Ranking LeBron James' Best Options in 2014 Free Agency
The world is LeBron James' oyster.
That's pretty much always the case now that he's established himself as the NBA's best player by winning multiple championships, but it will be especially true in 2014 if he chooses to opt out of his contract via the early termination option.
If that happens, LeBron will get to choose his next destination, and he'll be going there in order to win more titles. Rings create a slippery slope, and now that LeBron has tasted glory, it'll be awfully difficult for him to satiate that hunger.
But not all franchises present him with the same ability to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy once more. A few options stand out above all the rest.
Dark-Horse Contenders with Money
There are a lot of NBA teams with money to spend during the 2014 offseason, but that doesn't mean that they have realistic shots at landing the services of the league MVP.
In order to be realistic options, teams need to meet three criteria: A) They must have money to sign him, B) they must have the potential to land other quality players and C) they must either be a major market or have some sort of personal tie.
The first criterion eliminates all but 12 of the 30 teams in the Association, and the latter two knock out the Charlotte Bobcats, Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz and Washington Wizards. If you're a fan of one of the aforementioned squads, please try to avoid getting your hopes up because disappointment is the inevitable result.
That leaves us with four potential options should LeBron choose to exercise his early termination option.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Can you imagine LeBron joining the team that beat him in the 2011 NBA Finals? In rather humiliating fashion, no less.
While it would be strange to see Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron playing on the same team, it's by no means outside the realm of realistic possibilities. Of course, that's assuming that Mark Cuban can actually manage to land a marquee free agent—something he's failed to do multiple times over the last few offseasons.
The Mavs would have to re-sign Nowitzki and acquire LeBron in order to make this work, and that would leave them with a core of Nowitzki, LeBron and Monta Ellis. It would be a ridiculous offensive team, but the defense would be a bit lackluster, and there's not enough money for the franchise to pick up any true stoppers who aren't also offensive liabilities.
That trio is good enough to compete for a title in 2014-15 mostly because LeBron is just that much better than everyone else at this stage of his career, but the window would slam shut before too long. Nowitzki is already 35 years old, and while there haven't been many signs of an upcoming decline quite yet, it's still not going to be long before he fails to live up to his superstar status.
The reigning MVP isn't trying to win an NBA title. He's trying to win multiple championships and build his historical resume until he's the greatest player in basketball history.
You can insert the easy "Not one, not two, not three..." joke here if you want, but I'm not trying to make fun of him. It's just the nature of the beast at this point in his basketball life.
3. Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cleveland Cavaliers might not be one of the league's biggest, most popular teams, but they still mean something to LeBron. Even after leaving the squad via "The Decision," the Heat superstar still can't escape the fact that the Cavs are his hometown team and will always be the one that first gave the chance to establish himself in the NBA.
Now there's finally enough support in Cleveland that he could win a championship.
During his first go-around, his best teammates were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mo Williams, (washed up) Shaquille O'Neal, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison. It's hardly a title-winning bunch there, and it's actually pretty impressive that a young LeBron carried his supporting cast to the NBA Finals before bolting for South Beach.
That wouldn't be the case during his second time with the franchise.
Kyrie Irving, a point guard who appears likely to become a top-10 player in the league and challenge Chris Paul for the title of best point guard by the time the 2013-14 season is over, will be on the roster. So too will Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson.
Plus, if Andrew Bynum proves that he's going to regain his old form, the Cavs will be guaranteeing his contract for the 2014-15 season, making the squad that much stronger.
Even if Bynum doesn't pan out, the rest of the core is strong enough that it would be competing for titles during every year throughout the foreseeable future. The Heat would have two top-10 players, as well as a few other strong contributors with elite upsides.
The only reason Cleveland doesn't rank even higher is that there isn't an opportunity to land a third guaranteed star. The Cavs would still be relying on either Waiters, Bennett or Thompson to step up and become the final leg of the new Big Three.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
Only two players on the Los Angeles Lakers have guaranteed contracts beyond the 2013-14 season.
Steve Nash is on the books for $9.7 million, and Robert Sacre is on board for a minimum contract. If Nash doesn't look very good during his second season with the Lake Show, the team could very well waive him and use the stretch provision to make sure that he costs even less.
Obviously, there's a lot of financial flexibility to work with here.
The first goal has to be re-signing Kobe Bryant, as he isn't just a part of the Lakers. He is the Lakers.
Once he's on the squad (even if it's for a max contract instead of a discounted salary), the team will still have the opportunity to sign two more marquee players. LeBron will obviously be one target, and it's not too unlikely to think that Carmelo Anthony could come around on playing in purple and gold by the end of his latest campaign with the New York Knicks.
Think about that trio for a second.
LeBron, 'Melo and Kobe?
That's a dominant group, especially if they can figure out how to properly share the ball with one another.
No matter who the Lakers take a shot at, though, they have the money to land multiple great players, including a certain Mr. James.
That said, it would be a (relatively) short-lived title window. Kobe doesn't have too many years left before he pulls the plug on his fantastic NBA career, and the seasons would inevitably become transition periods as LeBron morphs into the new face of the franchise.
1. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat can offer LeBron something that no other team can: the ability to look back and see championship trophies.
In his three years with the Heat, LeBron has won two MVPs, two Finals MVPs and two titles. He's also been to the NBA Finals during each season in South Beach.
That's pretty impressive, and it's not likely to change anytime soon. Pat Riley has consistently proven that he's able to bring in elite talent, and he's clearly willing to do what it takes in order to win one title after another. No matter what he does, Riley has consistently had that magic touch.
The Heat aren't guaranteed to hold onto LeBron, but they'll be doing everything possible in order to make it happen. Even if Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh has to leave, Riley will be looking to bring someone in as a replacement.
LeBron has won two titles in Miami, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. This roster is still stacked, and it's built around the best player in the world.
If there's an underrated asset for the Heat, it's Erik Spoelstra. While he was originally viewed as an overrated coach at the beginning of his career, he's become a fantastic strategist who developed one of the most sophisticated offensive systems in the entire NBA.
That takes time, as the Heat proved during the 2010-11 season.
Miami is still the best option for LeBron simply because everything is already in place. And given the franchise's willingness to take risks that might pay off (see: Oden, Greg and Beasley, Michael) and bring in high-quality players, anything that's out of place will be replaced as quickly as possible.
Except if LeBron leaves. That's the only thing that can't really be replaced.