Appearing on ESPN Radio Wednesday afternoon, the network's Stephen A. Smith spoke about what's sure to be the most highly discussed off-court storyline of the 2013-14 NBA season: where LeBron James will play basketball once that campaign ends.
The reigning league MVP has an early termination option on his contract with the Miami Heat after 2013-14, one that most expect him to use. By opting out, James would subsequently be able to sign another maximum contract—four years with another team or five if he stays in Miami—that would be worth up to 35 percent of the salary cap or 105 percent of his 2013-14 salary, whichever is higher.
Speaking under the theoretical scenario that James would leave South Beach, Smith posits an interesting nugget that he's heard. LeBron will consider all of his options, but the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks have a greater opportunity to sign him than the Lakers.
Cleveland has been a longstanding possibility. The Cavaliers have built a young core led by Kyrie Irving and have kept their cap sheet clean for 2014, ostensibly for a run at bringing James back to his home state—a full-circle moment following "The Decision" fiasco.
The more interesting nugget is Smith's position that James would choose New York over Los Angeles. In the aftermath of Howard choosing to bolt after one season, one of the minor positive takeaways was that the Lakers would have a ton of money to spend on the open market. Steve Nash is the only contract on their books after next season, theoretically leaving open two max-contract slots for new superstars—depending on how much they choose to pay Kobe Bryant.
The major issue for the Knicks here is financial. New York would move heaven and earth to sign James, as would every other team in the league. The problem is that the Knicks might not find takers to relieve them of an untenable cap situation.
New York would have to clear no less than $20.02 million in cap space to be able to sign James, assuming that he'll be looking for the full maximum. Assuming Amar'e Stoudemire opts into his $23.41 million salary for the 2014-15 season, which he almost certainly will, New York would almost certainly be unable to fit James' number under the cap—even it it renounces the rights to all of its free agents.
Carmelo Anthony has an early termination option on his deal for next summer as well, and the Knicks' first priority will probably be to sign him to an extension. Smith noted in his interview that Anthony could give a ton of consideration to the Lakers if the Knicks fail to make a championship push.
"At that point, Carmelo Anthony will strongly entertain the possibility of leaving to go to Los Angeles," Smith said, via Sporting News' Tom Gatto).
And then there are the basketball complications of such a move. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were maligned during the Heat's playoff run this past season, but they represent a better alternative to what would be left without Anthony for the Knicks. James would walk into a situation where Tyson Chandler and Stoudemire, who would both be 31 at that point, are his best teammates.
This theoretical also assumes James would even want to leave Miami, which isn't a given. The four-time league MVP has won his first two championships with the Heat, plays with one of his best friends in Wade and could see Pat Riley retool the roster again around him before his prime ends.
It would also be unprecedented to see James depart Miami if the Heat three-peat next season.
There are a ton of dominoes that will fall in this situation. Much of James' decision likely rests on how he feels about Heat's championship prospects going forward.
Just know this is far from the last time we'll be hearing rumors like this.
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