How Every Team Interested in LeBron James Can Land Him in Free Agency
Welcome to The Decision, Part II.
This is not a drill.
LeBron James' agent, Rich Paul, informed the Miami Heat that the four-time MVP will be exercising his early termination option, according to ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard. In case you think Broussard's playing some sort of twisted joke, USA Today's Sam Amick and Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski both confirmed his report.
King James' decision shouldn't come as a mind-melting surprise, nor does it portend his departure from Miami. Though he could have opted into the next year of his contract, this gives him the freedom to maximize his earning potential now while putting pressure on Pat Riley and the Heat to get their act together.
Reaching free agency also gives James the power of choice. Again, he's no lock to leave the Heat, but he could. That's now his right. He can take his talents elsewhere in search of what he wants most.
What is it he wants?
“I just want to win," James told reporters after the Heat's final team meeting. "That’s all that matters to me.”
That, and money. And location. Teammates, too.
There are so many factors that will go into James' next decision, and while he may have us believe that 30 options are at his disposal, he is bound by the same constraints as others.
So form an orderly queue, NBA free-agency players with, or in position to create, cap space. LeBron will be with you shortly.
Those who can't give him what he wants need not apply.
The Long Shots
Everyone loves a good underdog story.
Except the free-agency gods.
Certain long shots will make a play for James. That's probably a cold take at this point, since 30 teams will look into his imminent free agency. But some of those long shots may get face time with the King, scribble his name inside little hearts or even go as far as paying think tanks to devise a way to create cap space and come up with a complexly effective sales pitch.
Whatever these dreamers of dreams may or may not have planned, it will likely—yes, "likely," since the NBA embodies the "anything can happen" adage—be for naught.
Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com cite the Atlanta Hawks as one of many teams that will make a run at James.
Market bias comes into play here. Atlanta isn't a hot landing spot, so the Hawks have to get creative, which, per Stein and Windhorst, consists of them chasing James and Carmelo Anthony together.
Creating that much cap space will be tricky, pretty much demanding the Hawks dump everyone not named Paul Millsap and Al Horford, or not named Horford and Jeff Teague.
If James can be sold on playing in Atlanta by himself, alongside Horford, Teague, Millsap and Kyle Korver, finding new homes for Lou Williams and DeMarre Carroll puts the Hawks in position to offer James a max or near-max deal.
Golden State Warriors
“I can’t answer it, no answer,” Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers said, while smiling, of the team's interest in James, per the Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung.
Smirking doesn't equate to outright interest, but let's face it, there's interest. Every team has interest.
The Warriors cannot get far enough under the projected $63.2 million salary cap—keep this number in mind as we move forward, folks—to offer James a legitimate contract, though. They can only land him via a sign-and-trade that would have to include some combination of Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, future first-rounders and anything else Pat Riley desires.
My advice: The Warriors should stick to targeting Kevin Love. And no, that's not because they can acquire both. They can't.
New York Knicks
Color the New York Knicks more than long shots, as they're only here because they wander into every rumor mill, and because the New York Daily News' Frank Isola previously reported James would look at them with Phil Jackson in charge.
Over the cap before even re-signing Anthony and barren of trade assets, the Knicks don't have a play here. Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal summed it up best after a long, grueling, sanity-spraining look at New York's chances: "It's not happening."
Los Angeles Clippers
Disclaimer: The Los Angeles Clippers are an extension of long shots, but the James and Chris Paul hype is generating mountains of buzz, so here we are.
Like 29 other NBA teams, the Clippers are interested in James, according to ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. Unlike some of those 29 other teams, the Clippers don't have cap space, nor are they going to create enough to sign James.
They have more than $76.2 million committed to 12 players—assuming all options are exercised—next season. To offer James a starting salary of $20 million, which is less than he's eligible for, they must clear $33 million in cap space.
Even if certain players opt out of their deals, the Clippers are sitting at $71.7 million in salary obligations. They would still need to clear roughly $28.5 million from the books.
Ergo, they aren't signing him outright. Sign-and-trading for him is their only option.
And it's already dead.
One player they have no interest in moving, however, is forward Blake Griffin. While the Clippers would need to move significant players and money to make a run at either James or Anthony, sources told ESPN that Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers has told Griffin on numerous occasions that he considers him "untouchable" in any trade.
There's no doubt Griffin is untouchable. Like Bleacher Report's Ethan Norof observes, "Blake Griffin is best thing to ever happen to Clippers team. He’s [the] reason Chris Paul re-signed. Most marketable asset LAC ever had."
Refusing to deal Griffin will cost the Clippers a shot at James. If you think Riley and the Heat will accept a package built around DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford and Jared Dudley, well, put me on the guest list for your next vacation to Bikini Bottom.
Carmelo Anthony, please hold while the Chicago Bulls explore better options.
Or maybe not.
While some teams are openly shifting their attentions to James, the Bulls remain focused on pursuing Anthony, per the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson.
Smart? Absolutely. They know bringing James to Chicago is a long shot—seeing him play alongside Joakim Noah would be the most wonderfully awkward thing ever—and don't seem prepared to risk damaging Anthony's ego.
Should they change their minds—or become more open in their courtship of James—nothing changes. To create max-contract room, the Bulls must still, as yours truly previously outlined, amnesty Carlos Boozer, hold off on bringing Nikola Mirotic stateside, forfeit or stash both first-rounders, dump Mike Dunleavy and trade Taj Gibson while taking less than $2.4 million back in return.
This is why the Bulls are here. This is why we're assuming they're interested. If they're prepared to swim in hot molten lava for Anthony, they'll most certainly do the same for James.
Considering how easy it is for them to create the necessary cap space—Dunleavy, Mirotic, Gibson and those two first-rounders can all be unloaded quickly—the Bulls should be considered a dark-horse James contender.
That is, if they can sell James on playing alongside an injury-prone Derrick Rose and next to a nonexistent supporting cast.
Could the Prodigal Son return "home?"
The Cleveland Cavaliers are already in position to offer James a near-max pact. They could have as much as $47.2 million devoted to 12 players next season, and that number stands to drop if they remove Anderson Varejao's non-guaranteed deal from the ledger. It could plummet if they suddenly enter the asset-dumping business.
Which they might.
Stein and Windhorst say the Cavs are one team that will try to make a play for James and Anthony:
The Cavs, meanwhile, have numerous nonguaranteed contracts on their books and extra draft picks they could attach to players in trades to free up money. There are scenarios where the team believes it could clear in excess of $30 million in cap space without having to trade young star Kyrie Irving or the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday's draft, sources said this week.
Manufacturing $30 million of extra cap space would allow the Cavs to offer James and Melo close to, if not actual, max contracts. They may even be willing to accept pay cuts if it means improving a supporting crew that already includes Kyrie Irving and the first-overall-pick-to-be.
But Anthony has already emphasized the importance of playing in a big market, seemingly ruining the Cavs' chances of landing him. Perhaps he changes his mind for James, but don't count on it.
Any pitch the Cavs make to James likely won't include Anthony. They'll instead have to highlight their financial flexibility and willingness to rebuild around him again, an admirable sales pitch that won't be enough.
Failing to make the playoffs since James left hurts the Cavs big time. Had he opted to explore free agency next summer after monitoring their progression from afar for another year, perception of his return changes.
Immediate flexibility, however, isn't enough to combat the absence of a James-less breakthrough.
If there is one team to watch out for during the LeBronathon, it's the Houston Rockets.
General manager Daryl Morey is a cap-managing master, and according to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, he and the Rockets are planning an "all-out push" to land James.
This all-out push starts with Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.
In order to have a puncher's chance at becoming free-agency players, the Rockets must dump—as in trade without taking anyone back—both Lin and Asik. Per Amick, this won't be an issue. The Rockets apparently have deals in place.
But that's only the beginning.
After accounting for guaranteed and non-guaranteed contracts, player and team options, Chandler Parsons' restricted free agency cap hold and their No. 25 pick in this year's draft, the Rockets are left with $13.4 million(ish) to spend. That number must go up.
Increasing their spending power won't be easy. Say they were willing to dump Parsons and Francisco Garcia. That gives them roughly $16.6 million to give James in the first year of his new deal. Is that enough?
There are other players the Rockets can dump, but creating max space demands they gut their roster. It may not even be possible.
Acquiring James hinges on his willingness to take less for the opportunity to play alongside Dwight Howard and James Harden. They are Houston's greatest selling points, more than whatever cap space Morey conjures will ever be.
Los Angeles Lakers
Get pumped, Los Angeles.
Stay sensible, though.
Of all teams that Stein and Windhorst say are trying to sign James and Anthony, the Los Angeles Lakers have the best shot. This doesn't mean it's going to happen, but if it's going to happen anywhere, Los Angeles is the place.
If the Lakers use their No. 7 pick—the actual player they draft since the selection itself cannot be traded—to buffer a Steve Nash salary dump, Kobe Bryant and Robert Sacre are the only two guaranteed contracts left for them to work around.
Those two will earn under $24.5 million combined in 2014-15. If the Lakers keep Kendall Marshall, Ryan Kelly and Kent Bazemore while renouncing every other free agent, they will have $32-plus million to burn through after factoring in six minimum cap holds worth approximately $500,000 each.
Giving Anthony and James $16 million apiece is more than any other big market can offer. And as far as devouring pies while floating among the clouds goes, it bodes well for the Lakers.
Yet there's an inherent flaw here: Bryant.
Will Anthony and James really agree to take the pay cuts Bryant didn't? For a team they have no allegiance to? To headline a roster devoid of depth?
Don't hold your breath.
Then again, crazier things have happened.
Like, the Lakers handing Bryant $48.5 million over the next two years, for instance.
Prepare for an anti-climatic end to James' latest decision.
Opting out doesn't mean James is done with the Heat. Far from it. They're still the favorites to sign him. Not because they can offer him more than any other team, but because they still employ the delightfully dazzling deviant that is Riley.
Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick has more:
He's giving Riley a chance to squeeze on the necessary antibiotic, and heal what ails the Heat.
And Riley should have plenty of goop in the tube, provided that Bosh and Wade also opt out—which sources indicate they are likely to do in the coming days—and provided that all three then sacrifice some annual income for longer deals.
There is no need for a clever, over-the-top face-to-face meeting. The Heat will have all the ammunition they need once Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade follow James' lead and opt out. Riley and the Big Three can then evaluate their options and understand what kind of financial sacrifices must be made.
Can the Big Three accept earning under $15 million next season, convince Anthony to do the same and form a Big Four? Could they all take a little more, but still markedly less and permit Riley to chase down prominent role players like Trevor Ariza or Kyle Lowry?
Is drafting Shabazz Napier the solution to all things LeBron?
Does Riley have something up his sleeve, an unforeseen remedy to everything that ails Miami and threatens to kill its dynastic vibes?
This is how the Heat can keep James—by selling him on everything they did four years ago.
The belief that no vision, however grand, is outside their reach.
*Team salary and player contract information via ShamSports.