seasons with LeBron James and the Heat and what he learned about the championship-or-bust mentality. Because the pressure builds yet again if he leaves town for the second time in five summers, the need for more titles in his new locale even greater to combat the flight-over-fight criticism that would surely come his way.
OPT-OUT: What's next for LeBron?
MIAMI WINS: This is good for Heat
But with James informing the Heat that he would opt out of his contract, leaving is an option again just as it was in that infamous summer of 2010. And that, make no mistake, is enough to whet the appetites of every team in the league.
From Houston to Los Angeles to Chicago, Cleveland, New York and so many spots in between, they're all underdogs at the moment. This is a mystery to them as it is to us, largely because no one can know with total certainty where James' head is at as this process unofficially begins. But there are factors that he will weigh that couldn't be clearer, elements of The Decision, Part II that will most certainly play a part in the outcome.
Here is a look at a few of the questions that must be answered before we can more accurately predict where James winds up:
How badly does he want to play with Carmelo Anthony?
As USA TODAY Sports first reported on June 10, James has a desire to play with his friend and fellow member of the 2003 draft. Anthony, who has already informed the Knicks that he will also be opting out of his contract, has never been a free agent before and could join forces with James to make up two of a new Big 3 somewhere outside of Miami. The Los Angeles Lakers have been eyeing this scenario for quite some time and even took their time in their still-ongoing coaching search as a way of leaving every option open come free agency time.
If James wants to go for the high-scale rebuild, he'll head for Los Angeles with Anthony to help Kobe Bryant put the storied franchise back on its feet. The Lakers could execute a pre-emptive strike, too, perhaps trading their No. 7 pick and point guard Steve Nash (one year left on his deal at $9.7 million) for a quality player before Thursday night's draft and thus sending a message that they're serious about this pitch. If Nash were off the books for next season, then Bryant's $23.5 million salary would make up almost all of the Lakers' wide-open payroll.
James and Anthony could meet in Miami, too, but that route would require the sort of financial sacrifices never before seen among NBA stars. That would include Heat stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who would also need to opt out and agree to make significantly less to create a Big 4.
GALLERY: Top 25 potential free agents
How much does James value the blank-check approach?
It's no secret by now that James was not a fan of the Heat's decisions to use the amnesty provision on guard Mike Miller last summer and trade big man Joel Anthony in January. For right or for wrong, they were seen as the kind of cost-cutting moves that may have ultimately compromised the Heat's ability to three-peat.
The ripple effect happens now, as teams that are hopeful of attracting James' attention will now make the blank-check component part of their pitch. That goes for the Lakers, who stubbornly refused to trade forward Pau Gasol in February for a second-round pick, in part, because it would have sent the damning message to players like James that they had become a cheap organization.
That goes for the Houston Rockets, who have a deep-pocketed owner in Les Alexander and a roster that won 54 regular season games without James. The Rockets would need to trade point guard Jeremy Lin and center Omer Asik to create enough salary cap room to sign James, but they are known to be confident that they can do so. And because James is still widely seen as the best player in the game, of course, there will plenty of blank-check pitches in addition to those as well.
GALLERY: LeBron James through the years
What does James think of Riley's latest pitch?
Rival general managers who can't woo free agents until July 1 are having to read the tea leaves just like everyone else for now, and it's safe to assume it got their attention when Riley challenged James in those days following the Finals loss.
"This stuff is hard," Riley said in regards to the uncertain futures of his Big Three, "and you got to stay together, if you've got the guts. And you don't find the first door and run out of it."
At 29 years old and with 11 seasons of NBA experience behind him, James may well understand the wisdom behind Riley's words and agree that making it work in Miami is the way to go. Or, as some who are wishing he'd come their way have surmised, he could perhaps see it as some sort of slight regarding the way he left Cleveland four summers ago.
This much is clear: with the Heat's average age surpassing even that of the Spurs last season, Riley will need to convince James that the support system that wasn't there at the end with be there in the form of quality role players next season.
GALLERY: Top shots from the NBA Finals
Does James care about location?
If James was looking merely for a new challenge that just so happens to involve lots of sunshine, he could head for Phoenix. The Suns have the salary cap space and the sort of roster (48-34 last season) that could certainly be title-contender-worthy if James was in town. What's more, he shares agents with the point guard who the Suns are hoping to lock up for the long term this summer, Eric Bledsoe.
The Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers similarly have the West Coast's version of South Beach to brag about, whereas a return to his home state (the Cleveland Cavaliers) or Chicago Bulls would only be possible if he's willing to head for the country's chillier regions again.