FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The calendar says 2012. The upcoming schedule says 2012-13. So why, now, this summer, is there such a focus on the Summer of '14?
Because of the Orlando Magic.
And the Los Angeles Lakers.
And because of the Miami Heat.
The NBA long has been about seminal summers. In 2010, it was the free-agency free-for-all of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, Carlos Boozer and Mitchell native Mike Miller. This summer, it was the culmination of the United States' climb back to definitive Olympic dominance.
And 2014? That's when the Magic can attempt to return to relevance, when the Lakers can re-affirm enduring relevance, and when the Heat's trio of stars faces the first contract decision of their combined South Florida tenure.
Start with the Magic, where everything seemingly will restart with 2014, when they could have enough salary-cap space, in the wake of their dump of Dwight Howard, to sign a pair of top-tier free agents.
Granted, it's not the blueprint laid out by new General Manager Rob Hennigan, but if the Magic don't net the type of top-of-the-lottery picks Hennigan's previous employer, the Oklahoma City Thunder, netted, then cap-space-gone-wild could prove an efficient Plan B.
Orlando actually could squeeze in a top-tier free agent next summer and forgo a 2014 chase, but a middling 2013 free-agency class beyond Chris Paul, one highlighted by James Harden, Josh Smith and Paul Millsap, hardly warrants such expenditure from a team in extended-recovery mode. (And forget potential 2013 free agents Andrew Bynum and Andre Iguodala, players the Magic already bypassed in the Howard trade.)
Then there are the Lakers, who reinvented themselves this summer with the acquisition of Howard and stand poised to do the same in 2014, when the contracts Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol expire. Even with a re-signed Howard and Steve Nash in the final year of his contract, the Lakers, too, could double up at the top of 2014 free agency. And if you don't think the Lakers could give up on Kobe, remember the Buss family once traded Shaq.
Which brings us to the Heat and those just-in-case 2014 early-termination options James, Wade and Bosh worked into their contracts amid the Heat's July 2010 euphoria.
The universal assumption around the league is all three will opt-out in 2014. Such moves could be as benign as merely reloading with additional seasons that will carry each deep into their 30s or even as altruistic as re-signing at lower figures to allow Pat Riley greater personnel latitude and Micky Arison a reduced luxury-tax burden.
With one or even two more championships, they'd be, well, fools to go anywhere else.
But two years also can be a long time, long enough for Howard to prove the maturity required to lure a pair of tag-along superstars to Los Angeles, long enough for the Magic to score with a pair of Kevin Durant-like lottery picks and again make Orlando a free-agency destination.
All of this hardly should be taken as a warning or even an imminent concern.
But what the Magic have done with their cap situation, what the Lakers could do with theirs, means it's coming:
The same chatter that enveloped the Cleveland Cavaliers during James' final seasons of his contract there, the same type of speculation that besieged the Toronto Raptors during Bosh's final months there.
In August 2012, July 2014 hardly should be a story.
But the Magic, through their Dwight-cleansing machinations, have made it that way. And if Howard emerges as the face of the Lakers, then the Lakers, too, could become captivated by the possibilities of 2014.
In a league of seminal summers, 2014 beckons. It just does.
Ira Winderman is a sports writer for the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)