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B/R Staff Predicts Where LeBron James Will Land in NBA Free Agency

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2018

CLEVELAND, CA - JUN 8:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks to the media after being defeated by the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the 2018 NBA Finals won 108-85 by the Golden State Warriors over the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Quicken Loans Arena on June 6, 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images)
B/R

Editor's note: Every day this week—heading into the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. ET July 1—Bleacher Report will look at every angle of LeBron James' upcoming decision with reports and features from our most plugged-in NBA reporters. Today, B/R's resident LeBron experts predict where LeBron will take his talents this time around.

Part 1: LeBron's On-Court Options Are Limitless
Part 2: Ripple Effects of LeBron's Decision
Part 3: Would Anyone Really Be Mad at LeBron If He Left Again?
Part 4: How to Wine and Dine Your Way into LeBron's Heart
Part 5: B/R Staff Predicts Where LeBron Will Land

   

LeBron James has a Decision to make. And if you feel like we've been here before, well...

In 2010, LeBron left the only franchise he'd ever known in Cleveland for the Miami Heat. Four years later, he returned to the Cavs, signed a couple of new contracts, won a championship and now finds himself in the midst of his quadrennial tradition making the basketball world sweat.

According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst (h/t The Lowe Post podcast), James will have his mind made up before July 4, which, if you've followed The King and his career-altering moves in years past, you know isn't par for the course. 

But this time feels different overall, doesn't it? LeBron is now in the twilight of his career (although you wouldn't know it watching him play). He's now been to nine NBA Finals, but his 3-6 record remains detractors' debate fuel. His kids are older, have their own lives and are bigger factors than they've been in years past. 

So when it comes to predicting where James will land, if you're not willing to go out on a limb, we don't blame you. In fact, we're here to take care of that for you.

B/R has rallied eight NBA writers to offer perspective and insight when it comes to Decision 3.0. Nobody's going to claim he knows where LeBron will land with 100 percent certainty, but if you're looking for a group of basketball minds ready to put their reputations on the line, you've come to the right place. 

Eric Pincus: Los Angeles Lakers

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 14: Lonzo Ball #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers listens to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers after the game at Quicken Loans Arena on December 14, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Lakers 121-112. NOTE TO U
Jason Miller/Getty Images

With three daughters, my wife and I moved twice, specifically to make sure our girls were able to go to the right schools. As a parent, it was a major factor in deciding where we lived.

While LeBron may have greater resources than yours truly, he's still a parent with a son about to start high school. The rumors that LeBron James Jr. will likely attend Sierra Canyon School, a hotbed for players with NBA lineage, may not even be true, but they feel reasonable. James can build a media empire in Los Angeles while his oldest son plays with the sons of Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin.

The Lakers have the cap room to not only pay James but also a second star like Paul George. With Earvin "Magic" Johnson running the basketball operations department, Los Angeles has an icon who has had tremendous success as a businessman well beyond his playing days. The chance to win titles and the NBA Finals MVP with three different franchises would help elevate James' legacy.

But it goes back to his son. James has said playing on the same court with Bronny in the NBA would be his "greatest achievement." The decision is going to be about family, and it's going to take him to Los Angeles.

      

Tom Haberstroh: Philadelphia 76ers

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

(Editor's note: This article originally published with Tom's prediction being the Rockets.)

Poor Rockets. Before Friday's news that LeBron James would decline his player option, I thought they were the most sensible option. Houston offers three things James seems to covet: a title-caliber roster, family (Chris Paul, presumably) and familiarity (he played for Mike D'Antoni in the 2012 Olympics).

But alas, Friday's news all but eliminates the Rockets, who don't have a clear path to carving out the requisite cap space without giving up a chunk of the roster. If we've learned anything about his decision-making in 2010 and 2014, it's that James is not one for the favorite. He shocked the world by taking his talents to South Beach and stunned the Heat by going back to Cleveland after four straight Finals trips.

I think another surprise is in order. Beyond the familiarity with his mentee, Ben Simmons, Philadelphia keeps him in the East and away from the powerhouses out West. Joining up with Joel Embiid would answer my longstanding question relating to Kobe Bryant's legacy: "How many rings would LeBron have if he played with prime Shaq like Kobe did?" Of course, James is 33 now, but Embiid is the closest thing we've had to Shaq since...Shaq. And I'm not worried about his fit with Simmons; did we forget what he did with Dwyane Wade in Miami?

          

Jonathan Abrams: Cleveland Cavaliers

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 29:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in Game Seven of Round One of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Indiana Pacers on April 29, 2018 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowl
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

LeBron spoke of his family's comfort and input among his foremost priorities during his free-agent considerations. He asked for none of the in-depth presentations of yester-free agencies from prospective teams. My guess is that these are signs that James is leaning toward staying home in Ohio. 

The Cavaliers will have to find a creative way to again refashion their roster without much flexibility and $100 million-plus already committed to the likes of Kevin Love, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson and friends. But Dan Gilbert, for all his faults for his reaction when James departed in 2010, has continually committed financial resources into building Cleveland's roster where James will again have input.

"In that situation, although legally, he may be working for our organization, that's not really the case," Gilbert recently said of James in a Business Insider podcast. "He's more like your partner, really."

It's doubtful San Antonio is willing to trade Kawhi Leonard inside the Western Conference. Maybe the Cavaliers are the team willing to pay enough for a one-year Leonard rental and unite him with James. 

On paper, joining the Rockets may be the easiest way for James to find a team that rivals the firepower of the Warriors. But the teams will have to duel annually for one to even arrive at the Finals. In the East, the Celtics are hungry. The 76ers are knocking. The Raptors are…never mind. Still, no Eastern Conference team has been able to dethrone Cleveland since LeBron returned four years ago.

My guess is he stays there and builds on that legacy.

        

Greg Swartz: Los Angeles Lakers

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Staying in Cleveland has obvious benefits. There's family. Home. James' numerous friends and partners already on the Cavaliers' payroll. That's great, but what have the Cavs done from a personnel standpoint to make him want to stay?

The Cavaliers refused to part with the Nets' pick at both the trade deadline and draft, opting to select 19-year-old Collin Sexton eighth overall rather than deal the selection for veteran help. They didn't come close to replacing Kyrie Irving's production, who James never wanted the Cavs to part with in the first place.

Trading for three 25-year-olds at the deadline while letting Dwyane Wade go back to the Miami Heat for essentially nothing made it seem like Cleveland was heading for a post-LeBron world instead of building a better one around him.

Joining the Rockets would give James the best opportunity to win, letting him play alongside two extraordinary ball-handlers who would help ease him toward the final chapter of his career. It's also a move that could potentially help Cleveland, should the two sides work out a trade given the Rockets' lack of cap space to sign James outright.

While Houston is tempting and Cleveland can still make moves to entice him to stay, I predict James will join the Lakers along with Paul George. The Lakers have the kind of young assets to move and bring in veteran help around James and George, similar to what the Cavaliers had in 2014 with Andrew Wiggins, Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and others.

James has long admired Magic Johnson as a basketball player and businessman, and Los Angeles is already home for the James family for much of the summer months. I'm hoping James stays in Cleveland, but L.A. will likely be his choice.

           

Yaron Weitzman: Los Angeles Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 11:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers attempts a layup agaist Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers during the second quarter of the game at Staples Center on March 11, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: U
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Unlike in years past when he's entered free agency, this time around there's no obvious or great option for LeBron.

The Cavs, for example, offer the comfort of home and the inferior Eastern Conference, but the roster is, well...let's just say lacking. The Sixers would give him a roster upgrade, but he no doubt recognizes that the fit alongside Ben Simmons would be awkward and the roster might still not be good enough to overcome the Celtics or Warriors.

Is that a risk he's willing to take as part of moving to a city he has no connection with? We know Houston doesn't have the cap room, meaning a trade would be necessary, one that would potentially deplete part of the talent base that would attract James.

The Lakers, on the other hand, offer the greatest mix of the factors we assume LeBron is looking for. There's room to add another big-time free agent and enough young assets to swing a trade or two and build a strong roster.

Perhaps a LeBron-led Lakers team would still need a miracle to catch Golden State, but that's probably the best he can do. That the roster is malleable would no doubt appeal to him as well.

He has a house in L.A., and signing with the Lakers comes with the boost of all the Hollywood benefits that we know LeBron would love to leverage.

That, at least, is how I look at this—as a process of elimination. If LeBron can convince George to join him in L.A.and maybe push the Lakers toward swinging a deal where they trade a package of Lonzo Ball for Kyle Lowry, and maybe they can add a veteran shooter like JJ Redickwell, the path is there.

      

Dave Schilling: Los Angeles Lakers

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Sometimes, the most obvious answer is the right one.

All the chatter is meaningful. All the sideways glances in the media, through "sources," carry weight. It could be argued that LeBron is the closest successor to Magic Johnson the NBA has seen: big enough to play on the block but clever enough to run the point. Unselfish, creative and charismatic.

Could he pass up the chance to work for (and with) Magic in Los Angeles? Could he pass up the chance to more easily conduct Hollywood business during the season or send Bronny Jr. to an L.A. high school with an elite basketball program and still be able to stop by the gym for games?

Of course he could, but he won't. L.A. offers LeBron both a fresh start and a familiar landscape. His chances of dethroning the Warriors are running out. His chance to be happy might be more important.   

    

Ken Berger: Los Angeles Lakers...or Cleveland Cavaliers

Steve Dykes/Associated Press

The truth is, nobody knows where LeBron is going...but we'll have a much better idea once he makes his decision to opt in or out of the final year of his contract with the Cavs. If he opts out, that basically tells us he's comfortable with one of three options: staying in Cleveland or signing with the Lakers or Sixers. The latter two are the only teams in the hunt for James with the cap room to sign him outright (as pointed out by Mike Prada at SB Nation), and the Cavs are the only team with his Bird rights.

If James opts in, that changes the game. As Chris Paul did last summer with the Rockets, he would then be able to force a trade to pretty much any destination he wanted.

This is not James' first free-agent rodeo, so this report from ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne—that James has no interest in elaborate courtships with teams—gives us insight into where his mind is. Opting in by Friday's midnight deadline would completely shut down the free-agent circus and let James and his team work the trade machine behind the scenes. By the same token, opting out would mean there are only two teams other than the Cavs with whom to meet.

What is James prioritizing? If it's finding the team that gives him the best chance of winning a championship, then he should go to Houston, according Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight. If fortifying his legacy is what James is after, then he could do a lot worse than staying in Cleveland. The Lakers? On one hand, it would be a home run legacy-wise to play for one of the league's flagship franchises in perhaps its most glamorous market. But don't forget: He'll be running up and down the court beneath 16 championship banners, and if he doesn't deliver one, doesn't that only diminish his legacy?

My prediction? I believe James wants to go to L.A. and will explore every possible avenue for making that happen. But there are so many moving parts in that scenario—from Leonard's murky future to uncertainty over whether George is willing to make the jump from OKC to L.A.—that it's impossible to see a clear path for James to L.A.

My educated guess is that James won't sign with the Lakers blindly and hope it all works out with Leonard and George (or perhaps, as ESPN's Stephen A. Smith suggested Thursday on First Take, Kevin Durant?).

Based on all of the above, my best guess is that James will opt out, hope the Lakers can land another big fish or two...and if they can't, re-up with the Cavs on a one-year deal with a player option. So we'll get to do this all over again a year from now.

     

Howard Beck: Los Angeles Lakers

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

LeBron will join the Lakers, for all the reasons you've already heard: familiarity (he has a home in Brentwood), family comfort (they spend their summers there), business ties (his media empire is based there) and the chance to lure other stars to the league's most glamorous market.

Those are all important factors, of course. But let's pull back and take the broader view. Consider for a moment the narrativebecause no modern NBA star thinks about his story more than LeBron does.

In Los Angeles, James would be heralded as a savior, restoring the Lakers to prominence after a five-year playoff drought. He would fill the superstar void left by Kobe Bryant's retirement two years ago. He would inherit one of the proudest legacies in professional sports, walking in the footsteps of Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.

A student of the game, James would relish being part of that heritage. If he delivered a 17th championshippulling the Lakers even with the rival Celtics at lasthe would be instantly enshrined among the franchise's all-time greats.

Of course, James will need help. The Lakers' young prospects, though talented, are nowhere near ready to contend. But James won't come alone. He'll bring George with him. If the Lakers can add Leonard via trade, they'll have a Big Three capable of challenging the mighty Warriors.

When LeBron chose Miami eight years ago, he trampled old conventions and set a new standard for player self-determination. When he returned to Cleveland four years ago, he scripted a poetic redemption talecapped by delivering the city's first championship in a half-century.

Winning matters greatly to James. But so does the narrative. Reviving Lakers exceptionalism would be the perfect final chapter in a glorious career. And no one produces a stirring final scene like Hollywood.

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