LeBron JamesLeBron James always was going to opt out of the final year of his contract.

We knew this because he is represented by smart people, who realize there might be no more valuable commodity in sports than a LeBron James who is available to the highest bidder. The $20.6 million James could make next season pales in comparison to the intangible wealth he gains by opting out.

With James — presumably along with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — exercising his early termination clause, he is not merely eligible to sign a lucrative new deal with a team in position to contend for a championship. He also increases the odds that the Miami Heat will strengthen their position heading into next season.

Luring James back looms large for the Heat, of course. If they do not make changes beyond the patchwork additions of years past — moves that brought in Shane Battier, Chris Andersen and Ray Allen — the Heat have no reason to expect James to re-sign. Simply standing pat with Wade and Bosh won’t do it. When the San Antonio Spurs lost the NBA Finals last year, they buckled down and came back with the same core. There is no indication James and the Heat are prepared to seek revenge in the same manner, without reinforcements.

Yet by opting out, James also is doing the Heat a favor, in a sense. Under their current contracts, James, Wade and Bosh would eat up more than $60 million next season. That would make signing a significant free agent impossible under the collective bargaining agreement. If the existing “Big Three” are willing to take substantial pay cuts, there is a distant chance they could grow to a “Big Four.”

Carmelo Anthony is the Heat’s pipe dream, but even a lower-profile free agent along the lines of Gordon Hayward or Eric Bledsoe (both restricted) would bolster Miami’s position.

Despite the popular perception of James as a greedy mercenary, his taking less money for a better shot at a ring is not unprecedented. He accepted less than full market value when he took his talents to South Beach in 2010 so Bosh could sign a comparable deal. That didn’t make much difference to James’ Q rating, but it did position the Heat to win two titles while reaching four consecutive NBA Finals.

James is a free agent, and it is no surprise. Even if it was expected, however, the move is still enough to turn the NBA world on its head — as will whatever he does next.