Handicapping the Summer of LeBron; Who Will Sign King James in 2014?
Is it time to start talking about where LeBron James will sign as a free agent already? It feels like 2009 all over again!
In all seriousness, this is a discussion that we need to have. LeBron is, by a fairly significant margin, the best player in basketball. When it's all said and done, he might have a claim to the title of the best player who has ever played basketball.
And he's hitting free agency for the second time in four years?
Well, if we're being absolutely technical, it's still not certain. LeBron has an opt-out clause in his contract that he has the right to exercise after the 2013-14 season. Most league executives widely believe he will use it to reach free agency.
Assuming he does, LeBron James would instantly jump... well...2010 LeBron James... as the greatest free agent in NBA history. He is at his absolute peak right now, and even at 29 years old (the presumed tail end of his prime), there isn't a team in the league that wouldn't offer him a max deal.
Remember, this isn't Michael Jordan we're talking about, or Kevin Durant. LeBron isn't exactly known for his loyalty. He's going to do what is in his own best interest when he becomes a free agent. If that means leaving Miami, then so be it.
With that in mind, let's handicap the biggest blockbuster of the 2014 season, The Summer of LeBron Part Two.
Teams with No Chance
Before we discuss the teams that might actually drink from the holy grail of LeBron, let's get the nobodies out of the way early. This isn't to say that these teams are terrible; they just don't have what it takes to steal LeBron.
We'll break these groups into three separate categories: the teams that aren't good enough to convince King James to leave Miami, the teams that might be good enough if they could only make it work under the cap, and the teams that have the roster and cap space but play in too small of a market to entice such a big star.
Keep in mind, many of these teams fall on multiple lists, this was just the order I chose to put them in.
Not Good Enough:
Golden State Warriors
Not Enough Cap Space:
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs
Too Small of a Market:
Portland Trail Blazers
New Orleans Hornets
That immediately knocks 21 of the NBA's 30 teams off of the list. That leaves LeBron with nine options ranging from "there's almost no way this can happen" to "there's at least a 50-50 shot this happens."
In case you were wondering, the Warriors were the final cut. They'll have some cap space to play with, San Francisco would be a great market for LeBron and the idea of putting him next to shooters like Stephen Curry, Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson and David Lee is almost too tantalizing to pass up.
But LeBron is a star chaser. As tempting as that scenario might be to basketball junkies, there just isn't a realistic chance that it happens. So now that that's out of the way, here are the nine teams with an actual shot to lock up King James.
New York Knicks
I didn't realize this until the trade deadline, but once the Knicks made a push for Josh Smith, I started to dream. Could the Knicks actually make a run at LeBron?
The obvious answer is no. The Knicks, as of right now, don't have the cap space. However, if the Knicks could unload Amar'e Stoudemire, it would become a more realistic pursuit.
In all honestly, it now seems at least somewhat possible for that to happen. They were willing to give up Iman Shumpert to get Smith, so if another expiring contract came along next year, I could see the Knicks taking a shot.
And if you're a cellar-dweller like Charlotte or Sacramento, doesn't the prospect of adding Amar'e Stoudemire seem at least somewhat enticing?
Still, it's a long way off and the Knicks would still need some luck in regards to retirements and finding a new home for Steve Novak. However, you can't count the Knicks out entirely. The bright lights of Madison Square Garden are pretty darn tempting.
Chances LeBron is a Knick: .1 percent.
In terms of cap space, the Rockets could afford LeBron right now. They're one of the few teams financially in a position to make a real run at The King.
In basketball terms, the Rockets seem like a decent fit. James Harden is a legitimate star, someone who could easily fill the role Dwyane Wade has over the past few years. Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin are all solid role players.
Speaking of Lin, he's the real reason the Rockets found a way onto this list. He's the one player in the league who could really open up China to LeBron as a marketing possibility. Combining the two would turn the Rockets into one of the league's most profitable teams, and would surely help LeBron on his quest to become the first-ever billionaire athlete.
But Harden isn't on the same level as Wade in terms of star power, Houston is a big market but not a glamorous one and realistically I just can't see this one happening. Besides, the Rockets seem like one of the early favorites to steal Dwight Howard. I'm sure they aren't complaining.
Chances LeBron is a Rocket: .5 percent.
This is the option that would make Heat fans cringe the most. Boston, the team has beat, degraded and downright bullied LeBron for years before he finally won his first title? How could they steal him away?
Well, Boston is a pretty big market. The Celtics are the NBA's most historically successful franchise. Playing for the Celtics matters, and at least on some level, I believe LeBron James would have some interest in having his name raised up into the rafters next to Larry Bird and Bill Russell.
And on the court, Rajon Rondo is probably the perfect teammate for LeBron. He does a little bit of everything. When LeBron wants to score, Rondo will pass. When LeBron wants to defer, Rondo can take over. Between the two of them, Boston would have the most versatile team in the league.
Assuming Kevin Garnett retires after this year or next, Boston has the money to make this happen. If they can bring Paul Pierce back for one more ride, all the better, but as it stands, the Celtics should be able to at least get a meeting with LeBron through only their name and the presence of Rajon Rondo.
Chances LeBron is a Celtic: 2 percent.
Los Angeles Clippers
Like the Knicks, the Clippers would have to do some serious salary cap work to get in range for LeBron. Specifically, assuming they keep Chris Paul, they'd have to dump Deandre Jordan and Jamal Crawford.
They could surely find a taker for Jordan—24-year-old centers don't grow on trees—but Crawford is 32 years old and probably impossible to trade given his unpredictable personality.
However, if the Clippers could get into position to afford LeBron, they'd immediately become one of the favorites to sign him. The combination of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and LeBron would be nearly unstoppable. You'd be hard-pressed to find three players that fit together more seamlessly than them, and Los Angeles would be an ideal market for King James.
Though I doubt this is going to happen, it needs to be discussed as a possibility: Chris Paul could leave as a free agent this summer. If he does, the Clippers might actually improve their chances at LeBron. Without Paul, they could afford him outright.
They'd still have Blake Griffin, they'd still have Los Angeles and they'd actually have some players to put around their high-flying duo. LeBron might also be tempted to do what not even CP3 could—change the face of basketball in LA forever by leading the Clippers to a championship.
In either case, the Clippers can only be afforded the role of sleeper for now. If their cap position improves? They become real contenders.
Chances LeBron is a Clipper: 2.4 percent.
You might think this is crazy. Heck, even I do a little. But, for over a decade, the Dallas Mavericks have contended without multiple stars. They only needed one—Dirk Nowitzki.
Clearly, Mark Cuban knows how to run a franchise. He's willing to spend whatever it takes to win, he's immensely popular among players, and he has put together what is widely considered to be one of the smartest front offices in all of sports.
If you're LeBron James, and you have a chance to play for someone like that, don't you at least consider it?
We can't be sure what he'll actually do, but on paper it makes sense. LeBron wouldn't have to worry about which stars he'd have to lure to Dallas because Cuban would make sure his team was always competitive. For the first few years at least, he'd get to play with Dirk Nowitzki.
In my heart, I probably know that LeBron wouldn't actually go to Dallas, but when Mark Cuban wants something, it's pretty hard to deny him. At the very least, LeBron will hear what he has to say.
Chances LeBron is a Maverick: 5 percent.
I don't know why nobody has thrown Chicago into this ring. As far as I'm concerned, the Bulls are every bit as serious about the hunt for LeBron as the Lakers are.
The cap math is simple: Use the amnesty clause on Carlos Boozer and find a taker for Taj Gibson and the Bulls can sign LeBron.
Now let's compare Miami and Chicago. Assuming Derrick Rose comes back healthy (which I believe to be almost guaranteed considering what we saw from Adrian Peterson), would you rather play with him at 25 years old or Dwyane Wade at 32?
The answer is obviously Rose. He gives LeBron a better chance at winning multiple championships.
In terms of market, Chicago dwarfs Miami. Chicago would allow LeBron to expand his brand in ways Miami never could.
So what would hold LeBron back? It's simple—the ghost of Michael Jordan.
Does LeBron really want to play in the arena Jordan built? Does he want to walk past the statue of MJ on his way to work every day?
I'm not sure, but deep down I think that's why he chose Miami over Chicago in 2010. All Bulls fans can hope is that his championship in Miami has ended any fear he holds of being compared to Jordan.
Chances LeBron is a Bull: 15 percent.
Los Angeles Lakers
We don't know how much LeBron wants the Lakers, but we sure know the Lakers want LeBron.
They've been hoarding 2014 cap space since trading for Dwight Howard, refusing to take on any long-term contracts in potential Pau Gasol trades.
Why? Because in LeBron, they see someone who can realistically take over for Kobe without missing a beat. LeBron James could be the next Laker legend.
Thing is, we don't know exactly how the 2014 Lakers roster will look. Dwight Howard may or may not be there. Ditto for Kobe Bryant. Steve Nash is the only one under contract after next season.
If the Lakers want any chance at LeBron, they have to pray that Dwight stays. But Kobe? They might be better off without him.
LeBron won't go anywhere to be a sidekick. He got enough crap for that when he paired up with Wade. He's obviously a better player than Bryant, but Kobe's personality would never allow LeBron to feel like the true leader of the team.
Beyond the players, I think LeBron recognizes that he's never worn a meaningful NBA jersey. That's not a slight against Cleveland or Miami, but they simply don't have the history that the Lakers do. As is the case with Boston, I think LeBron would like the idea of seeing his jersey hang in the rafters next to Magic Johnson's and Kareem Abdul-Jabar's.
As much as we want to talk about the Laker legacy, the appeal of Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant and even Mike D'Antoni, this one comes down to Dwight Howard. If he's a Laker, they'll have a real shot at stealing LeBron. If not, they might as well tear the team apart.
Chances LeBron is a Laker: 15 percent
Everyone and their brother has reported this rumor. If Miami needs to worry about anyone, it's the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kyrie Irving might be better than Dwyane Wade right now. Over the life of LeBron's next contract? It's not even a question.
And that's only the beginning. Between Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson and its first-round picks this year and next, Cleveland finally has the ammunition to give LeBron the kind of team he deserves.
We know LeBron feels at least some affection for Northeast Ohio. He still lives there over the summer and, unless he has a heart of stone, probably regrets the way he left.
But any potential LeBron return needs to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Dan Gilbert. Could the two ever work together again after the scathing letter he wrote to Cavs fans after LeBron left? How awkward would that pitch be? Have the two even spoken since then?
And what about Cavs fan? Could they really embrace LeBron after everything that happened in 2010?
Or what if this was the plan all along? Gilbert and James knew they'd never be able to find a second star, so they planned for him to leave in the most brutal way possible so the Cavs would have time to build a better roster around him. Then, four years later, he'd come back and lead that roster to a championship.
Who knows, this might honestly cause enough cognitive dissonance in the city of Cleveland to make the entire populace spontaneously combust. Either way, the Cavs are the biggest threat to Miami to steal King James.
Chances LeBron is a Cav: 25 percent.
I don't think anyone is surprised to see the Heat atop these rankings. What should surprise you, though, is the percentage I've allotted to Miami. For those of you who don't want to do math, the first eight teams on this list combine for 65 percent. That leaves only a 35 percent chance LeBron remains in Miami.
In other words, I think LeBron is leaving.
Don't act so shocked, Heat fans. LeBron is going to do what's best for LeBron. At this point in his career, staying in Miami just doesn't make much sense.
Dwyane Wade's prime might already be over, and certainly will be by the end of next season. Chris Bosh isn't far behind, and after those two, who else can LeBron depend on to play with him?
Nobody, because Miami doesn't have the kind of young talent necessary to develop a long-term contender.
Without Wade as his sidekick, James simply doesn't have a reason to stay. He's not exactly known for his loyalty, and when Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving and Dwight Howard come calling, it'll be awfully hard for him to say no.
I don't necessarily think the Heat are out of the running. In fact, they're the favorites, but it'll all come down to how long LeBron really thinks Dwyane Wade will be an elite player. The moment Dwyane Wade stops being Dwyane Wade is the moment LeBron decides to leave Miami.
Chances LeBron plays for the Heat: 35 percent.