This offseason, the league will wait with bated breath as its best player decides where he wants to spend the next few seasons of his career.
Whatever he decides will have a ripple effect around the NBA, changing the fortunes and outlooks of various franchises for years to come.
LeBron James holds all the power and as always, he’ll be meticulous in deciding which destination will be the best for his career.
Because James is so conscientious in everything he does, including taking care of his body…
… he’s still producing at levels unheard of for a player with his level of experience.
Even in his Age-33 season, James put up 34.0 points, 9.1 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.8 three-pointers nightly throughout the 2018 playoffs, on ridiculous 53.9/34.2/74.6 shooting splits, dropping over 40 points in eight of his 22 outings. Ridiculous.
He likely won’t win regular-season MVP for his troubles, that honor will likely be bestowed upon the bearded dude in Houston, nor was his absurd level of play enough to carry the Cleveland Cavaliers to their second title in three years, but he’s still the Association’s top player. And that’s without question.
Some pundits expect the 14-time All-Star to find a new situation this offseason, one where he can be surrounded by a stronger supporting cast in hopes of winning another championship or two before his play finally starts to taper off.
At the same time, it’s hard to imagine James leaving the team in his home state for the second time in his career. And if he needed even more motivation to stay with the Cavs than that, it should also be noted Cleveland can offer him the most money on his next contract thanks to the way the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is set up.
Either way, we’re in store for a fascinating summer.
We break down James’ likeliest free-agent landing spots.
Los Angeles Clippers
Over the past year, there’s been heavy scuttle connecting James to a team from Los Angeles. But it’s usually regarding the one that wears gold and purple, not red and blue.
However, that changed late in Jan. 2018 when the New York Times’ Marc Stein reported on the Los Angeles Clippers having interest in recruiting James this offseason:
Concerning the second part of Stein’s tweet, the Clippers weren’t able to move either DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams at the trade deadline. In fact, the latter played so well in his brief time with the team that it convinced L.A.’s management to actually lock him up long-term, on a three-year, $24 million deal.
So for James-to-the-Clippers to pick up steam and become plausible, Los Angeles will have to hope Jordan opts out of the final year of his contract (many expect him to, but with how cap-space poor most of the league will be this summer, it’s far from a guarantee), on top of renouncing Avery Bradley’s free-agent rights (the 2-guard has $13.2 million cap hold on the books this offseason) while also hoping one of either Austin Rivers or Milos Teodosic opts out.
(Los Angeles could always stretch and waive Wesley Johnson or Boban Marjanovic, try and trade Danilo Gallinari or decline their team option on Patrick Beverley, but any of those moves would be absolute last-case scenarios.)
Only then will the Clippers have enough cap space to sign James to the max contract he assuredly will command.
Because the four-time MVP has been in the league for over 10 years, he is automatically eligible for a max deal that starts off at 35 percent of the salary cap. Thus, using the projected cap of $101 million and assuming a three-year deal with a player option on Year-3 (i.e., the exact type of deal he’s coming off of with Cleveland), that would amount to a $111.4 million agreement between any non-Cavs team and James.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we must ponder: Why exactly would James join the Clippers? Especially a Clipper squad without Jordan, a two-time All-NBA 3rd Team member and a player James was reportedly interested in the Cavs going after at the 2018 trade deadline?
Without the 7-footer, James would be joining a Clipper team whose core consists of Williams, Tobias Harris, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell, plus two late 2018 lottery picks. Sure, L.A. could deal the two first-rounders for an established player, but would that nucleus be that much of an upgrade over the present-day Cavs?
Maybe, but it’s not a certainty, either.
The most recent reports on this topic (via the Undefeated’s Marc Spears) state that even people within the Clippers organization don’t really expect James to consider them in free agency.
But existing in a huge market gives them a puncher’s chance, and with Jerry West at the helm and Doc Rivers extended as head coach, they can’t totally be ruled out as a potential James landing spot.
If the salary-cap gymnastics the Clippers would have to execute to have enough cap space for James sounded complicated, that was nothing compared to what the Miami Heat would have to do.
Nevertheless, the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor recently listed the South Florida franchise as a dark-horse candidate for the three-time champion anyway:
“There’s no perfect destination for LeBron, but from the time I first reported last June that LeBron had eyes for Los Angeles, it’s become apparent that the teams he’s reportedly interested in—favorites like the Rockets, Sixers, and Lakers, or dark horses like the Heat or Clippers—are better equipped to build a true contender than the Cavaliers are. “
The fact James is so familiar with Miami after spending four seasons with the Heat early in the 2010s certainly couldn’t hurt their chances. And if nothing else, Pat Riley’s roster presently has a plethora of strong complementary-type pieces, ranging from Goran Dragic to Hassan Whiteside, that should, in theory, fit nicely around an alpha dog like James.
What Miami lacks, which reared its ugly head in the Heat’s 4-1 playoff defeat to the Philadelphia 76ers, is a star to carry their respectable group of role players.
Adding James to a unit with so many solid complementary pieces would give Miami the makings of a strong Eastern Conference squad. Maybe even a contender.
But that the Heat would have to lose so much of its current roster just to open up enough cap room for James makes this fit difficult to envision.
At the moment, Miami is set to carry $117.4 million in player salaries into 2018-19. They’re a lot closer to the projected luxury tax line ($123 million) than they are to the projected cap ($101 million).
Even by renouncing the rights to Wayne Ellington, Jordan Mickey, Luke Babbitt and Udonis Haslem (who is contemplating retirement), that would only open up another $12.7 million in cap room.
If the Heat then manage to trade Whiteside for nothing in return (unlikely, if not downright impossible), then Miami would be at $80.3 million in player salaries, needing to shed another $14.7 million before having enough room to sign James.
Trading Tyler Johnson and the $19.3 million he’s owed for 2018-19 while receiving no money in return would be enough, but again, there’s very little chance that happens. Moving Johnson while receiving no salary back would cost a ton of sweetener (better known as draft picks), which Miami simply does not possess at the moment. Theoretically, the Heat could trade their 2019 first-round pick, but only upon the culmination of the 2018 draft. (It’s a weird rule, one that states teams cannot trade their first-round pick on back-to-back years. Miami’s affected by it currently because their 2018 first-rounder belongs to the Phoenix Suns as part of the Dragic deal, as does their 2020 first-round selection, leaving the Heat without much “sweetener” on potential salary-clearing moves.)
A likelier possibility than moving T. Johnson for no salary in return would be trading Dragic and his $18.1 million for draft picks, since the Slovenian floor general is still performing at a borderline All-Star level and could help a team looking to contend.
In that dream scenario for Miami, they would land James, re-sign Dwyane Wade (who we should mention, like Haslem, is also considering retirement) for another season and then surround the legendary duo with T. Johnson (or Dragic), James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo.
That core has an argument to be considered stronger than present-day Cleveland, and would immediately make the Heat one of the most potent teams in the East.
But, again, with how complicated Miami’s roster turnaround would have to be just to open up enough room for a potential James max contract, it simply doesn’t appear to be a very likely outcome.
Nonetheless, you can never count out Riley’s ability to persuade.
San Antonio Spurs
There’s one overarching factor connecting James to the San Antonio Spurs, and it’s the man in charge of the Texan team: Gregg Popovich.
Back in February, San Antonio’s head coach made public comments praising James for speaking out against the social injustices African-Americans face in this country, after Fox News’ Laura Ingraham said the Cavs forward should, “shut up and dribble.”
Needless to say, Popovich wasn’t having it:
But what most took as a coach sticking up for an athlete he’s known for a long time and has legitimate affection for, others, apparently, took as the subtle beginning of a recruitment:
Nevertheless, in a basketball sense, the potential union does make sense.
For starters, linking up one of the league’s brightest head coaches ever with possibly its smartest player in history would be borderline unfair.
Moreover, the Spurs, despite lacking a star (with Kawhi Leonard out of the picture, at least) are relatively well-stocked at the moment. LaMarcus Aldridge regained his All-Star form this past season. San Antonio also has a few serviceable young players on cheap deals, like Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes, who performed well in 2017-18.
However, to open up enough cap room to sign James to a max contract, the Spurs would still have to gut a good bit of their roster, because, at the moment, the five-time championship franchise is projected to carry over $98 million in salaries into 2018-19.
To start, they’d have to renounce Parker’s rights and clear his $23.2 million cap hold from their books.
San Antonio will also have to not extend the qualifying offer to Kyle Anderson, further clearing his $6.5 million cap hold. (Of course, that would only happen after an assurance from James that he’s signing with the Spurs. If one doesn’t come or if the situation is foggy for an extended period after free agency opens up, San Antonio could extend the qualifying offer to Anderson and then just revoke it if James then decides to join Popovich’s team.)
Then, they’re going to have to hope both Danny Green and Rudy Gay opt out of the final year of their deals, something both players are presently considering.
At that point, San Antonio will find itself with $81.5 million on their books for next season, still needing to clear another $15 million to have room for James.
They could get there by finding a taker for Pau Gasol and the guaranteed $22.7 million still owed to him over the next two seasons, while taking zero salary back in return.
It wouldn’t be easy, but one has to imagine Popovich and general manager RC Buford would find a way to make all that happen if it means landing the best player in the league.
That would leave the Spurs with a core trio of James, Leonard and Aldridge (provided San Antonio’s apparent rift with Leonard gets cleared up this offseason), which would immediately become one of the most imposing Big 3’s in the Association.
At this point, the Spurs don’t seem like a very likely suitor for James, but that could easily change over the coming weeks as his free agency begins to heat up.
Golden State Warriors
Before you angrily close this article due to how far-fetched the possibility of James-to-the-Golden-State-Warriors sounds, just wait and find out why we’re even listing it.
On Feb. 1, ESPN’s Chris Haynes, who’s well-connected with James’ camp, reported that if Golden State could manage to open up a max-roster slot this summer (a fantastically huge if), they could be granted a free-agent meeting with their biggest nemesis:
“If the Golden State Warriors can create a max salary slot this offseason, the defending NBA champions could position themselves to secure a meeting with LeBron James, league sources told ESPN.
“There is no indication that Golden State is evaluating such options to acquire the Cleveland Cavaliers star at this time.
“Out of respect for the Warriors’ winning culture, James would listen if Golden State explored ways to clear the necessary cap space, sources said.”
Since then, multiple reports have come out disputing Haynes’ original article. James himself referred to it as, “nonsense,” and a, “non-story,” when asked about it. Even if he felt the need to lie in regards to his potential interest in joining the Warriors (doubtful), it would be so difficult for Golden State to open up enough cap space for the 6-foot-8 creator that the how in this scenario isn’t even really worth listing out.
Just know, it would require for the Warriors to go from $129.8 million owed in player salaries for 2018-19 to $65.7 million, meaning a good chunk of the roster would have to get shipped away with no money coming back in return.
Implausible, unlikely and ultimately, not really worth discussing in depth. Even so, Haynes is an extremely reliable reporter, so this scenario did have to at least be covered, even if briefly.
Golden State isn’t a very likely James landing spot. Their 2018 Western Conference foes, on the other hand, could be a bit more plausible.
The Houston Rockets are led by general manager Daryl Morey, an executive known for his boldness in improving his roster; pulling an absolute shocker like landing James would be right up his alley.
Basketball-wise, James to the Rockets makes a ton of sense. He’d be teaming up with James Harden, the likely league MVP for 2017-18 and one of the best pure scorers the game has ever seen. Though Harden does dominate the ball, he showed an ability to play off it as well this season once a certain legendary point guard entered the fray.
The problem is, part of the reason James would likely be enticed to join Houston would be to team up with that point guard, one of his closest friends in the NBA and a member of the famed Banana Boat squad, Chris Paul:
The issue with that idea, though wonderful in theory, is that it’s difficult to see a James-Harden-Paul union happening with how the Rockets’ books are set up at the moment.
If we remove Paul from the picture, all Houston would have to do to open up enough cap space for James is renounce the rights to all of their impending free agents, including Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and Tarik Black, among others, and find a way to trade Eric Gordon while taking pretty much zero salaries back in return.
That would leave the Rockets with around $35.8 million in cap space, enough to sign James to a max deal – and with the standard mid-level exception still available to try and re-sign Ariza (possible) or Capela (unlikely).
The aforementioned moves would leave Houston’s roster a little bare, granted, but a core of Harden and James wouldn’t exactly be difficult to build around.
If we wanted to find a way to get James on the Rockets with his buddy Paul, as well as the future MVP, that would require for the Rockets to renounce the rights to all of their impending free agents while finding takers for Gordon, Ryan Anderson and PJ Tucker for next to nothing in return, salary-wise.
Only then would Houston have opened up enough cap space ($64 million) to fit in James and Paul, each at the max.
Difficult but not totally impossible, either. Especially not for Morey.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers, who are set to have the highest amount of cap space of any team in the Association this summer, have been heavily connected with James over the past year and a half, if not longer.
As is, the Lakers have the room to sign James to a three-year, $111.4 million max contract, one with a player option on Year-3. The thing is, many expect Los Angeles to try and sign not just one, but two max-level players this offseason, with the other primary target being Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Paul George.
To have enough space for both George and James, team president Magic Johnson and Co. would have to waive Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant, as well as renounce the rights to promising big man Julius Randle.
At that point, Los Angeles would have $66.4 million in cap space (not counting the salary owed to their incoming first-round pick, No. 25 overall from the Cavaliers, who will be due between $1.2 million and $1.8 million for 2018-19), enough to fit both James and George at the max, since George is a 30-percent-of-the-salary-cap max player, not a 35 percent one like James. Thus, he would be owed $30.3 million for 2018-19 (with five percent increases annually if he chooses Los Angeles) to James’ $35.4 million.
Adding the first-round pick’s money does put the Lakers over the cap by $500,000, but one of James or George could spare a bit of their max deals in order to make it work. Los Angeles could also simply trade the prospect they select, or choose a draft-and-stash-overseas player. There are obvious ways to make it work.
With James and George in the fold, Los Angeles would also return almost the entirety of their exciting group of players aged 24 or younger, including Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma.
That exciting young core, along with the best player in basketball and a top five wing joining Los Angeles could have the Lakers contending again sooner rather than later, especially as the young core continues to improve.
As Philadelphia has improved over the past year, jumping from 28 to 52 wins, from the cellar of the East to the conference’s No. 3 seed and into the second the round of the playoffs, smoke has picked up regarding a potential James-Sixers union.
Because they’re set to be the team with the second-most cap space this summer, the 76ers wouldn’t have a very hard time finding room to sign James to a max contract.
All it would require is they renounce all of their impending free agents – JJ Redick, Amir Johnson, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova – while finding a taker for Jerryd Bayless and the $8.6 million they owe him.
Unlike the other hypotheticals we listed where teams may have a hard time finding takers for their worst contracts, that wouldn’t be the case for Philadelphia with Bayless, as, for one, his contract isn’t even that bad. Plus, the Sixers have an abundance of draft picks they can use as sweetener to get someone to take the Arizona product off their books.
If they don’t want to lose draft picks in a potential Bayless dumping, they could also trade Robert Covington in exchange for zero salary, as the promising wing is coming off a career season and is locked up for the next four years on a very fair contract, which could make him appealing to hypothetical trade partners.
That would give Philadelphia a core of James, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Dario Saric, and the mid-level exception to use on trying to bring Redick or Belinelli back for more shooting.
Simply put, that potential nucleus would be a terrifying proposition for the rest of the East, one that could legitimately challenge for a championship in 2018-19. In fact, the 76ers may be James’ best chance at annual title contention, as he would get to stay in the weaker conference and avoid facing Golden State until the Finals while teaming up with one of the deadliest young cores in the Association.
“ESPN’s Chris Haynes was a guest on the TK Show on CLNS Media and he too says, don’t sleep on the Celtics. ‘Let’s not overlook the Boston Celtics,’ Haynes told host Tim Kawakami. ‘If Boston reached out and said we’re serious, LeBron would listen.’”
That wasn’t the first time James has been tied to Boston recently, either. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith also mentioned the Celtics when discussing James’ impending summer:
“On a program called First Take on ESPN, Smith, a former columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, believed LeBron James would talk to several teams — including the Sixers — this summer if/when he hits free agency. But that’s not the weird thing. “LeBron James is going to have a conversation with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They can offer him the most, and they are willing to do anything they can to keep him here, etc. etc., and obviously the wife is going to have a major, major say in things. So you got that going on. He’s going to have a conversation with Boston.”
James joining the team with which he’s had such an intense history, including so many playoff matchups stretching over different areas, would be nothing short of shocking. Especially considering, one, they just faced off in a hotly contested Eastern Conference Finals, and two, Boston traded for Kyrie Irving, who chose to leave the franchise that drafted him rather than continue being James’ teammate, just last summer.
To make this happen financially wouldn’t be so difficult. All it would require is the Celtics letting Marcus Smart walk in free agency, dumping Marcus Morris for draft picks and finding a taker for either Al Horford or Gordon Hayward.
The trickiness here is the dynamic between not just James and one of his biggest rivals historically, but the relationship between he and Irving, which got pretty ugly towards the end.
One can never rule anything out in the NBA but taking a meeting is one thing – James actually agreeing to join the Celtics this offseason is entirely another.
The place where James has spent 11 years of his career, where he’s made countless memories including a 2016 championship, likely has a leg up in re-signing the generational supersar because they can offer him the most money.
But it’s not quite the financial disparity the Cavs probably wish it was.
With eight percent annual increases as opposed to five, on a three-year deal with a player option on Year-3, Cleveland can offer James $114.8 million, just $3.4 million more than any non-Cavs team.
Sure, if we get more in depth and start comparing four-year contracts, the disparity does grow a bit – from a difference of $3.4 million to $6.8 million – but the fact James probably wouldn’t accept a five-year deal (the main advantage most free agents’ current teams have over outside suitors), not with how the cap is projected to continue getting richer, thus making max contracts much more valuable going forward, could wind up hurting the Cavaliers’ chances of re-signing their best player ever.
It’s not like James has shown much in the way of slowing down. Father Time may be undefeated, but Father Time hasn’t faced off against a freak like LeBron yet.
So without much of a financial advantage and due to how… shaky Cleveland looked throughout 2017-18 prior to getting swept by the Warriors in the 2018 Finals, never showing much of a real shot at contending for a title, we could very well be seeing James’ time in Northeast Ohio come to an end.
Or, perhaps content with living in his home state on a team that’s a contender for, at the very least, the Eastern Conference crown every year, James could be fine sticking it out with the Cavaliers.
No one knows for sure what he’ll do this summer.
But without a doubt, whatever he does decide will be the main talking point of the offseason, and will change the fortunes of whichever lucky franchise is able to sign him.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.
HoopsHype’s Alberto de Roa contributed to this article.