The Cleveland Cavaliers lost on Friday night, ending a tumultuous and largely disappointing season with a sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Finals.
Game four was also the last one played by LeBron James in a season that has featured him carrying a weak roster to his eighth-straight Finals appearance only to fall short once again. An NBA Finals where he averaged a ridiculous 34 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game with no chance to win Finals MVP. An NBA Finals in which he played with a bleeding eye and a contusion in his dominant hand caused by a momentary lapse of judgment and anger at a costly error that lost them game one.
James’ future in Cleveland has been under question all year. Now that the season is over, the focus shifts purely on his next decision. Will he run it back with the team with which he has reached four straight Finals or will he look for greener pastures where he can more realistically chase elusive championships and the ghost of Michael Jordan?
LeBron has been linked to several teams over the course of the last season with several realistic candidates emerging over time. The Los Angeles Lakers, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and Cavaliers seem to be the most mentioned teams but the San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics are lurking in the shadows.
So why would LeBron go to or stay with any of those teams? And what would they have to do to get him?
The Rockets give LeBron the best chance at another championship, on paper. Houston burst through the seams last season to capture the number one seed in the Western Conference by a decent margin and was one game and potentially one Chris Paul hamstring injury away from the NBA Finals, losing in seven games in the Western Conference Finals.
A trio of Paul, James and James Harden is as talented and loaded as the Warriors’ top three and gives the Rockets’ iso-heavy offense the best isolation player in the game. LeBron and CP3 would finally be able to play on the same team, a rumored desire of theirs for years now. James would be coached by one of the most brilliant offensive minds in Mike D’Antoni instead of … Tyronn Lue. If you’re into conspiracy theories, a move to Houston does wonders for Nike by sending its biggest name athlete to the same franchise that employs the biggest named Adidas athlete.
But there are complexities to making this a reality. The Rockets have roughly 79 million dollars already tied up in active roster players for next season without factoring in Paul’s 35 million cap hold. The salary cap is currently sitting at 101 million making it impossible to fit in LeBron’s max salary of roughly 35 million dollars per year.
Here’s everything the Rockets need to do to free up space to sign LeBron and keep Paul.
- Renounce everyone’s rights, except for Paul. That means losing bird rights on Trevor Ariza and making Clint Capela an unrestricted free agent. Ariza and Capela were two enormous parts of the Rockets success, particularly in the playoffs, with their high-level play on both sides of the court.
- Cut Zhou Qi’s non-guaranteed deal worth nearly $1.4 million. Easy money but feel bad for the Big Zucchini.
- Trade Nene Hilario, Chinanu Onuaku and PJ Tucker to playoff teams looking for depth and take back nothing but second-round picks.
- Attach a ton of picks to get rid of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon’s contracts. Anderson is owed nearly 42 million over the next two years and Gordon, a more useful player, is on the books for 27.5 million for two seasons.
- Sign LeBron with the just over 35 million dollars in cap space that was opened up (that’s right about what his max contract will be) and re-sign Chris Paul using bird rights.
- Have a team that literally only consists of Harden, Paul, and James and fill it up with nothing but vet minimums and some exceptions.
This is all to say that’s a very unlikely process. The only way the Rockets can manage this realistically is for James to opt into the last year of his contract and be traded to Houston, much like Chris Paul did last summer. Depending on how the final cap numbers go, LeBron could stand to earn about the same amount of money as he would by signing a new deal and it would give the Rockets his Bird rights for re-signing him next season.
The snag would be convincing the Cavaliers to accept the deal that would facilitate LeBron’s departure. But even the last time James left the Cavs, before the scathing comic sans letter, the Cavs accepted a sign and trade to move him to Miami. So a deal sending out Anderson, Gordon and, let’s say, Onuaku along with a treasure chest of picks to the Cavs (and likely involving a third team) is a doable, albeit difficult, exercise.
Regardless, if LeBron James decides Houston is the spot, the Rockets will find a way to get him. It may not work out as the best solution given the lack of depth that would be created and the future assets that would have to be given away. But on paper, it stands as the best basketball situation for James.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs may be a dark horse in all this. They have not often been mentioned as a LeBron destination but they have several of the characteristics of the type of franchise James would seek. A stable organization with an existing superstar and a legendary coach that already has a strong relationship with LeBron, the Spurs hold a lot of cards if they can get James into a meeting.
No one knows exactly what is happening with the Leonard situation and whether the former Defensive Player of the Year wants to stay in San Antonio. But if the Spurs can convince Leonard to stay – and they have all the leverage – then they can convince LeBron to come form the most tantalizing wing duo in the NBA.
Much like the Rockets’ cap situation, the Spurs are not in a prime position to sign LeBron. But they have more flexibility to open up the space. The Spurs don’t have any key players hitting free agency (unless you call 94-year-old Tony Parker that). They can clear the space to outright sign James by, roughly speaking, trading Pau Gasol and Patty Mills into cap space and cutting Brandon Paul. That’s easier said than done considering the lack of cap space across the league this summer, but it’s a distinct possibility for the Spurs and one that should not go unnoticed by the rest of the NBA.
The 76ers are a favorite for LeBron’s services for a variety of reasons. Philadelphia, led by its star-studded young core, surprised much of the league with the success they had this season, earning the number three seed in the Eastern Conference before losing in the second round to the Celtics.
Armed with six players on rookie contracts, the 76ers practically have the cap space to sign LeBron outright with just a few moves (including renouncing the rights to JJ Redick and likely declining options on TJ McConnell and Richaun Holmes). Joel Embiid is one of the biggest stars in the game already and Ben Simmons, the likely rookie of the year, is only getting better.
The fit is a bit clunky with Simmons’ need to handle the ball due to his poor shooting ability. But Brett Brown is a solid coach that can find innovative ways to make that partnership between Simmons and James work. Additionally, LeBron reportedly wants to handle the ball less in the twilight of his career, potentially making Philly an even better fit.
There are still questions, however. Even with a really good season, Embiid’s health will always be questioned. Simmons, for all his talent, can be neutralized to an extent due to his poor shooting. Markelle Fultz, the player selected to be the third star of their young team, forgot how to shoot for like seven months so no one knows how good he can actually be. Simmons is a Klutch client like LeBron and there may be some truth to the conspiracy that the agency would want the LSU product to lead his own team without being under LeBron’s shadow. That’s not to mention that Philadelphia is not the prototypical big market that a star like LeBron might want and that they just fired their general manager two weeks before the NBA Draft because either he or his wife operated five burner Twitter accounts that divulged sensitive team information, as well as what a normal-sized collar is, to anyone who would listen.
The Cavs have done everything they can to force LeBron’s hand.
They didn’t extend their championship-winning general manager just weeks before free agency and a trade request from Kyrie Irving. Dan Gilbert is known for being cheap, for being sensitive about LeBron’s previous departure, and for his shady political and social beliefs that are the opposite of James’.
Meanwhile, LeBron’s only All-Star level teammate is Kevin Love, someone who is probably best suited to be a third option at this point in his career. They have surrounded LeBron with role players who are either aging and overpaid or young and unsatisfactory. James had a 51-point game in the NBA Finals and his team lost because J.R. Smith literally forgot what the score was.
When LeBron went back to the Cavaliers in 2014, his reason was to bring back a championship to Cleveland. He did that. Now, it’s being reported that his family is the only thing that can keep him there.
The Cavs can still easily pay LeBron by re-signing him to another one-and-one deal. They have the eighth overall pick in the draft and that’s a valuable asset to try to bring him help. But it’s their only asset and they are capped out due to their obligations to Smith, Love, Tristan Thompson, Jordan Clarkson and more.
There’s no telling how important Cleveland is to LeBron. And it’s not clear how much of a driving force his family will be to stay there. But as it stands, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to see one of the greatest players of all time stick around in a situation that seems to be an infinite loop of Finals disappointments.
Los Angeles Lakers
Which brings us to the Lakers.
Los Angeles has been a rumored destination for LeBron in 2010, 2014 and now 2018 with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka hoping that it will be third times the charm for the Lakers courtship of the King.
The Lakers don’t boast the same high level of play as the Rockets or the 76ers currently do. But they do have the flexibility to become contenders should James choose to move to sunny Southern California.
LAL will go into next season with nearly 62 million dollars in cap space if they renounce the rights to everybody. Keep Julius Randle’s restricted free agent status and you’re looking at $49 million, already enough for one max contract. The Lakers need only trade Luol Deng’s contract into cap space – a task that is admittedly easier said than done – to open the necessary money to sign LeBron and another star.
If the Lakers can find someone to accept Deng’s lofty contract (another 36 million over the next two years) for future draft picks only, they could be looking at a core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle and Kyle Kuzma with the potential to sign LeBron James and Paul George.
LeBron won’t come unless there’s a third star? No worries. Let Randle walk. Cut Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac, and Thomas Bryant. Sign James and George with the roughly 65 million dollars in created cap space and use Deng’s contract and a collection of players and picks to trade for Kawhi Leonard. Bring back Brook Lopez and suddenly a potential pipedream scenario of Ball, George, Leonard, James and Lopez becomes an intriguing prospect.
The Lakers offer LeBron a variety of things:
- A prime destination in a huge market where he can begin his long sought-after foray into the entertainment industry.
- A young, developing core on rookie contracts creating a more sustainable future as James nears the end of his career.
- The flexibility to pair him with at least one and potentially two other stars, something the Cavaliers cannot do, to compete in the near future.
- The opportunity to cement his legacy as the greatest by bringing championships to the most storied franchise in the history of the sport.
It may be Laker Exceptionalism talking and the point of this exercise is not to declare the Lakers as the clear best option for LeBron. They are young and unproven, having won only 35 games last season. Luke Walton is still a young head coach who may not be ready to lead a playoff team and who knows what drama LaVar Ball will cause? But there are a lot of factors in play that make the Lakers relevant. They seem more likely now than ever before to bring James to Los Angeles.
Of course, their competitors cannot be ignored. The Rockets give James the best on-paper chance at a title next year. The Spurs boast LeBron’s favorite coach. The 76ers have two burgeoning young stars poised for a playoff breakthrough. The Cavaliers are still home. Even the likes of the Celtics, Miami Heat, and LA Clippers could be potential dark horses for LeBron’s services.
This is the hardest decision LeBron has had to make since coming into the league. In 2010, he had the opportunity to join forces with friends to create a super team that would salvage his legacy by bringing him a championship. In 2014, he saw a young star emerging in Cleveland that would help him bolster that legacy by bringing a title to the most deprived sports city in the country.
In 2018, no option is perfect. There will be an inherent risk with any decision that LeBron makes and in year 16, the margin for error will be smaller than ever before. It will be a huge summer for the NBA and an even bigger one for LeBron James. One way or another, his decision will shape the league for a long time to come.