Predicting Fallout from LeBron James' 2018 Free-Agency Decision

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 15, 2018

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 3: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers tries to drive around Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 3, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Bread-crumb enthusiasts rejoice: LeBron James has reportedly, it seems, maybe, potentially, possibly narrowed down his list of free-agent landing spots to four teams.

You know, one for every MVP award he's racked up.

Multiple sources have "consistently" told The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor that James will choose from a tantalizing quartet. Don't worry, Cleveland. Your Cavaliers are in the running. So, too, are the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.

Listen closely enough, and you can hear Dashboard Confessional's "Vindicated" blaring from the Google Home a trench coat-wearing Sam Hinkie is holding up above his head outside NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's window. Strain your ears even harder, and you might also detect tears-filled "Whatever, we didn't want him anyway" rallying sobs from Golden State Warriors fans in the background.

Other teams might wedge their way into the LeBron sweepstakes. A lot can change in a few months. But this latest list is a solid launching point—a veritable what's what of destinations most tarot-card charlatans already had circled.

It behooves us, then, to consider the fallouts of each scenario, because James' next decision doesn't just impact the team he chooses. It also has a varying effect on his legacy and the ramifications incurred by the rest of the league.

         

Cleveland Cavaliers

What It Means for the Cavaliers

PHOENIX, AZ - MARCH 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers high fives fans following the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on March 13, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cavaliers defeated the Suns 129-107. NOTE TO USER
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Everything.

Though the Cavaliers have hedged against James' departure by holding onto the Brooklyn Nets pick, losing him would once again consign them to a risk-riddled rebuild. We saw how that went for them the first time around. They posted the league's lowest winning percentage during the four years he spent playing dynasty-chaser with Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat.

A second departure would hit them even harder. Sure, James will be entering his age-34 season, his twilight ostensibly on the horizon. But they'll be starting from scratch one year after flipping a genuine building block in Kyrie Irving for spare parts.

Equally important: There will be no franchise-saving reunion down the line. James would no doubt retire with Cleveland, but his 29-year-old self won't be walking through that door four years later to pick up the pieces of his exit.

This says nothing of resulting dilemmas that would suddenly face the Cavaliers. Do they re-sign restricted free agent Rodney Hood? Do they trade Kevin Love? Can they find takers for the contracts of George Hill, Kyle Korver, JR Smith and Tristan Thompson? How about the final two years and $26 million left on Jordan Clarkson's deal?

Do they even try to rebuild out of the gate? Or does their remaining collection of veterans compel them to try chasing a playoff berth with soon-to-be free agent Love (player option) as the focal point?

Convincing James to stay is simpler, because duh. The Cavaliers get to remain among the Eastern Conference's elite, if not stay on their NBA Finals treadmill. Nothing else matters.

Love's future with Cleveland will be up in the air no matter what LeBron does.
Love's future with Cleveland will be up in the air no matter what LeBron does.Noah Graham/Getty Images

Yes, they'll still have issues with which to grapple. They probably won't be working off a second title. They'll need to both maintain and upgrade the roster without any cap space.

Contemplating Love trades is a rite of summer in Cleveland. The two years and $36 million remaining on Thompson's pact look much steeper given this season's murky health bill, his defensive devolution and the rise of the extension-eligible Larry Nance Jr. 

Whomever the Cavaliers draft with the Nets selection shouldn't get too comfy if James sticks around. Pairing him with some larger salaries is their ticket to another star or assortment of higher-end additions. Use Andrew Wiggins as a frame of reference.

Everything will be subject to change if James kicks the can on free agency by signing another short-term deal. Most of it should remain the same. The Cavaliers would again try to straddle two timelines by holding onto the Brooklyn pick, but they won't blush at the other baggage attached to his return.

           

What It Means for LeBron's Legacy

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

It depends.

Inking another short-term contract would guarantee James at least one more year of the same speculation, rumors, overreactions and behind-the-scenes theatre. He keeps his options open while applying pressure to the Cavaliers but doesn't buy himself any peace and quiet.

Re-upping on a four- or five-year agreement brokers a ton of goodwill. The hometown kid will have stayed, not only after getting the opportunity to leave but while knowing how beneficial it can be to flee. Returning to Cleveland will say a lot about his faith in and commitment to its future—or, at minimum, about the lack of sure things awaiting him elsewhere.

Of course, this is James' legacy we're talking about. People will always find something to anatomize. 

Does staying put make him more like Mr. Loyal himself, Dirk Nowitzki? James has his one title in Cleveland, so the answer should be yes. But wouldn't someone truly interested in dethroning Michael Jordan go somewhere better positioned to get him more rings?

The Cavaliers represent loyalty. They also represent dollar signs. The NBA's Over-38 rule allows them to offer him a five-year deal with 8 percent raises that no other team can sling. Taking owner Dan Gilbert's money even if Cleveland doesn't have the inside track on reeling in more stars and titles would be some Carmelo Anthony-level logic. 

This limb is flimsy. For all their faults and foibles, the Cavaliers are not the New York Knicks. But just because returning to Cleveland is the safest play doesn't mean it won't also be painted as some sort of cop-out or concession.

         

Other Parties Most Impacted

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 19:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers dunks over Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center on March 19, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Harry How/Getty Images

       

— Rodney Hood

Restricted free agents are expected to get squeezed as the market continues to recover from 2016's spending binge. Some lucky souls will hit the jackpot anyway. Hood could be one of them.

Keeping James guarantees the Cavaliers will shell out what it takes to re-sign their new wing. But the King didn't announce his previous return until nearly two weeks after the start of free agency. Hood should be able to command a hefty surcharge from Cleveland if he holds off on signing an offer sheet while James ponders his next move.

      

— Los Angeles Lakers

The day James agrees to stick with the Cavaliers is the day Jimmy Butler (player option), Kawhi Leonard (player option) and Klay Thompson billboards start popping up around Los Angeles.

#KAWLIFORNIA. #kLAy. #SaveYourKneesFromThibsJimmy. All that good stuff.

Julius Randle (restricted) will have also earned himself a few extra million bucks in his next contract—if he hasn't already forced the Lakers' hand.

          

— Every Team with a Potentially Restless Superstar

That means you, Milwaukee Bucks. Ditto to you, New Orleans Pelicans. And to you, San Antonio Spurs. 

In the event James recommits to the Cavaliers, you better believe they'll make dangling the Nets pick (the actual player) for another big name a part of their victory lap.

           

Houston Rockets

What It Means for the Rockets

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 3: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets guards LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 3, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agree
Jason Miller/Getty Images

That James really wants to play with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Signing James in free agency isn't within the Rockets' realm of possibilities unless both he and Paul are accepting pay cuts. Even if general manager Daryl Morey deals everyone else on the roster without taking back any salary—related: not happening—carrying Harden's salary and a cap hold for Paul ($35.4 million) leaves them shy of James' own max ($35.4 million).

Failing some serious discounts, Houston will be left hoping for a repeat of last summer, when Paul opted into the final year of his deal and forced a trade from the Los Angeles Clippers. James has the power to do the same, and the Rockets have the salary-matching fodder to make the money work.

Factor in the cost of doing business with the Cavaliers, and this would still be Houston's most efficient path to a Bigger Than Big Three. Morey will have to fork over first-round goodies as part of any deal, but landing James without completely nuking the Rockets' core is worth it.

Clint Capela (restricted) gets to hang around in this scenario. Probably PJ Tucker, too. Trevor Ariza could return at the minimum or for a sliver of the taxpayer's mid-level if it means spending his twilight beside three top-10 players. The same goes for Luc Mbah a Moute.

This doesn't even account for potential ring-chasers outside the organization. Quality hanger-ons have a knack for flocking to whatever team employs James. Houston already enjoys that cachet, as the buyout market has proved as much. James further elevates its profile.

And if you think the Rockets are a thorn in the Warriors' side now, imagine what they'll be with James. Incorporating another ball-dominant talent into the mix has its risks, but the near-seamlessness chemistry forged between Harden and Paul suggests they have the capacity to author another smooth transition.

            

What It Means for LeBron's Legacy

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 9:  Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets talks with LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers on NOVEMBER 9, 2017 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading an
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

      

James could do worse for his optics than signing with the Rockets.

He'll be subject to the usual bandwagon designations—malefic thinkpieces, burned jerseys, profanity-packed Twitter rants, the whole nine. But that comes with the territory of being a GOAT candidate.

Besides which, there will be fans torching custom-made LeBron James Lakers jerseys if he chooses Cleveland. And on top of that, while the Rockets are in the running for the Association's top record, they're not on the same plane as the 73-win Warriors. 

Trolls will no longer be as taken aback by the "Superstar joins historically good team" heel turn. Kevin Durant broke that seal. Many fans will find something admirable in his attempt to unseat the Warriors in their own conference.

Above all else, the James-Paul connection will play here. He basically warned us they could eventually team up.

"I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together," James told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck in 2016. "At least one, maybe one or two seasons—me, Melo, [Wade], [Paul]—we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that."

Writing on the wall, years in advance, coats James with a thin layer of anecdotal protection—even if Wade and Carmelo Anthony (early termination option) don't follow suit

          

Other Parties Most Impacted

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    

— Cleveland Cavaliers

Chances are Cleveland will have to be somewhat complicit if James picks Houston. He can threaten to sign with the Rockets anyway to coax the Cavaliers into accepting minimum compensation in a trade, but they should happily call that bluff. 

Assuming the process isn't as hostile, the Cavaliers have an opportunity to extract some first-round treats from the Rockets. Would Morey give up two future firsts that leak into James' and Paul's twilights if Cleveland absorbs Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon? Could the Cavaliers get Houston to take on one of their less savory contracts? 

Losing James again is a nightmare scenario for Cleveland. He can soften the blow by Chris Paul-ing his way to the Rockets.

      

— Golden State Warriors

The Rockets are already a legitimate roadblock to another Warriors title. What happens if that obstacle adds James?

Would Golden State be more or less likely to keep its Core Four together through Thompson's (2019) and Draymond Green's forays into free agency? Does overpaying Andre Iguodala in 2017 suddenly come back to bite the Warriors as they look to Rockets-proof the roster? How long until the Thompson-for-Kawhi Leonard rumors surface? 

        

— Kevin Durant 

"At least when KD left OKC the Dubs had cap space. Forcing a trade to a team with no $$$ just so he can sync up with CP3 and a KD leftover is TRUE cowardice. "

-A Twitter account that definitely isn't one of Durant's burners, July 2018

    

Los Angeles Lakers

What It Means for the Lakers

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    

Paul George is probably en route.

Look, the Lakers are brimming with zip. Many of their youngsters are showing out. Lonzo Ball is a good defender and crafty passer, and his shooting has improved after a horrific start. Brandon Ingram regularly delivered star-end performance before his hip injury.

Josh Hart was playing like a more under-control Kentavious Caldwell-Pope prior to suffering a fracture in his left hand. Kyle Kuzma's offensive ceiling is the roof. LaVar Ball's anti-Luke Walton sentiments may have represented a turning point in their season and big-picture well-being, as ESPN's Micah Adams pointed out:

Still, James isn't latching onto an upstart by himself. Not even one that will allow him to more freely broaden his cinematic horizon. He wants to win titles, and Los Angeles' LeBron-plus-kiddies lineup isn't keeping up with the Warriors this side of 2021. 

Hence why the Lakers have been careful to preserve their cap space. Unloading Clarkson for expiring contracts at the trade deadline has brought them within a stone's throw of dual-max slots (more on this later). It takes stars to get stars, and their free-agent pitch will emphasize James' ability to choose his All-NBA running mate.

George doesn't have to be the choice. Then again, James doesn't have many others.

Paul isn't leaving the Rockets, and the Lakers would have to jump through a couple more hoops to afford maxes for both him and James. Durant isn't leaving the Warriors. DeMarcus Cousins' is too much of a risk following his Achilles injury. DeAndre Jordan doesn't fit the bill unless James is hoping to lure two more marquee names.

The max (or near-max) formalities end there. That leaves George. Plenty of people have already outfitted him for purple and gold, and James "aggressively" recruited him on behalf of the Cavaliers last summer, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst

Add both of them to the Lakers' youthful nucleus, and another Western Conference contender is born—one that, if maintained, is uniquely built to outlast the windows in Oakland and Houston.

            

What It Means for LeBron's Legacy

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

   

Leaving Cleveland for Los Angeles would have at one time made James a front-runner. But not anymore.

These Lakers are not a superpower. They haven't made the playoffs since 2013. They haven't won a championship since 2010. They sport the league's youngest roster. James wouldn't be piggybacking off anything. He'd be in Los Angeles to build something that transcends his prime. He'd be repping the storied brand Kobe Bryant helped upkeep, but in a way the Mamba never needed to.

This stance won't be assumed by everyone. Abandoning Cleveland at all will draw ire en masse. And any favor he curries by joining a young team on the rise dissipates if the Lakers start hocking Ball, Ingram, first-round picks and, should he still be in town, Luol Deng for Anthony Davis or Kawhi Leonard.

For now, as the Lakers lie, James wouldn't be joining an NBA Finals shoo-in.

        

Other Parties Most Impacted

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

     

— Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook won't like this, but does anyone really see George staying in Oklahoma City if James takes his royal highness to La La Land?

        

— Julius Randle

Randle could end up becoming collateral damage of James' arrival. Carrying his $12.4 million cap hit only gets the Lakers to around $60 million in room after renouncing their other free agents, waiving their non-guaranteed deals and stretching Deng. They need around $65.7 million for both James and George.

But Randle can wait around and see whether Los Angeles pulls out the stops to keep him while bringing in two stars. Trading him opens up additional room that allows for his entire free-agent placeholder. As Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus explained:

The cost would undoubtedly start at a first-round pick, be it the Cleveland Cavaliers' pick L.A. received in the Clarkson/Nance trade, or perhaps one of the team's own selections in subsequent years.

The Lakers won't be able to dump all of Deng's current salary ($17.2 million) in a trade before July. The Mavericks ($14.2 million) and Chicago Bulls ($11.3 million) don't have enough cap space to absorb Deng outright.

Los Angeles might have to wait until some of the aforementioned franchises have significant cap space in July. The team may not rush to lose draft considerations just to dump Deng unless it succeeds in its star chase.

Randle's breakout season might make him worth the necessary legwork with this dream scenario. Or maybe not. Either way, the Lakers wouldn't complain about having to his view his future in these exact terms.

        

— Isaiah Thomas

Thomas probably has to find a new home no matter what this summer. He doesn't fit the timeline, at 29, if the Lakers don't complete their insta-turnaround and plays the same position as Ball. (Though, for the record, Los Angeles is posting an above-average defense when its two guards share the floor.)

The door for a return will remain slightly ajar if the Lakers whiff on their free-agency coup or only land one star. Thomas hasn't played well enough for any team to back up the Brinks truck, and nothing he does before the end of the season will wipe his hip injury from memory.

Regardless, if any possible offseason outcome includes the Lakers getting James, Thomas is gone. Cleveland has already been there and done that, so Los Angeles has no reason to try for itself.

           

Philadelphia 76ers

What It Means for the Sixers

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

      

That Joel Embiid's Twittering is the greatest asset in NBA history:

This hashtag, though. It's not even kind of subtle. Like, how would Embiid spin this if pressed by the league? As striving to rival the muscle in James' gluteus maximus?

Anyway, the Sixers have a clear path to affording James. Getting rid of Jerryd Bayless' expiring contract will be priority No. 1, but they have the picks (their own, plus the Lakers') and cheap prospects to grease the wheels of a trade.

Sorting out their on-court dynamic would be the bigger chore. Dario Saric has shown he can work in a more off-ball role, but Embiid, Ben Simmons and a healthy Markelle Fultz are more comfortable handling the rock—just like James.

Do the Sixers look to break up the overlap by trading for another superstar? Building a package around Fultz, Saric, a pick or two and filler might pique the Spurs' attention if the relationship between them and Leonard really is anything less than hunky-dory.

Do the Sixers try going after Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum if the Portland Trail Blazers' feel-good run peters out in the first round? Would joining the unofficial Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis sweepstakes alleviate their stylistic overlay or just give way to a different version of the same problems?

Does any of this really matter? Not in the slightest. The Sixers notch what would be a league-best point differential per 100 possessions when Embiid, Simmons and Robert Covington take the floor. Landing James makes them the Eastern Conference's new Finals lock irrespective of how they flesh out the talent around them.

        

What It Means for LeBron's Legacy

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 1: Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talk after the game on March 1, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, b
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Take everything we talked about with the Lakers, and apply it here. The Sixers' nucleus is further along, but the franchise itself isn't portrayed with the same faddism. 

Purge all the unavoidable noise that will accompany James' decision no matter what, and signing in Philly is a move that opens the door of reverence. He would be eschewing better markets, warmer climates and more established superstars for the chance to be part of something special that outlives his own annual dominance.

Philly also hasn't won a title since 1983, giving it the longest drought of any team on James' early-bird wish list. Any championships he wins during this chapter of his career wouldn't be cheapened in the way they'd be with Houston or Los Angeles.

     

Other Parties Most Impacted

— Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers cannot win if James pulls the ripcord, but his leaving for the Sixers would be the ultimate slap in the face. 

Houston probably needs to offer them some compensation to actualize its pipe dream. Los Angeles is still in the Western Conference. But if James goes to the Sixers, the Cavaliers will be reminded they lost him for nothing four times a year.

        

— JJ Redick

After earning an above-market salary to rep the Sixers this season, Redick will have a decision to make if they burn their cap space on James:

Is he ready to start chasing rings at a discount? Or will he go wherever the money is, as a dollar-sign mercenary? 

        

— Sam Hinkie

If the Sixers successfully woo one of the two greatest players ever using the foundation of assets that Hinkie laid as their primary selling point, the internet as we know it will implode, while no fewer than seven NBA teams should be left begging the author of "The Process" to oversee their rebuilds.

              

Unless otherwise cited, stats courtesy of NBA.comNBA Math or Basketball Reference and accurate leading into games on March 14.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

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