What will LeBron James do this summer? Honestly, no one really knows, and that probably includes James himself at this point.
Still the best and most dominant player in the league, James could re-sign with the Cavaliers as an unrestricted free agent, or he could join the Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, San Antonio Spurs or, if you like to bet on long shots, even the Los Angeles Clippers, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics or Golden State Warriors.
If you believe in betting lines, the Lakers are the favorite at plus-$200, followed by the Rockets at plus-$220. The Cavs and Sixers are both at plus-$350, with the Spurs a surprising long shot at plus-$1,200. (If you bet $100 on one of those teams, you win the listed dollar figure if they land James.)
Before the free agent process even starts, though, James must first make a decision on his $35.6 million player option with the Cavs for 2018-19.
In order to become a free agent, the 33-year-old must inform the Cavs he is opting out by 11:59 p.m. on June 29. If he doesn’t inform them, his player option kicks in for next season. If he does inform them, he and agent Rich Paul can begin negotiating with any team in the league on July 1.
Assuming James tests the market, here’s a look at the major contenders to land the services of the four-time league MVP and three-time NBA champion:
Cavs: The Cavs have three major things going for them: They can offer James significantly more money — five years, $205 million — than any other team; he and wife Savannah are Akron natives, with oldest child LeBron Jr. set to enter the eighth grade in the fall; and, unlike 2010, when James and Chris Bosh orchestrated their way to join forces with Dwyane Wade in Miami, there is no clear landing spot this time around.
The money aspect might not be as important as some think, though, even with James approaching the point of his career where it’s starting to make more and more financial sense to sign a long-term deal.
James signed a one-year deal with a player option when he rejoined the Cavs in 2014, then signed another one-year deal with a player option in 2015. The one time he signed for longer — two years with a player option — came after the Cavs won a title in 2016, and that didn’t go too well from James’ standpoint (though Cleveland could argue with equal validity that always being held over the barrel by its superstar’s uncertain future hindered its ability to develop young players).
With James locked into a contract for 2017-18, owner Dan Gilbert didn’t re-sign general manager David Griffin last summer and replaced him with Koby Altman, whose deals haven’t exactly panned out so far.
The never-ending chaos started when Kyrie Irving asked to be traded last summer and, through Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, Wade, George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., the Cavs never really recovered.
Altman did get Brooklyn’s first-round pick in the deal that sent Irving to Boston, but that will be the No. 8 choice in the June 21 NBA Draft, not the top-three selection the Cavs were hoping for.
Cleveland could add a point guard like Alabama’s Collin Sexton or Oklahoma’s Trae Young, or a skilled 6-foot-11 player like Missouri’s Michael Porter at No. 8, but it’s going to take more than that for the Cavs to overtake the Warriors, who have won three titles in four years and aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Also, keep in mind that the James family doesn’t live like most families, meaning there’s a chance the Northeast Ohio factor may not be quite as big as some think.
So, all that being said, the Cavs may have to swing a blockbuster deal that involves Kevin Love, by far their most valuable trade commodity, draft a young player James loves, count on his ties to Northeast Ohio and still bank on there simply not being a more enticing option out there.
Lakers: The Lakers are the betting favorite to land James, but remember this: A number of things go into establishing betting lines. A logical landing spot is one factor, but an equally important factor is where bettors are likely to place their money.
In other words, there are probably more people in Los Angeles and elsewhere willing to bet money on James joining the Lakers than there are folks in been-through-it-all Cleveland willing to wager that he stays with the Cavs.
From a basketball standpoint, the Lakers, who have more salary cap space than any team in the league, can sell James on the fact they can not only sign him to a max deal, but also rid themselves of enough contracts that they can sign unrestricted free agent Paul George.
That sounds enticing — and James already owns two mansions in Los Angeles and loves the bright lights — but one of the players the Lakers would have to renounce is fast-improving big man Julius Randle, the best player on their not-so-good team in 2017-18.
Los Angeles has some very intriguing young talent in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, but it also has the circus known as LaVar Ball.
Most glaring, James and George joining the Lakers still may not make them anything more than the third-best team in the West, behind Golden State and Houston.
Rockets: There isn’t a trade or signing that Highland High graduate and Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is afraid to make, even with his talented team on the verge of beating the Warriors in the Western Conference finals before Chris Paul hurt his hamstring late in Game 5.
The Rockets also have James’ extremely close relationship with Paul working in their favor, but in order to clear enough cap space to create a “Big Three” that would include probable league MVP James Harden, they’d have to renounce their rights to guys like Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon, who were all very valuable members of their team in 2017-18.
Houston also would have to find takers for guys like P.J. Tucker and Ryan Anderson while receiving next to nothing in return from a salary standpoint.
All that seems like a ton to pull off, but with CP3 acting as his chief recruiter, never rule out Morey.
76ers: Philadelphia easily could create the cap space to sign James by trading a guy like Jerryd Bayless (or Robert Covington, if necessary) and renouncing its rights to players like J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson, Marco Bellinelli and Ersan Ilyasova.
Young superstar Ben Simmons already has said he’s totally on board with James joining the Sixers, and adding Griffin as GM might further entice James, as the two got along very well in Cleveland.
Yet while a Big Three of James, Simmons and Joel Embiid might look great on paper, it might not work out as hoped on the court.
Simmons, who can’t shoot a lick at this stage of his career, is a 6-11 point guard whose greatest strengths are handling the ball, creating for teammates and finishing at the rim. That’s also what James has done throughout his career, and it’s hard to envision him suddenly being willing to play off the ball.
Spurs: Las Vegas isn’t keen on this option, but don’t sleep on the Spurs, who have been great for a generation.
Gregg Popovich rivals Boston’s Brad Stevens as the best coach in the league, and he immediately would become, by a very wide margin, the best coach 15-year veteran James has had in the NBA. (Plus, “Pop” and James share a tremendous dislike of President Donald Trump, which has to at least count for something.)
Beyond that, the Spurs always have been the epitome of the unselfish, extremely smart, winning-comes-first basketball that James spent most of the NBA Finals preaching about.
And even beyond that, pairing James with a reinvested, reinvigorated, healthy Kawhi Leonard would give San Antonio two of the top three players — and two extremely versatile players at that — in the NBA.
Creating the cap space to sign James, however, won’t be easy. The Spurs would have to do a number of things, including renouncing their rights to the extremely popular Tony Parker and finding a taker for Pau Gasol. It also would help greatly if Danny Green and Rudy Gay opt out of the final year of their deals.
All that might leave the Spurs a bit thin, but this is an organization that always has developed underrated players.
Add All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge to James and Leonard and San Antonio is right there with the Warriors and Rockets at the top of the West.
Clippers, Heat, Celtics and Warriors: These teams all have been mentioned on the rumor mill, but none are likely landing spots.
The Clippers were once considered a major player, but they’re being trumped by the Lakers in their own town.
James already has done one stint in Miami, and it’s hard to see him returning.
The Celtics love their youthful talent and are unlikely to break it into pieces, even given the possibility Irving, who already has run away from James once, could bolt Beantown next summer.
The Warriors already have won three titles in four years and likely would have to part with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and it’s hard to see them doing that when they have an opportunity to keep their core together for several more years to come.
Conclusion: Anyone and everyone who says they know what James is going to do is either a worthless blowhard or outright lying.
The Cavs seem like the security blanket, the Rockets have the Paul factor, not to mention Harden, and the Lakers and 76ers offer some intriguing young talent, while the Spurs are a way better option than most “experts” are giving them credit for.
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