This time as a member of the Houston Rockets.
The Chosen One has the ability to become a free agent this summer. After winning two championships with the Miami Heat in four years, he's not considered a lock to stay, which has left teams like the Rockets scrambling, according to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck:
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. If the Rockets miss out on James, they will turn their full attention to Carmelo Anthony. Chris Bosh is also on the radar.
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.
Joining forces with James Harden and Dwight Howard puts James at the center of another Big Three—one that spawns a contender overnight and forces the rest of the league to adapt and react to a second, James-headlined tectonic shakeup.
With James off the market, wearing a different uniform, fist-bumping new teammates, growing his beard out like Harden, the NBA is thrust into a Code Red free-agency scrum—also known as "Operation React to LeBron James Becoming a Championship Mercenary with Loyalty that Runs Puddle Deep."
In certain instances, this calls for teams with cap space and LeBronathon aspirations to throw money elsewhere—as in everywhere else.
Carmelo Anthony becomes that much hotter a commodity. Not only is he the second-best free agent on the market, but the Rockets are one of his most ardent suitors. Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski actually cited them as a favorite of Anthony's.
If they remove themselves from the picture by signing James, it's good news for another one of his favorites: the Chicago Bulls.
Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com said that Anthony has been "doing his homework" on Chicago in anticipation of his free-agency junket. The Bulls' chances of landing him increase tenfold if their greatest threat is willingly neutralized.
Attentions will also turn to Chris Bosh, the sincerely loyal Heatle who becomes fair game if the Big Three disband.
“I want to be here," he said of staying in Miami, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "My family is here. I love working here. It's a great place."
Bosh and Wade could still explore free agency themselves, signing new deals with the Heat at a discounted price, allowing Pat Riley to chase contingency plans—like Melo—of his own. But Bosh's return is far less certain if it isn't accompanied by James.
Think of this as the trickle-down effect—one that begins with Melo and Bosh but continues on down the free-agency food chain. First the market for them will heat up, then focus will shift to Luol Deng, Kyle Lowry, Greg Monroe, Gordon Hayward and Lance Stephenson, among so many others.
Slighted teams will be desperate for plan B. Clubs that are merely adjusting to the seismic shift in talent will look for more talent of their own.
Free agency will be a counterattack, like it was in 2010 when James signed with the Heat. We saw the Bulls chase down Carlos Boozer and the New York Knicks max out Amar'e Stoudemire.
More transactions—essential panic moves—like those will be pushed through. Anything to combat the formation of another chilling, paper-dominating, championship-fowling superteam.
Combating James' latest departure will include taking to the trade market. It's the next best way to acquire star-level talent.
Look for the Minnesota Timberwolves' price on Kevin Love to skyrocket if James goes to Houston, assuming they don't trade him before the draft. Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein of ESPN.com say the Wolves and their top trade partner, the Golden State Warriors, have hit a snag in negotiations, so it's entirely possible nothing gets done by the June 26 draft.
While that precludes Minnesota from capitalizing on a deep 2014 draft class, it's apparent the team prefers acquiring players over selections. A mistake? Absolutely. The Timberwolves' best course of action remains starting completely over, building around draft picks that won't be possible flight risks for six, seven or eight years.
But if that's the way they're leaning, waiting won't hurt too much. For Minnesota, it won't hurt at all if James leaves Miami for Houston.
Aggressive offers will come pouring in. The Warriors, now playing in a deeper, more dangerous Western Conference, could up their ante. The Bulls could get antsy and subsequently generous if their free-agency avenues are exhausted. The Denver Nuggets could throw caution and logic to the wind.
Love's trade value won't be the only point of issue, either. Rajon Rondo could stumble onto the chopping block (again), according to the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett.
"If the Celtics cannot get Love, they are planning to continue with the longer and more methodical rebuilding process," he writes, "a process that would likely see Rajon Rondo traded."
Interest in Rondo (and Love) would always be insane. Available superstars create feeding frenzies. In the wake of what happens in free agency—specifically with James—there's going to be a more competitive fray.
On a smaller scale, coveted role players will be all the rave. Arron Afflalo is interested in being traded from the Orlando Magic to a contender, according to the Orlando Sentinel's Brian Schmitz, and Wojnarowski says playoff teams like the Bulls are hot on his trail.
Those are the players and trades that become more intriguing once high-profile free agents are signed and spoken for. Contenders will need to round out their rosters any way they see fit, finding additional firepower and talent. And while these searches are inevitable, they are something that heightens in importance and frequency in response to James' departure.
Reviving a Dying Desperation
Why all the craziness over one player, even if he is the world's greatest?
Well, for one, the Western Conference is already nuts. Throw James into the fracas, and the Western Conference becomes a breeding ground for the ridiculous, more than it already is.
The Oklahoma City Thunder suddenly can't expect to maintain their status quo and still keep pace with the Spurs and Rockets. Will the Los Angeles Clippers feel the same? Most definitely. The Warriors? Absolutely.
Playing against James three or four times a year—plus potentially the playoffs—as opposed to two changes things, brutalizing an already brutal Western Conference. If you think 14 other teams won't be forced to adjust accordingly, your invisibility cloak needs dry-cleaning.
Most notably, though, Houston's successful offseason would signify something different, something that 29 other teams will be forced to consider: the reemergence of the Big Three model.
Superstar coups are still the standard in certain places—New Yorkers know what I'm talking about—but the fad has cooled. The collective bargaining agreement has made Big Threes too difficult to create and maintain when the stars are in their primes.
Seeing the San Antonio Spurs take down Miami in the NBA Finals was nothing if not complicit in the Big Three's demise. The Spurs' "superstars" aren't in their prime. Depth trounced star power because it had to. There will be no 2010 deja vu.
Like Beck noted, James' departure could mark the end:
And thank you, 2011 NBA lockout, for producing a labor deal that made the Big Three model nearly impossible to sustain.
If James flees, presumably in search of younger, livelier teammates, it could signal the end of the NBA's Big Three era.
Given the extreme constraints imposed by the 2011 labor deal, it will be nearly impossible for any franchise to replicate the Heat's roster-building feat of four years ago.
You know, unless the Rockets go James hunting and snatch their target.
Harden, Howard and James are a Big Three—an ever better, more harrowing trio than Miami's in 2010 when you consider each player is the best at his respective position.
The model won't be dead. It will be alive, reborn and re-popularized by James' second decision.
Financially, it should be implausible, as NBC Sports' Dan Feldman explained. Dumping certain contracts won't give the Rockets unmatchable flexibility, rendering their latest pursuit unlikely.
Yet, we all said the same thing in 2010. Though the CBA wasn't as harsh, what the Heat did defied logic and created a business model other teams came to admire and (try to) duplicate—one 29 other clubs saw win two championships in four years.
"I think everybody needs to get a grip," Riley said of the Heat and their Big Three disbanding, per ESPN.com's Michael Wallace. "This stuff is hard. You have to stay together and find the guts. You don't find the [exit] door and run out of it."
Except James can. He might. And if he does, if he chooses star power over depth, it delivers a message that affects everything and everyone.
*Salary information via ShamSports.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!