After a dismal showing in the NBA Finals, his supporting cast has been highly scrutinized. The best player on the planet has an escape clause in his contract in the form of an early termination option.
Like the last time he ventured into the waters of free agency, LeBron has the chance to join forces with a franchise already featuring two in-their-prime perennial All-Stars. In 2010, he famously took his talents to South Beach to suit up alongside Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Four years later, a trip to Texas could offer that same massive potential.
The Houston Rockets, a ready-made contender with Dwight Howard and James Harden on board, could draw up the same star-laden blueprint to attract James that the Miami Heat used in their recruiting pitch.
Bleacher Report's Howard Beck explained:
League sources say that Houston is preparing to make an all-out push to land James when free agency opens on July 1, assuming James opts out, as expected.
...There are rumblings that James will start weighing his options this weekend. One rival executive pegged his chances of leaving Miami at 40 percent.
The competition for James' affection will be fierce, but Houston's pitch may be tough to beat.
Before mapping out that pitch, the first question to ask is whether James would consider leaving the Sunshine State.
The executive who spoke to Beck gave the possibility far greater odds than a source who spoke with Sporting News' Sean Deveney earlier this week. That person said James "is very likely" to remain with the Heat, although the source noted that nothing has been decided yet.
Considering what the Heat have accomplished with the Big Three—four straight trips to the NBA Finals, a pair of world titles—the idea of James leaving might seem like a giant leap of faith.
Some would argue, however, that sticking around would be no different.
The 32-year-old Wade isn't getting any younger. There is no way to roll back his odometer. He missed 28 games as part of his health maintenance program this past season and still looked gassed by the Finals, where he averaged just 15.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting.
Bosh still faces the same questions about his apparent lack of aggressiveness that surfaced shortly after he arrived in Miami. The versatile big man had an efficient Finals (54.9 field-goal percentage), but he attempted only 10.2 shots per night.
Both of these players have the same option to leave as James. The rest of the roster is clouded by uncertainty. Only reserve guard Norris Cole has a guaranteed contract for next season.
James has personal and emotional ties to the Heat. If he set those aside and determined his future solely off basketball reasons, though, wouldn't Houston look like a far more desirable situation than Miami?
The Rockets, as Beck noted, wouldn't look exactly the same as currently constructed if they brought James on board. With $59 million already on the books for 2014-15, via ShamSports.com, Houston would need to shed a substantial amount of salary to get close to James' price range.
The first logical step would be unloading the contracts of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin. Each player will account for $8.3 million in cap space for next season, although the balloon payments in both of their contracts mean that each will receive $15 million in actual salary.
That's a high price to pay for complementary players, but it might not be as tough to pull off as it sounds.
"According to an individual familiar with the Rockets’ plans, they are confident they would be able to move Lin and Asik’s contracts because unlike their failed efforts to trade Asik last season, they would be looking to clear cap room, rather than bring back rotation players with similar contracts," Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle reported.
With those contracts wiped away, the Rockets would still need more wiggle room to have a shot at James.
"Houston would then need to trade two minor pieces—Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan—and waive a few players with non-guaranteed deals to create the $19 million slot," Beck wrote.
Motiejunas is a 23-year-old 7-footer who's comfortable playing away from the basket. Canaan is a gifted scoring point guard—he averaged 21.8 points in 18 D-League games this past season—and he's also 23 years old. Finding them a home shouldn't be too difficult, especially if the Rockets want nothing in return.
This might be a long shot, but it's feasible. Provided, of course, James is willing to play along.
The four-time MVP would have to leave a sizable amount of money on the table to make this happen. His wallet took a hit when he moved to Miami, but this one would leave a much bigger dent.
"Signing into the cap space Beck’s plan would actually create would cost LeBron more than $14 million over four years relative to what he could get in a max deal with any team outside Miami," NBC Sports' Dan Feldman observed. "It would also be $45 million less than he could get on a five-year max deal by re-signing with the Heat."
That's a big bullet to bite, but James would have reasons to at least consider doing so.
One could argue that Houston's current cast is not only better than Miami's, but that it's also superior to the one James joined in 2010. Harden has the ability to create for himself and his teammates like Wade, but the bearded baller also possesses a lethal three-point cannon (career 36.9 three-point percentage). Howard might not have Bosh's versatility, but the Rockets center is by far a better rim protector and rebounder.
Star-gazing Rockets general manager Daryl Morey wouldn't be forced to sell James on his top two players alone, though.
The executive also has Chandler Parsons, a 25-year-old Swiss army knife who can score from anywhere on the floor. Assuming the Rockets decline his team option, something Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports says they plan on doing, they could go over the cap later to match any offer he could get as a restricted fee agent.
Parsons could be an impactful puzzle piece unlike anything James has had in Miami. The Heat have employed players like Mike Miller and Ray Allen as their fourth scorers, but neither brought Parsons' combination of youth, length and athleticism.
The Rockets also have Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones, the type of young talent the Heat will try to attract over the offseason. Beverley is a tenacious defender who's willing to work off the ball as a floor spacer at the opposite end. Jones is a versatile, athletic forward who could fill a number of different roles off Houston's bench.
Under a hypothetical lens, the Rockets appear to be a highly attractive landing spot for James.
So, how could this move from the hypothetical realm to reality?
It would take a lot of creativity on Houston's part and James' willingness to take some major risks.
The 29-year-old is in all-out ring-collection, legacy-building mode. That's what drove him to Miami and what one would presume would lead him to leave should he ever book that flight.
The Rockets have enough talent to help him add to his jewelry box, but those pieces are still learning how to play together. It's hard to say whether Harden or Howard is the current alpha dog, and James' arrival would reshuffle the top of the totem pole.
It took Miami a full season to find its balance of power, and James might not want to go through that experience again. Considering the difficulty of securing an NBA Finals ticket in the hotly contested Western Conference, the improved talent might not necessarily improve his odds of reclaiming his championship throne.
Throw in the money he could lose, the lifestyle change for him and his family, plus the bonds he'd have to break on his way out of Florida, and James could decide it's not worth the risk.
If he thinks long enough about the potential rewards, though, he at least needs to hear out Morey's plan.
The talent base is better in Houston now, and the gap could widen as the Rockets' young guns continue their development. The Rockets won 54 games without James this past season, so it's not as if Houston's pitch will lack supporting evidence.
James saw an opportunity to improve his championship odds four years ago and he pounced on it. Two rings later, it might be time to start surveying the lay of the land once again.
He knows he can't win a title on his own. Now, he must decide which supporting cast gives him the best chance to compete for one.
Houston, Miami and 28 other NBA franchises will be more than interested to hear that decision. Just like they all were last time around.
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