NBA

Analyzing The Top LeBron Contenders Heading Into Free Agency

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics
Photo Courtesy of David Butler II/USA Today

Well, here we are again. For the third time in the last four years, the Golden State Warriors have taken down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. The Warriors completed the first four-game sweep in the NBA Finals since the San Antonio Spurs swept, yes, the Cavaliers and LeBron James in 2007.

Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the Warriors did not look back after a costly blunder by Cavs guard JR Smith in game one, winning the next three games in a quick, painless series for the NBA’s newest dynasty.

After completing his eighth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, LeBron James left the floor donning a Cavs uniform for perhaps the final time in his legendary career. The 15-year veteran is expected to opt out of his player option deal and become a free agent this summer. With the planet’s greatest player looking to add a few more championships to his resume on the back end of his illustrious career, we consider and analyze each top contender for James’ services.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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The franchise that LeBron James has been with for 11 of his 15 years in the NBA may be one of the more farfetched franchises to sign the four-time league MVP. Persuasion from family members appears to be the only factor that could influence LeBron to stay in his home state for another title run, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times. James has expressed increasing frustration with his front office, coaching staff, and fellow teammates this past season.

After four consecutive Finals appearances during his second stint with the Cavaliers, it’s becoming more and more evident that King James could be on his way out of Cleveland for a second time. Koby Altman and the Cavs front office will get a chance to try to persuade him to stay, but if they fail to add some help alongside number 23, he’s more likely than not to depart and contend for his fourth championship elsewhere.

Houston Rockets

LeBron Rockets
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The simple fact that the Rockets took the Warriors to seven games and were one win away from the Finals may be enough to lure LeBron to Houston this summer. The Rockets were already title contenders, but add LBJ to the likes of James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela and you have an instant title favorite.

The only potential roadblock is that both Paul and Capela are looking for max or near-max deals this offseason, and signing James would mean that either Paul, Harden, Capela or James would have to take a significant pay cut in order to keep their core together.

LeBron James just had one of his best seasons in his 15th go-around at age 33. He still has a lot left in the tank and will be looking to add more accolades before he hangs it up. With an MVP-caliber two guard in James Harden and a facilitator (and good friend of LeBron) in CP3, don’t be surprised if James bolts for H-Town in July.

Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron Lakers
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The Los Angeles Lakers seem to always be in the mix when a superstar becomes a free agent. The appeal of the Hollywood lifestyle, warm weather and the big city feel makes LeBron a sensible match for the purple and gold. They were able to secure a meeting with James in 2014 when Mitch Kupchak was at the helm as GM before he decided on Cleveland.

Now with a familiar face running the LakeShow, Magic Johnson could make a pitch to James that could convince him to make the move to LA, where he already owns a home. The Lakers have a tremendous amount of cap space, along with an enticing young core in Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram. They could offer LBJ a max deal, as well as a chance to play with star free agent of his choice. Paul George most commonly comes to mind here.

The George-to-LA rumors have been swirling ever since PG13 voiced his desire to play elsewhere last summer. The belief around the league is that George will be signing with LA regardless of what James does. James, George, and Ball, among others, would become an immediate playoff contender and very possible title contender.

These new Lakers are still very young, so it is difficult to imagine them being able to take down a Houston or a Golden State in year one, even with the addition of James and George. It would be more of a project for James to take on, but the idea of playing basketball and living the flashy lifestyle that LeBron likes may be enough to convince him to head west.

Miami Heat

LeBron Miami Vice
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The initial divorce of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in 2014 was centered around Bron’s rocky relationship with the front office (sound familiar?), and Pat Riley in particular. But after patching things up with Riley recently, this would, besides remaining in Cleveland, be the safest bet to avoid intense scrutiny from the media, fans, etc. given that James has already played in Miami once before.

Miami could make its case as a title contender by reuniting with James. They finished the 2017-18 regular season as a six seed in the east before being outed by the Philadelphia 76ers in five games in the first round. The most important detail here is that Miami was a playoff team even without LeBron. Close friend Dwyane Wade would certainly be a factor for James to consider. The duo won two titles together in James’ first tenure with the Heat, and could very well add a couple more with the right additional pieces.

Pat Riley is a winner, and would do everything possible to add talent around LeBron if he were able to ink James to a new deal. He would ideally try to secure meetings with the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George, or Chris Paul. It may not be as flashy or sexy as Los Angeles, but an atmosphere like Miami that LeBron is familiar with may be a comfortable destination for him to still compete for titles.

Golden State Warriors

LeBron Warriors
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This would be the ultimate Kevin Durant-esque move for LeBron James to make. If LeBron dared to join a team with four perennial all-stars that have beaten him in three of the last four NBA Finals, it goes without saying that he would instantly become the NBA’s biggest supervillain.

Since Kevin Durant made the move in 2016 to join the 73-win Warriors, he has been absolutely crucified by NBA fans and pundits everywhere for taking “the easy way out” to win championships. KD was obviously swarmed with hate and criticism when he made his decision, but if someone of James’ caliber were to pull the same stunt, the amount of disdain and disrespect thrown his way would be endless.

It all depends on what LeBron is really looking for this summer. If he cares about winning and winning only, then joining this Western Conference juggernaut is a no-brainer for an instant championship. If he cares about his legacy and what basketball fans everywhere will think of him, he will not even think about actually doing this.

LeBron James has noticeably grown up through the course of his career. At age 33 going on 34, it’s hard to imagine him signing with Golden State with a good conscience. This move would practically ruin the NBA and James probably knows that. It’s by far the easiest path to more rings, but don’t expect James to be playing in the bay next season.

Philadelphia 76ers

Philadelphia 76ers v Cleveland Cavaliers
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The Philadelphia 76ers did the right thing in getting rid of President of Basketball Operations Bryan Colangelo. After news surfaced that Colangelo was involved with Twitter “burner” accounts used to criticize his own players and team, Philly decided to part ways with him. LeBron James does not want any more headache after what he has gone through with the Cavaliers in the past 12 months.

If the Sixers wanted any chance to add James to their young core of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, outing Colangelo was a must. Now that they’ve moved past that fiasco, adding James and another star is a very real possibility with $32 million in cap space heading into the summer. Philadelphia, like Houston and Miami, can make the case that they’re a serious contender with the addition of LeBron.

The Sixers won 52 games in 2017-18 and were seeded 3rd in the east. They made it to the Eastern Conference semis before being bested by the Boston Celtics in five games. With an average age of 24, Philadelphia is young, extremely talented, and has a lot of money to spend. LeBron James would be foolish not to consider the opportunity to play with Simmons, Embiid, and other talent such as Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric and Robert Covington.

Philly is somewhat of a big market (which LeBron is looking for), is winning with the fourth-youngest team in the NBA, and can offer another star big money along with King James. He has vocalized his opinion about his heir apparent Ben Simmons, deeming him the “Young Prince.” You can’t help but think LeBron would love to play alongside Simmons if he has the chance.

Boston Celtics

LeBron Celtics.jpg
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Celtics GM Danny Ainge would have to work some of the serious magic he has showcased in the past in order to make this work. Boston already seems to be clogged up with talent at small forward with Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It would certainly be a challenge for Brad Stevens to get all of those guys their deserved minutes with LeBron joining in. Ainge may be forced to trade one of the three if James comes knocking at the door.

And then there’s the Kyrie Irving problem. The fact that Kyrie wanted out of Cleveland because he wanted to step out of The King’s shadow has left a dent in the relationship of Irving and James. Wanting to avoid as much drama as possible, this may scare LeBron away, unless Ainge were to offer trading Irving away in order to bring in James.

Sending Kyrie packing after acquiring him from Cleveland last summer may not be the hardest thing to do, however. He has expressed uncertainty in signing an extension with Boston before he hits the free agent market next summer, not to mention the excellent play of Terry Rozier III during Boston’s playoff run.

If LeBron James were to enter serious contract talks with Boston, a solution with Kyrie Irving would almost have to occur, whether it be trading him or burying the hatchet with James. It’s hard to imagine basketball wizard Danny Ainge not working something out in order to put LeBron in the green and white.

No one, besides those close to him, really knows for sure what LeBron is most looking for in his third go-around in free agency. It seems to be the most wide-open version of The Decision, but one thing is guaranteed. Whichever team LeBron James is playing for next season will be contending for an NBA title.

 

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