What LeBron James Entering Free Agency Means for Every Potential Suitor

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2018

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the second half of Game 2 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 3, 2018. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Bleacher Report

LeBron James is a free agent.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com first brought word the four-time MVP has declined his player option for next season, a move that allows him to explore the open market without affording the Cleveland Cavaliers any real leverage.

We know what comes next: chaos.

Oh, sure, we expected this. Planned for it. Debated and dissected it. But this news is still important, perhaps understatedly so.

Entering free agency rather than opting in and trying to force a trade or give it another go-round with Cleveland noticeably shapes his list of potential landing spots. Some teams are rejoicing his going full-on mercenary. Others, though? Not much.

Let's take a look at what James' latest decision, which is the prelude to his actual decision, means for every suitor that fancies itself a part of the mix.


Dying Pipe Dreams

Houston 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

If James' primary aim is to dethrone the Kevin Durant-era Golden State Warriors, the Rockets should be his destination of choice. A four-man core of LeBron, Clint Capela (restricted free agent), James Harden and Chris Paul (unrestricted) has the one-to-three-year juice to threaten their now-inarguable dynasty.

Alas, visions of the NBA's renaming the Western Conference Finals "The Actual Finals" are on life support, if not already in a casket.

Following Paul's lead from last summer and opting into the final year of his contract was James' best shot at ending up in Houston. Opt-in-and-trade hypotheticals were difficult to navigate, mostly because rerouting Ryan Anderson's contract (two years, $41.7 million) figures to be a roided-out migraine. But working through that scenario was still exponentially more likely than James' remaining paths to Houston.

Signing James outright is off the table. Clear the decks of everyone other than Harden and Paul (free-agent hold), and the Rockets still wouldn't have the space to bankroll James' $35.4 million max salary. Even if he and Paul take massive discounts, the salary-dumping logistics involved remain ridiculous.

Negotiating a sign-and-trade is similarly unlikely. Acquiring James hard-caps the Rockets, and good luck staying under the luxury-tax apron (approximately $129 million) if you're paying top dollar to three superstars and trying to keep Capela. Max salaries for Harden, James and Paul alone would run over $101 million combined. Capela's next deal easily drags that number near or above $120 million.

Moral of the story: James, in all likelihood, isn't going to Houston. He must really not be a fan of Clutch City after all.


Boston Celtics

BOSTON, MA - MAY 27:  Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics reacts as he stands next to LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second half during Game Seven of the 2018 NBA Eastern Conference Finals at TD Garden on May 27, 2018 in Boston, Mass
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Pretty much every obstacle the Rockets face in their pursuit of James also applies to the Celtics. They, too, have to worry about entering the tax as currently constructed. Ducking the apron after a LeBron sign-and-trade would be hard.

On the flip side, the Celtics are better positioned to do it than the Rockets. Renouncing all their own free agents—including Marcus Smart (restricted)—gives them more than $15 million in wiggle room under the apron. But they still need to cobble together a package for the one-man dynasty. That won't be a walk in the park.

Finding a happy medium for the Celtics verges on impossible. They need to send out around $28.3 million to absorb James' max but don't have the expendable salary filler to readily meet that benchmark.

Dangling one of their three superstars simplifies the process—assuming the Cavaliers oblige, which they may not. Neither Gordon Hayward (age 28) nor Al Horford (32) fits the timeline of a rebuilding squad, and Cleveland has done the Kyrie Irving thing before.

At least one of those players needs to be included in prospective proposals. The Celtics cannot scrape together the necessary outbound salary otherwise. Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum don't add up to enough combined money. Dealing both Brown and Tatum to facilitate James' escape is also objectively steep.

Third-party facilitators can help the cause. Ditto for a Smart sign-and-trade. No one alternative is especially likely. Those that end with James and Irving playing together again are particularly far-fetched. The Celtics were always a longer-than-long shot in this discussion. They're now something less—entirely irrelevant.


Golden State Warriors

CLEVELAND, CA - JUN 8: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers passes the ball against Kevin Durant #35 of 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 Quicke
Chris Elise/Getty Images



The Unaffected

Philadelphia 76ers

Chris Szagola/Associated Press

James' opting out could be seen as great news for the Sixers. They've been pegged as the third-most likely team to land him, according to OddsShark, and he's now inherently limited his scope by quashing opt-in-and-trade possibilities.

But the Sixers' appeal has never been reliant on an exclusive field or singular framework. Their roll-with-the-punches fluidity, in addition to a star-studded young core, is part of the appeal. It has never mattered, really, how they acquire James.

Greasing the wheels of a Jerryd Bayless salary dump slingshots them past the $35 million benchmark if they include a sweetener from their assortment of prospects. They'll have no trouble meeting his max price point.

Striking a sign-and-trade is equally easily. They have the best mix of future picks, prospects, innocuous salary filler and cap space among every LeBron admirer. Their top proposals can assume all kinds of permutations.

The Sixers will wake up with more than $25 million in space July 1. They don't have to worry about sending back comparable salary in talks with Cleveland. They could also commit to shipping out a ton of money after exhausting their free-agency clout.

Building an offer around, say, Bayless' expiring deal, Robert Covington, Markelle Fultz and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot works for a capped-out team. The Sixers can effortlessly dredge up another $4 million-ish in room, sign Paul George and then trade for James. They can also flip the order of events: Carve out the room to ink James and then aim for a George sign-and-trade or Kawhi Leonard deal.

Enticing? Duh. But that rang true before James opted out. Philly's pitch has never been the teensiest bit tied to his entering free agency.


Feeling-Better-Than-Ever Clique

Cleveland Cavaliers

Ben Margot/Associated Press

No team should feel better than the Cavaliers about James' opting out. Sorry, Los Angeles Lakers fans.

Picking up his player option would not have been a signal from James that he was prepared to run it back in Cleveland and reassess the landscape next summer. One-plus-one deals are for that hedge. They guarantee him an additional year of security in the event he suffers a devastating injury.

Opting in would have portended the exact opposite. As ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin wrote:

Dave McMenamin @mcten

Had LeBron opted in, that would have been a bad sign for Cleveland -- it would basically have meant that his camp had a trade partner lined up. As it stands now, CLE is still in the mix. According to a Cavs source, the team's "Plan A, B & C in free agency is to keep LeBron"

James has essentially winnowed down his wish list by hitting free agency. Again: Most sign-and-trade scenarios are too damn prickly to be painted as plausible outcomes.

This exclusivity bodes well for a Cavaliers squad working from a relative point of weakness. They don't have cap space. They don't have the assets to trade for another star without getting lucky. They were just swept by the Warriors. Cleveland is not warm in the winter. Owner Dan Gilbert is not James' bestie.

Every edge the Cavaliers can gain, however slight, matters under the circumstances. Dodging the Celtics and Rockets bugaboos is big time. They are the only sure things on the table—insofar as certainties exist in the age of Golden State.

James cannot convince himself he joined the Warriors' maker anymore. A threat to them? Yes. Their superior? No way.

The fit in Philly is too weird beside the ball-dominant Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for the resulting product to reign over the galaxy right away. A Lakers squad with LeBron, George, Leonard and filler gets bounced in five or six games. That bare-bones group might not even get past a fully healthy Rockets contingent.

Granted, the Cavaliers won't look any better in comparison to James' other primary admirers. But they have the fifth-year carrot to dangle.

Equally important: Forming a superteam will be easier next summer, when more teams have cap space. If James is going to survey the scene again in one year's time, he'll re-up with Cleveland. That outcome vanished if he opted in. At least now the Cavaliers have short- and long-term returns in play.


Los Angeles Lakers

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Lakers should be ecstatic James opted out. Not only are they (probably) no longer competing with the Rockets, but they also needn't surrender any assets to complete the coup. They have more cap space than any other team and a clear path to grinding out two max slots.

Signing James, as opposed to trading for him, keeps the LeBron-PG13-Kawhi pipe dream alive. The San Antonio Spurs are playing hardball in negotiations, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, Brian Windhorst and Adrian Wojnarowski—so much so that the Lakers are trying to get another future first-rounder from somewhere else even if it means taking back salary, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.

Forfeiting any assets for James would've eliminated the possibility of nabbing both George and Leonard. The Lakers may have to empty their asset chest as it is—which includes knifing into their cap space—just to get Leonard. They needn't worry about doing the same for James anymore.

Not even a sign-and-trade will be in play. James isn't going to decimate the roster of a team he's already hesitant to join. He's reluctant to be the first star in Los Angeles, per Shelburne, Windhorst and Wojnarowski. Getting him to Hollywood will only cost cap space because that's what makes the most sense for him.

Unless George is resigned to remaining with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Spurs have no intention of trading Leonard, the Lakers should view his opt-out as a win.


Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.

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.