Early Predictions for LeBron James' Top Suitors in 2014
If LeBron James opts out of his contract with the Miami Heat at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season, he'll become one of the most heavily pursued free agents in the history of sports.
That's not an exaggeration, as it's quite rare that the best player in basketball (by a wide margin right now) hits the open market and gets chased by one of the most storied athletic franchises in the world.
So, which teams are going to become his top suitors?
It's absolutely vital to note the perspective from which this is written. I don't care about where LeBron wants to go. That's utterly irrelevant. This is all about which teams will chase after him in hopes of landing the reigning MVP.
Although more teams will want to get into the running—the Charlotte Bobcats, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, etc.—those squads have more pressing needs than chasing a pipe dream. The five organizations you'll see presented here have the financial ability and mental space necessary to worry about a pursuit.
The Chicago Bulls are another team that could possibly go after LeBron, but doing so would require amnestying Carlos Boozer, cutting ties with Luol Deng, shipping out Mike Dunleavy and convincing Joakim Noah not to beat up LeBron every day. Consider them the honorable mention.
Now, let's take a speculative look at the five biggest suitors.
5. Detroit Pistons
The Detroit Pistons are an outlandish landing spot for LeBron James to choose, but there's no reason why the team shouldn't pursue him. And remember, that's the direction we care about in this article.
Detroit has a number of intriguing young pieces, but enough contracts are coming off the books at the conclusion of the 2013-14 season that Joe Dumars could seriously make a pitch for the best player in the world.
Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey will be unrestricted free agents. A number of players have options on their contracts, and Greg Monroe will be a restricted free agent. Only Josh Smith, Kyle Singler, Khris Middleton, Luigi Datome and Chauncey Billups currently have guaranteed contracts.
Detroit has plenty of money to spend, but the team would have to let Greg Monroe walk or trade him for cheap assets. That's the only way to preserve the financial flexibility and roster space needed to land LeBron.
Currently, the frontcourt is incredibly crowded. Andre Drummond, Monroe and Smith are going to have trouble coexisting, especially once the Pistons realize Smoove shouldn't be playing the 3.
Allowing LeBron, Smith and Drummond to join forces makes a lot more sense from a chemistry and upside perspective.
Again, this isn't going to happen. But that's because LeBron won't agree to terms, not because the Pistons won't be offering him a chance to join the up-and-coming squad.
4. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz are another team that isn't going to reel in LeBron James. The pond simply isn't big enough for him.
While the Great Salt Lake is the largest salt lake in the Western hemisphere, it still isn't large enough to hold a free agent the size of LeBron. He needs a bigger market and a team with more established talent.
The Jazz have a great deal of long-term potential, and they have plenty of available cash after parlaying their 2013 cap space into expiring contracts. Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins, Marvin Williams, Brandon Rush and Jerel McNeal will all be unrestricted free agents next offseason.
However, what's the allure for LeBron? Playing with Trey Burke, who needs some seasoning before he can become the next great floor general? Playing with Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward or Alec Bucks, none of whom have truly broken out?
Utah has the money to play with and a desperate need for a superstar to gain some relevancy in the eyes of the national media, but LeBron is going to spurn any pursuit.
3. Dallas Mavericks
If LeBron James joined the Dallas Mavericks, the world would officially be turned upside down. The hilarity of him signing on with the team that knocked him out of the NBA Finals a few years back would be too much to take, even if it would be a sensible signing.
The Mavs have no expensive players under contract for the 2013-14 season and beyond. Jose Calderon will be the heftiest financial burden after signing a four-year, $29 million contract. Dirk Nowitzki will probably top that, but he's technically an unrestricted free agent.
Monta Ellis is also closing in on a deal with the Mavericks, according to ESPN's Marc Stein, so he factors into the equation as well.
LeBron would have the ability to control this team while playing alongside Dirk for around two more seasons. After that, the German seven-footer will likely be only a shadow of his old self.
The Mavericks have two more things going for them: lots more cap space and Mark Cuban.
LeBron would be able to bring in another star player with him, and he'd have an owner who isn't afraid to spend what it costs to win a championship. Before Mikhail Prokhorov decided that the collective bargaining agreement didn't apply to him and the Brooklyn Nets, it was Cuban who was the most aggressive and involved owner.
Much like the Detroit Pistons and Utah Jazz, the Mavericks are an extremely unlikely destination simply because there are three better choices: going to one of the next two teams or remaining with the Miami Heat.
But that won't stop a spend-happy Cuban from launching a campaign that attempts to bring the MVP into his clutches.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
Now we've worked our way into the legitimate possibilities.
From LeBron James' perspective, I'd call this the best choice should he choose to opt out of his contract and leave the Miami Heat behind, taking his talents away from South Beach this time around. However, that's not what this article is about.
The Cleveland Cavaliers aren't desperate to land LeBron. They'd certainly love to have him back—who wouldn't?—but their future aspirations aren't directly tied to the pursuit of another superstar during the 2014 offseason.
Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, Tristan Thompson and Sergey Karasev should all be on the roster for 2014-15 and beyond. Andrew Bynum could be as well if he lives up to the hopes, seeing as the Cavs inked him to a two-year, incentive-laden deal with a team option for the second season.
Cleveland doesn't need LeBron. The Cavs would be in great shape if he joined the squad, but they're already going to be an upper-level playoff team without him.
The same can't be said about our next franchise.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The thought of LeBron James joining forces with Kobe Bryant is a terrifying one for the rest of the NBA. Even scarier still is that the Los Angeles Lakers would still have enough money to bring in another max player and then add quality parts around the league's newest Big Three.
While the 2013-14 campaign may be a little rough for the Lake Show, everything comes off the books after their inevitable failure to make the playoffs or early postseason exit. Almost literally everything.
Steve Nash is the only player under contract beyond this season, and the stretch provision can be used to drop the expenditures to just over $3 million. L.A. has insane amounts of money to spend, and stars will be the target.
Of course, no star shines brighter than LeBron.
In terms of likelihood, I'd put this behind both the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Lakers are going to be the most desperate and involved suitors for LeBron's services.