MIAMI (AFP) - NBA superstar LeBron James told the Miami Heat on Tuesday that he will exercise an early termination option in his contract and become a free agent.
Richie Paul, James' agent, told the team of his client's decision, which came ahead of a deadline next Monday to decide whether or not to opt out of the last two years of his Miami contract.
Heat president Pat Riley claimed the move was not a surprise and that he looks forward to new contract talks with the NBA's biggest current star.
"I was informed this morning of his intentions," Riley said in a statement. "We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise." The move does not prevent James from re-signing with the Heat, and could give the club greater flexibility to add talent and remain within NBA salary cap rules.
"We look forward to sitting down with LeBron and his representatives and talking about our future together," Riley said.
James, who was set to make US$20 million (S$24.9 million) next season, won his first career NBA titles with the Heat in 2012 and 2013. He also led Miami to the NBA Finals in 2011, when Dallas beat the Heat, and this year, when Miami lost to San Antonio.
After the Heat's last loss in the NBA Finals, James said he wanted time on vacation with his family before considering his future plans.
James, 29, said he welcomed the chance for the same free agency freedom he had in 2010, when he signed with the Heat after spending his first seven NBA seasons in Cleveland.
James, a high school star near Akron just south of Cleveland, could attract other talented players alongside him after his stellar stint in Miami.
Opting out of his contract makes the price tag much higher for Miami to keep the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, who was set to make $42.7 million in the final two years on his old contract.
The Heat would be able to offer more money and a longer-term deal to James than any rival club, but other teams would likely bid high for the chance to land James, who also was the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player in 2012 and 2013.
Miami can pitch James a five-year deal worth approximately $127 million while the best other clubs can do is pay him about US$95 million over four years.
James could also sign with another club for less than the maximum, freeing up salary cap funds to attract other talented players in hopes of building a title contender as he did with the Heat.
But the Heat must also consider guard Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh, the other members of the "Big Three" who also could opt out of their Miami deals by Monday.
- Opt outs help salary cap -
The talented trio could reunite in Miami or for another team if the price was right, or the opt outs would give the Heat greater room to boost the roster of players around them.
Or James could be joined by other free agents such as Carmelo Anthony in forming the foundation of a contender at Miami or some another city.
Much of the talk about potential rival suitors for James has centered on a return to Cleveland, the city whose fans felt betrayed when he spurned them to take his talents to Miami.
James' wife, Savannah, posted an Instagram message late Sunday night with a map of Ohio, a star on the city of Akron and the message "Home sweet home!! The countdown is real! #330" - the hashtag a reference to the telephone area code for Akron.
That sparked speculation, so far unconfirmed, that she might be referring to a family relocation rather than a trip home for the James clan.
The Cavaliers own the top pick in Thursday's NBA Draft and have just signed a new coach in Dave Blatt, who guided Maccabi Tel Aviv to a Euroleague crown this year and Russia to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
James averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 77 games last season for the Heat.