1866 260 9 LINKEDIN 49 COMMENTMORE

LeBron James opting out of his contract doesn't mean he will leave the Miami Heat. It just means that he, like Carmelo Anthony, will explore options in free agency.

On Thursday, Riley urged Heat players to "stay together, if you've got the guts." Fair enough, Riley is savvy and knew what he was doing.

But James countered by deciding on free agency and in essence told Riley: "Show me how you are going to make the Heat a better team."

FREE AGENCY: LeBron's 7 best options

OLD CONTRACT: Was it worst in sports?

Riley said he saw this coming.

"We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise," he said in a statement. "As I said at the press conference last week, players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options."

Yes this is about James, a four-time MVP, exploring options – which is perfectly acceptable – it's also about addressing the Heat's shortcomings, which were exposed in San Antonio's five-game series victory against Miami the NBA Finals.

The four-time MVP and 10-time All-Star has two championships with the Heat, but Miami was exposed as a team without enough depth and talent in a five-game series against the San Antonio Spurs in this year's Finals.

By becoming a free agent, James also sent a message to Miami's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. If the Heat want to improve, Wade and Bosh need to become free agents so the Heat have financial flexibility to make meaningful roster additions.

How can the Heat become better at point guard? How can Miami replicate what Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Mike Miller did for the Heat two and three years ago? Those are questions Riley needs to answer for James.

James' goal – as he has told USA TODAY Sports – is to win championships, and free agency gives him a chance to see what team can offer him the best chance.James has not set up any meetings with teams but is expected to do so once teams can begin talking to free agents on July 1.

Miami remains a top option, as long as Wade and Bosh return, which is expected. James loves the city, teammates, front-office stability and the family-like atmosphere Heat owner Micky Arison has created, and his wife, Savannah, opened a juice bar in Miami during the 2013-14 season.

GALLERY: LeBron through the years

Autoplay
Show Thumbnails
Show Captions

But there are other teams who could be in interested in James, including the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Cavaliers. It would take front-office creativity for some teams, such as the Clippers and Rockets, to land James.

Sunday, James' wife Savannah posted a photo on Instagram with word "Akron" and a star where the city is located on a map of the United States. She wrote, "Home sweet home! The countdown is real! #330." It prompted rash speculation that James might be headed back to Cleveland. But USA TODAY Sports was told not to read anything into that post and that it was Savannah expressing her excitement about returning home for the summer.

If James were to leave Miami, he risks becoming known as the player – in the short term – who jumps from team to team in search of a championship.

But if James were to win a championship with another team, time has a way of easing hard feelings.

"The last four seasons have been historic and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Erik Spoelstra have led the Miami Heat to one of the most unprecedented runs in the history of the NBA," Riley also said in the statement. "We look forward to sitting down with LeBron and his representatives and talking about our future together. At the moment, we are preparing for the opportunities in the Draft and Free Agency as we continue with our goal of winning NBA Championships."

VIDEO: Why LeBron should return to Cleveland

Eddie Johnson breaks down the reasons LeBron James should go back to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

1866 260 9 LINKEDIN 49 COMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://usat.ly/1v1E981