Every NBA Contender's Odds of Landing LeBron James in 2018 Free Agency
Something needs to fill the void left by the official end of the NBA trade season. And fortunately for us, LeBron James is slated for free agency this summer, which offers a nice outlet for our need to speculate and conspire.
Nobody should pretend they eat crystal-ball cereal for breakfast. James' foray into free agency is a little less than a half-year away. A lot can happen between now and July 1, and despite a rotund rumor mill, he has not publicly tipped his hand one way or the other.
Still, this is Year 15 of the Association's LeBron James experience. We have enough intel on his character and scouting reports on his priorities to make partially educated guesstimates at what he might do next.
Two things will stand out above everything: his ring count and his proximity to Michael Jordan in the greatest-of-all-time debate.
Going off these parameters, we can reasonably assume he won't leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for a team that doesn't guarantee him an immediate shot at contending for more titles. And that, naturally, leaves us to parse the NBA's most serious championship hopefuls for possible landing spots.
Contenders Who Shouldn't Even Register
Washington Wizards (100-1)
Whatever pull the Washington Wizards hold for James lies with their Big Three of Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and John Wall. With those guys earning a combined $70.6 million next season, at least one must skedaddle in order to facilitate James' arrival.
The Wizards probably wouldn't care. Like pretty much every other team, in the unlikely event they find themselves in the mix for James, they'll do whatever it takes to get him. But can he really place his trust in an organization that has spent the better part of a decade unable to properly deepen the roster around a bona fide cornerstone like Wall?
Minnesota Timberwolves (75-1)
Any James pursuit has to start with the Minnesota Timberwolves ditching Andrew Wiggins' five-year, $146.5 million extension just as it's kicking in for 2018-19. Good luck with that.
Minnesota can, in theory, wipe everyone else off its ledger. Cutting ties with Cole Aldrich ($2.1 guaranteed), Nemanja Bjelica, Jamal Crawford (player option), Gorgui Dieng, Marcus Georges-Hunt, Taj Gibson, Shabazz Muhammad (player option) and Jeff Teague without taking on any salary in return gets the team to James territory without sacrificing Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, Justin Patton or this year's first-round pick (via the Oklahoma City Thunder).
Good luck with that, too.
Aside from the messy books, let's face it: James isn't leaving the Cavaliers for the Timberwolves. Their two best selling points, Butler and Towns, are due for massive raises in 2019, making it next to impossible for them to flesh out a viable supporting cast after gutting the roster to get James in the first place.
Toronto Raptors (50-1)
Drake needs to write a song about how a team with more than $125 million in guaranteed salary on next season's books carves out the $35.4 million(ish) it'll take to sign James.
Remove that, ahem, little roadblock from the equation, and the Toronto Raptors own some cachet in this discussion. They've seized first place in the Eastern Conference from the Boston Celtics and deploy one of the deepest supporting casts in the league.
If George Hill is the perfect point guard for James, Kyle Lowry is the more perfect one. And if DeMar DeRozan is going to continue knocking down more than 33 percent of his three-point attempts, then he, along with Lowry, would blend individual shot creation and ancillary-device skills in a way James has only ever experienced during All-Star Games.
Milwaukee Bucks (30-1)
Playing with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe should hold serious appeal. The former is a top-five player on the right right side of 25; the other is a point guard James wanted the Cavaliers to trade for during the Kyrie Irving debacle.
Syncing up with Khris Middleton should be its own draw as well. Neither Cleveland nor Miami ever gave James that complementary cross-position wing who waffles somewhere between elite specialist and All-Star. Middleton is it.
But clearing the books without shedding one of these three won't be easy. The Bucks have to jettison Matthew Dellavedova, John Henson, Tony Snell and Mirza Teletovic without adding money in return. They must also come to grips with letting Jabari Parker walk for nothing.
And even after all that, plus waiving Tyler Zeller's non-guaranteed deal, the Bucks still wouldn't have enough to max out James while factoring in the necessary roster holds. They'd need to dump some combination of Malcolm Brogdon, Sterling Brown, Thon Maker and D.J. Wilson—leaving a bare-bones core hardly fit to rival the Golden State Warriors.
Boston Celtics (20-1)
Technically, if the Celtics were feeling spunky and rather reckless, they'd have the juice to improve these odds. Team president Danny Ainge doesn't have any cap space with which to work, but he does have the next best thing(s): picks, prospects and the complete and utter absence of any bad contracts.
Starting trade talks takes little effort if James is prepared to mirror Chris Paul's escape from the un-fun Clippers. The Cavaliers should be willing to take on any collection of salary the Celtics offer if it means getting their hands on Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum or Terry Rozier the Los Angeles Lakers/Sacramento Kings pick.
Failing that, the steps to chiseling out the necessary spending power aren't necessarily insurmountable. Deal Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, Guerschon Yabusele and this year's pick(s) into cap space, and the Celtics are there after renouncing Marcus Smart, but before accounting for minimum roster charges.
That sounds ridiculous, because it is. Tell me, though: Where's the line? What player couldn't the Celtics move into someone else's space, even in what figures to be a restrictive market?
Boston gets the super-duper underdog treatment solely because signing James isn't its style. Ainge has prioritized the big picture over the immediate outlook at every turn. Blowing up a roster that sports a balance of veteran experience and youthful upside to host James' twilight qualifies as a stark deviation from the Celtics' endgame. They're the rare team that can offer a "Thanks, but hell-no-freaking thanks" should they be tabbed as a preferred destination.
Oh, and if that doesn't do it for you, James' longstanding rivalry with the Celtics and their fans should.
And if that still doesn't do it for you, consider how absurd it would be for Boston to even think about chasing James one summer after rescuing Kyrie Irving from his shadow.
Oklahoma City Thunder (15-1)
Landing with the Thunder checks a lot of James' hypothetical boxes.
Finally team up with Carmelo Anthony? Check.
Work alongside both an unstoppable force and immovable object in Russell Westbrook, who was drafted onto Team LeBron's All-Star roster? Check.
Join a core that has enough star power to tussle with the Warriors? Check.
End up in a market where his acting and production career can flourish? Well, um, Oklahoma City is only like a three-hour flight away from Los Angeles. So, check.
The problem—or rather, the most damning problem on a list of many: The Thunder have no path to clearing cap space without junking players imperative to their sales pitch.
Sure, James could opt into the final year of his contract and force a trade, a la Chris Paul with the Los Angeles Clippers last summer. But the Thunder, unlike some other contestants, don't have delectable salary fodder to hawk in front of the Cavaliers.
Steven Adams has to be an integral part of any package. And no way, no how, does Cleveland want to begin the post-LeBron era with a three-year, $77.6 million obligation to a non-unicorn big.
Golden State Warriors (12-1)
Extra-greedy Warriors fans are free to rage against this latest injustice unfairly undermining their harshly judged superpower while wearing one of their commemorative championship shirts from 2015 or 2017.
Golden State feels like it should be laying more favorable odds when James has reported interest in joining the cause. Sources told Chris Haynes of ESPN.com at the beginning of February the four-time MVP would consider chit-chatting with the reigning Larry O'Brien Trophy owners this summer.
Imagine that: a report that implies James has eyes for Cleveland's archnemesis being leaked just ahead of the trade deadline as the Cavaliers were free-falling into the abyss. Total coinky-dink, no doubt.
Move past the all-too-convenient timing, and the dream begins to crumble under the weight of logistics. ESPN.com's front-office expert Bobby Marks outlined all the different ways in which the Warriors could complete another offseason coup. Copycatting Paul's exit from Los Angeles is the most efficient scenario:
"When the season ends, James and his representatives can meet with the Cavs and let them know that he is not planning to return. Instead of losing James for nothing, Cleveland can take a proactive approach like the Clippers and ask James to opt into his $35.7 million contract (and waive his no-trade clause), with the understanding that he would be traded to a team like the Warriors. Of course, this scenario would need all three parties—Cleveland, James and Golden State—to agree.
"The Warriors could put together a package that includes All-Star Klay Thompson, wing Andre Iguodala and draft considerations. The Cavs would receive a package of players that would keep them afloat in the East. Keep in mind that if James leaves as a free agent, Cleveland will have limited options in free agency based on being right at the salary cap."
This...doesn't seem all that farfetched—as far as Candy Land fantasies go. Will a 33-year-old James delay free agency for a year? Maybe. Short-term dice rolls have been his bread and butter since returning to Cleveland. But the feel-good vibes end here.
James is overtly aware of his legacy and ring count. He also knows the two can be mutually exclusive. Winning a title or five with Golden State won't mean the same as netting another one somewhere else. He will be, in these exact terms, a high-profile hanger-on—a top-five superstar jumping ship to join forces with two other top-five superstars.
Think of what Kevin Durant did in 2016, leaving Oklahoma City for Golden State—only on steroids. Choreographing this dance would be James' right, as both a free agent and human being. But he's too perceptive to let his pursuit of Michael Jordan end years before his career does.
Plus, we cannot be sure the Warriors actually want James. Integrating him will be infinitely harder than working in Durant. James is used to playing on the ball more and unaccustomed to spot-up duty. And the Warriors' don't have the shooting at the moment to justify shipping out Thompson. Their bench is dead last in three-pointers made per 100 possessions, and incorporating James relegates Durant or Stephen Curry to Klay Kapacity.
Given the opportunity to soup-up their dynamic, don't bet against the Warriors choosing fit over flash.
San Antonio Spurs (10-1)
What better way for you to maximize the late stages of your career than by signing with a team that specializes in post-prime excellence?
James may already be thinking along these lines. Haynes added the San Antonio Spurs to the list of squads he would take a meeting with while speaking to ESPN Los Angeles 710's Jorge Sedano. And this purported interest should be taken more seriously than James' affinity for Golden State.
Latching onto the Spurs doesn't adversely impact his legacy in the same way. It would be more basketball decision than copout. Yes, they already have Kawhi Leonard in place. LaMarcus Aldridge, too. But Leonard has missed most of this year tending to a quad injury, and Aldridge will be 33 by the time next season tips off. James would be taking a risk and investing in San Antonio's track record over its incumbent star power.
Getting to the Spurs, however, would be a lot easier in 2019, when Pau Gasol is entering the final year of his deal, with just $6.7 million of his salary guaranteed. They don't have an easy path to cap space until then.
Nor do the Spurs have the most attractive trade offerings if James follows in Paul's footsteps. Assembling a package around Gasol's short-term deal, Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray and future picks would help them retain Danny Green as part of the process, but Cleveland might opt for flexibility over what amounts to veteran placeholders and late first-round fliers.
Dredging up the dough to sign James outright will be even more of a challenge. The Spurs will catch a break if Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all decline their player options, but they'll still have to renounce other free agents like Davis Bertans and Bryn Forbes while rerouting Gasol, Derrick White and their own first-round pick without tacking any money onto the bottom line.
Leave only Aldridge, Leonard, Mills, Murray and Manu Ginobili on the docket, and the Spurs have right around James' max available after adding in roster charges—yet still slightly less. Other options are available if they are fine moving two of Gasol, Aldridge and Mills from the jump. Either way, though, they'd be obliterating the roster.
And yet, knowing James should only bolt Cleveland for a super-specific situation, the Spurs have Leonard and head coach Gregg Popovich. That's enough to vault them near the top of his hypothetical list.
Houston Rockets (8-1)
In December, the Houston Rockets held a "strong belief" they could poach James this summer, according to USA Today's Sam Amick. Of course they did. They're the Rockets. General manager Daryl Morey has sat on the sidelines for approximately zero superstar sweepstakes.
Houston's confidence is unlikely to have wavered a few months later. Golden State is the only team in the league with a better record, while Cleveland always appears one bad loss away from a weekslong locker-room mutiny.
Turning this dream into a reality will require James to mimic Paul's actions last June. The Rockets have no way of affording him and Paul at market value. They could get rid of everyone else on the roster not named James Harden, without taking back any salary, and they still wouldn't have the room to shell out two maxes for 10-plus-year veterans.
Potential pay cuts are the elephant in this room. James and Paul could accept substantially less to keep some of the supporting cast intact. But even giving back a combined $20 million doesn't do much. That's not even the equivalent of carrying Clint Capela's roster hold and retaining P.J. Tucker after baking in empty-roster chargers.
Convincing James to opt in and kick the can on free agency is the Rockets' best bet. And that in itself presents a wealth of hurdles. They have the salary-matching pieces to make the money work, but can they include enough first-round picks to sell Cleveland on absorbing, say, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon?
Third and fourth teams would, in all likelihood, have to be solicited for this to pan out. That shouldn't be viewed as a deal-breaker. As Amick wrote: "If LeBron decides that Houston is where he wants to be, he will find his way there."
And with no other team as close to dethroning the Warriors, Houston may in fact be where he wants to end up.
Cleveland Cavaliers (Even)
Close to a majority of people won't like these odds. Executives around the league have been talking about James leaving Cleveland for the better part of a year, and the Cavaliers have done little, if anything, to earn his long-term confidence.
This nevertheless comes back to one question: Where else will he go?
The entire NBA is at James' disposal. Every single team will figure out a way to clear cap space if he decides to join. But he isn't leaving Cleveland again,for something that doesn't bear the slightest resemblance of a sure thing. He needs to both find a squad capable of beating the Warriors and one that won't harsh his greatest-of-all-time stock.
Allowing former general manager David Griffin to walk—which remains an awful decision—could come back to haunt the Cavaliers. Ditto for acquiescing to Irving's trade demand. Getting bounced before the NBA Finals—or not putting up a genuine fight once they get there—will destroy the Cavaliers' case, too.
But once more: Where is he going?
Giving the Cavaliers anything worse than a coin toss' chance is overly ambitious—particularly in this discussion. Their biggest competition might not even be one of their fellow contenders. The Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers can each make their own compelling arguments. The Miami Heat cannot be ruled out so long as Dwyane Wade, Chief LeBron James ambassador, remains in the fold.
Things can and will turn if the Cavaliers' season takes another ill-fated turn. But they overhauled the roster at the trade deadline with this in mind. If this new-look group coalesces into another automatic NBA Finals bid, James will be staring at a plethora of outside options mostly offering more of the same.
Maybe this underestimates the broken relationship between James and owner Dan Gilbert. Then again, another NBA Finals appearance, coupled with the superstar trade bait that remains the Brooklyn Nets pick, would uniquely position the Cavaliers to transcend their own off-court dysfunction.
At the bare minimum, it could buy them another year, if James decides to revisit the league's lopsided competitive landscape in 2019.