If the stars are going to align for the Phoenix Suns, the stars might have to, well, align. This summer, there's an increasingly legitimate chance they do exactly that.
I don't know if you've heard yet, but LeBron James is a free agent, and every general manager with a pulse is chasing after him this summer. However, some options are more realistic than others.
Up to this point in the offseason, six teams have emerged as the primary suitors for James' talents, as Mitch Lawrence breaks down for the New York Daily News—the Miami Heat, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers.
First, let's be clear—all of these options are appealing ones.
The Los Angeles Lakers give LeBron an opportunity play for one of the league's true marquee franchises and eventually take over as the face of the organization once Kobe Bryant has retired. The Cleveland Cavaliers are inundated with young talent, and both the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets would have him competing for a title right away.
However, none of those squads should be considered among the favorites.
The Lake Show doesn't have any established talent on the roster—other than Kobe—and there's no telling whether or not they'll be able to remedy that in the near future. Plus, could the Mamba and the King even work together on the same court?
Cleveland may be emerging as an increasingly competitive destination, but the team isn't ready to win right away. Plus, the duo of David Blatt and David Griffin is an inexperienced one, at least when it comes to their current NBA gigs as head coach and general manager, respectively.
The Rockets would have to slash their roster to pieces in order to land LeBron, and he wouldn't be able to receive a max contract while keeping the win-now appeal. And the Mavericks have the necessary core pieces, but they're too old to remain competitive into the back end of this upcoming contract.
So, that leaves the Heat and the Suns.
What Does LeBron Want?
This is the all-important question.
If LeBron wants to remain loyal to the franchise that helped him win championships, he isn't going anywhere. If he trusts Pat Riley, Miami's president of basketball operations, to rebuild this team over the rest of the offseason, he isn't going anywhere. If he's more driven by keeping his family in South Beach, he isn't going anywhere.
Ethan Skolnick, Bleacher Report's NBA Senior Writer based in Miami, doesn't feel as though the Heat should be considered "in trouble" until LeBron himself meets with other teams. After all, he's taken the early portion of the offseason to vacation with his family, choosing to let his agent attend the meetings and listen to recruiting pitches.
But while LeBron lounges in luxury in the Antilles, cheering on his son as he catches fish, the rest of the world thinks it's figured out what the 29-year-old wants more than anything else.
Let's allow ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst to sum it up:
As there was in 2010, there is only one way to truly recruit LeBron: talent. The roster matters more than virtually anything.— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) July 4, 2014
Well, that throws a wrench in the plans.
Throw out the market. Disregard the friendships he's built over the years with Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and everyone else. Forget about the appeal of not uprooting his family, which has become increasingly important to him as he matures both on and off the court.
If—and this is a big "if"—Windhorst is correct, it's all about the supporting cast that would be in place. And that's where Miami gets in trouble, especially on the heels of a report from Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that LeBron expects quick roster improvements from the Heat.
"There's clearly a breakdown in communication between LeBron and [Wade and Bosh]," an anonymous executive who was a part of the recent meetings told Wojnarowski. "[James is] giving Riley time to go get players for them but if that doesn't happen in the next few days…LeBron seems ready to explore the market."
And why shouldn't he?
Up to this point, the Heat have been unable to emerge as front-runners for quality free agents, much less sign anyone. Luol Deng, for example, reportedly disagreed that he should take a pay cut to come to South Beach, per ESPN.com's Chris Broussard. Kyle Lowry re-signed with the Toronto Raptors, and while the Heat seem to be making some headway with Pau Gasol, that wouldn't push them over the top in the LeBron hunt.
No, it's Phoenix that has the most to offer, again assuming that the roster is the biggest motivating factor.
An Unmatched Present Roster
Can you imagine a starting five of Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, LeBron, Bosh and Miles Plumlee?
That team would run roughshod over the rest of the NBA, especially if it was supported by a deep bench with growing young pieces. And that's exactly what the desert-based franchise can offer James, should he choose to seriously consider its pitch.
"The Suns are positioned with the cap space and maneuverability to chase James and the co-star of his liking without yielding Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, James’ close friend, in the process," AZCentral.com’s Paul Coro explained. "That second star pursuit could be USA Basketball buddy [Carmelo] Anthony or fellow Miami free agent Chris Bosh in free agency."
Oh, and they can also keep Markieff Morris, Plumlee and Archie Goodwin.
By cutting ties with the nonguaranteed players on the roster and dealing Gerald Green, Marcus Morris and Alex Len for cap space, they Suns can open up enough financial flexibility to offer two max contracts and retain Bledsoe, with whom LeBron has enjoyed a close relationship. Plus, the Suns would still have access to their draft picks from June 26—T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis and Alec Brown.
That's a stellar starting five and plenty of depth. Right off the bat, even before using minimum contracts to fill up the roster with veterans who would surely want to be a part of something special, here's what the new-look Suns would be dealing with at each position:
- Point guard: Goran Dragic, Tyler Ennis
- Shooting guard: Eric Bledsoe, Archie Goodwin
- Small forward: LeBron James, T.J. Warren
- Power forward: Chris Bosh, Markieff Morris
- Center: Miles Plumlee, Alec Brown
I'm assuming Bosh is LeBron's choice to join him in Phoenix and not Carmelo Anthony. That's both because Melo will have a tough time turning down the offers he's receiving from the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers and because the power forward Bosh is the better fit on this roster that could use a true big man who can stretch the floor.
But where exactly are the holes here?
"The Suns' pitch to James is simple," writes Bleacher Report's Ben Leibowitz. "If he lands with Planet Orange, a supporting cast will be there to help build his legacy. The Larry O’Brien Trophy would be far less elusive."
Not one team in the NBA with some semblance of a shot at landing him can offer a better immediate shot at a title, even if LeBron would have to go through the Western Conference gauntlet by taking his talents to the blistering-hot desert. Let's run through the six options once more.
The Heat would boast the aging core of James, Wade and Bosh, though they'd be joined by Shabazz Napier, Norris Cole, a player like Pau Gasol and a bunch of veterans. Is that Big Three really better than James, Dragic and Bledsoe, especially with Bosh/Anthony joining to make it a Big Four?
The Rockets could pitch LeBron, James Harden and Dwight Howard, but that's a core containing a huge defensive liability and a big man whose attitude has been questioned ad nauseam, something that won't be attractive to a man who's become all about winning. Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis could beat out Dragic and Bledsoe, but not with Bosh in the picture.
The Lakers don't have a core outside of Kobe, and the Cavaliers' group of Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson is far more attractive down the road than in the present.
Phoenix is the best option to win right now. And it gets better still.
Plenty More Growth
Only the Cavaliers can compete with the growth factor.
They have plenty of young talent, but it's far less established than what's currently calling Phoenix home. Bledsoe was playing like an All-Star before he was injured, and Dragic should've made the All-Star team in 2013-14, harmed by playing in the West and an unfortunate level of relative anonymity. For Cleveland, Irving was a questionable, popularity-aided inclusion in the weaker conference.
But even with three No. 1 picks on the roster, one of whom is a point guard trending toward the top of the positional rankings (Irving) and another who's viewed as a potential franchise-changing prospect though he hasn't yet played an NBA game (Wiggins), Cleveland may still not have as much hope for growth.
Dragic and Bledsoe are both on the rise, checking in at 28 and 24 years old, respectively. The former may seem like he's moving into the tail end of his prime, but he's only just gaining a true featured gig and doesn't have the mileage on his legs that other players his age might—that and the fact that he entered the NBA at 22 effectively pushes back his "real age."
Plus, we can't forget about what Leibowitz calls "the mystique of Phoenix's incredible training staff." Not only will that staff aid Dragic down the road as he moves out of his athletic prime, but it'll also help keep LeBron healthy once he moves to the wrong side of 30:
Head athletic trainer Aaron Nelson kept Nash healthy well into his 30s. A perfect storm of circumstances—a small fracture of his left leg and nerve root irritation in his back leading to hamstring issues—have since derailed his career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Other guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and Michael Redd experienced career resurgences in the Purple Palace, so the Santa Clara product isn't an isolated case study.
LeBron will turn 30 years old later this year (on December 30). The appeal of playing for an organization with a history of keeping veterans in playing shape is an underrated factor working in Phoenix’s favor.
But this isn't just about the youth of the stars and the ability of the training staff to keep key pieces healthy. It's more about the bench, and the potential to eventually add a fifth star or replace a declining Bosh.
Morris is coming off a season in which he was a strong Sixth Man of the Year candidate, and Ennis, Goodwin and Warren are all brimming over with potential. Plus, Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough has a bevy of draft picks at his disposal.
Not only do the Suns still have their first-round selection in the 2015 NBA draft, but they're potentially picking up two more. The Minnesota Timberwolves owe a first-rounder that's protected for the top dozen spots, and the Lakers will hand theirs over if they don't boast a top-five pick.
And now it just gets funny.
Where do these Suns, the ones who have already added LeBron and Bosh, need the most help? Certainly not in the backcourt, where the starters are All-Star candidates, and the backups have plenty of potential. Probably not at small forward, where LeBron is supported by a lottery pick in a stacked class (Warren).
The need comes at the biggest positions, which just happens to be where the 2015 NBA draft is loaded. According to DraftExpress.com's way-too-early mock, 15 of the projected first-round picks play either power forward or center, standing in stark contrast to this past class. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman recently created his early top-30 big board, and 17 play those positions.
Could the stars align any better?
Is Phoenix the best choice for LeBron?
Not only is Phoenix the destination that can provide James with his best shot at a 2015 title, but it's also the one best suited for future growth. That's an unfair combination, especially because it also gives him the ability to play with two friends (Bledsoe and Bosh/Melo).
At this point, Miami is only the favorite if the roster isn't all that matters. Before the offseason runs its course, we'll end up finding out exactly where LeBron's priorities lie.