LOS ANGELES — Until LeBron James makes "The Decision III," his destination for the 2018-19 season will be hotly debated.
He could choose to stay in Cleveland with the Cavaliers or in the Eastern Conference with the Philadelphia 76ers. The Los Angeles Lakers are a possibility, but will they give James the roster support to take on the Golden State Warriors?
One franchise linked to James is the Houston Rockets—currently the best team in the NBA by record (54-14). Can the Rockets afford to pay James this summer while taking care of key free agents Chris Paul (unrestricted) and Clint Capela (restricted)?
The answer is yes, but it's going to take serious creativity from Houston general manager Daryl Morey—and some help from the Cavaliers.
Signing James outright is problematic for the Rockets. Even if the Rockets renounced the rights to Trevor Ariza, Paul and Capela, among others, the Rockets wouldn't near the necessary space to pay out a maximum salary at about $35 million.
What sense would it make for James to sign for $18 million in Houston to play without Paul? And good luck asking both All-Stars (and union executives) to split that down the middle and play for $9 million apiece, without Capela.
The obvious solution is to dump salary, but that won't be easy. What will be the cost to trade the $42 million owed to Ryan Anderson over the next two years? The starting point for the Rockets would be a first-round pick, if not two.
Unsigned, Capela takes up $7.3 million of Houston's cap space as a restricted free agent. With Anderson off their books, the Rockets would still only have about $32 million to spend on both James and Paul.
Morey could also look to trade away the friendlier salaries of Eric Gordon ($27.6 million over two years) and P.J. Tucker ($24.3 million over three years, $18.9 million guaranteed), improving the pool for James and Paul to split at $51.3 million.
Perhaps $16-$25 million each is enough to sway them to form a super-super team in the West, but would they both be willing to make that financial sacrifice? Would James turn down his player option with the Cavaliers for 2018-19 at $35.6 million to take a pay cut?
The better route would involve some creativity from Morey. He needs to convince the Cavaliers to trade James to Houston.
This isn't unprecedented. When the 14-time All-Star chose to join the Miami Heat in 2010, the Cavaliers agreed to sign and trade him to South Beach for draft considerations.
NBA rules have since changed. A sign-and-trade would lock the Rockets into a hard cap, projected to be $129 million for 2018-19. Houston would also have to trade out enough salary to take on James' salary, which leads back to players like Anderson, Gordon and/or Tucker.
The foursome of Harden, Paul, James and Capela would put the Rockets near that hard cap, limiting the team's ability to flesh out the remainder of the roster.
There's an even better tack, similar to the one Morey took this past summer to acquire Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. Instead of opting out of his final year at $24.6 million, the veteran point guard opted into his contract, contingent on the Clippers trading him to Houston.
Los Angeles could have refused but opted to take on a long list of players, including Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley. Faced with losing James for nothing, the Cavaliers may be willing to follow a path resembling that course.
But would Cleveland take on Anderson? That's a tough sell for a team entering a rebuilding process without James. They might not have interest in Gordon and/or Tucker. Both may be good fits for contending franchises but probably not ideal pieces for the Cavs.
Morey may need help from a third or fourth team.
To take on James' current $33.3 million contract, the Rockets would need to send out $26.5 million in salary. Or, once the 2018-19 year begins on July 1, Houston would need to trade away $28.4 million to acquire James at $35.6 million.
Anderson's contract would help the Rockets near that number quickly, but then he's the more challenging piece to move.
Instead, Morey may find it easier to deal Gordon and Tucker to teams looking for quality veterans.
Without Anderson, the Rockets won't be able to come up with enough salary to acquire James in trade before July, even if they combine the salaries of Nene, Chinanu Onuaku, Zhou Qi, Gordon and Tucker.
After June, the fivesome still only collectively earn $28 million next season—just short of the number needed to acquire James (without Anderson).
The Rockets have two options to bridge the gap.
They can sign and trade one of their own free agents (Tarik Black, Brandan Wright, Gerald Green, Joe Johnson, etc.), but that would give the incoming team a hard cap for next season. That probably wouldn't be an issue for a team like the Chicago Bulls, who project to be flush with cap room this summer, but it could impact a playoff team looking to bring on players like Gordon and/or Tucker.
The other solution would be to sign a player to a two-year minimum deal before the end of the current season. That extra salary for 2018-19 would mathematically push the Rockets over the edge in a James trade, sans Anderson.
One more wrinkle: The Rockets don't have a roster spot available. They'd have to cut someone before their playoff run in preparation for a potential trade for James after the season.
Whatever path they take, the Rockets have enough flexibility to pursue James this summer and pay Paul, Capela and even Ariza to return.
The next question would be: How much in luxury taxes are the Rockets willing to spend?
A roster with Harden, Paul, James, Capela and Ariza could start at $125 million. If Anderson is too difficult to move, then that's another $20 million.
A payroll of $160 million in salary could cost $119 million in tax. With that kind of penalty, the Rockets may be even more motivated to get out of Anderson's deal.
Regardless, the franchise would be on the hook for a massive payroll—but then they'd have a shot at building a powerhouse roster, capable of unseating the Warriors.