Whether there’s a foundation of truth to it or not, LeBron James is the hot name in NBA circles right now (when isn’t he), with everyone trying to guess where he’ll end playing next season. Very few people believe he stays with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Golden State Warriors
Assuming James doesn’t mind reducing his legacy to ashes by joining a dynasty in its prime, can the Warriors sign him? No. Right now, including Kevin Durant’s $26.5 million player option, the Warriors are tabbed for $128 million in salaries for next season. But Durant will get more when he re-signs (unless he goes somewhere else, which is unlikely). The Warriors have Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston locked up for at least one more year. Unless Durant leaves, which means about $14 million in cap space, or James takes a veteran’s minimum, it’s not happening.
If the Rockets don’t mind paying an insane luxury tax, this could happen. Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela become free agents at the end of this season, which gives Houston about $28 million in cap space before they start adding players. It means LeBron takes a discount (has a player option for $35 million next season), and the Rockets re-sign their players knowing they’ll be paying a lot of money for it. Could be worth it in the short term. Still unlikely for more than just the financial reason, but a much more likely possibility than the Warriors.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers seem like the likeliest of options. Why? First, they have plenty of cap room: Right now, only $53 million are locked towards next season, with guys like Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Julius Randle hitting free agency. But James joining the Lakers, who’ll promise him they’ll sign another superstar (Paul George?), means a shot at the title in a crowded West but without joining an already established team. He might lose karma points for ditching the Cavaliers for a better situation, but it doesn’t come close to joining the Warriors, who right now are more hated than the Lakers, as difficult as it is to believe.
Noticed something? All the teams above are Western Conference teams. Those who like to diminish what James has achieved in his NBA career tend to make note of the face that he’s only ever played in the East. Will that be a factor this summer?
Theorizing James is willing to take a meager $25 million next season, there are the Pacers, 76ers, Knicks (Depending on player option decisions), Nets, Bulls, and Hawks. While the Knicks are always thrown into the conversation when it comes to LeBron’s free agency, Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina aren’t enough to pull him towards the big apple, and neither are the Brooklyn Nets, who’ll have at least $33 million under the cap.
The Pacers are showing this season they might be an interesting choice, but I think LeBron is thinking bigger in terms of brand appeal and media market. After eliminating Orlando and Atlanta, we’re left with the Bulls. Chicago can sign James to join a talented young team, add promising (Blue chippers?) in the draft and still have room for more signings. But then again, the Bulls seem too raw for James to join and try to propell to a championship.
In the West, the Jazz, Suns, Kings and Mavericks will have money to sign him. The Jazz are an interesting choice, but LeBron won’t take that leap – Salt Lake City just doesn’t feel like a city James will shake the earth for. The Suns aren’t that bad of an option – plenty of young talent to surround himself with, and $3o-ish million in cap space to work with. The Kings? Nope. The Mavericks? A long time ago, Dallas was an option in big free agency chases. No more.