Where Will LeBron James Sign This Summer?

by Taylor Smith
on June 9, 2018
13

Minute Read

Now that the Cleveland Cavaliers have lost in the NBA Finals at the hands of the Golden State Warriors for the third time in the last 4 years, might LeBron James be on his way out of town? James already accomplished his stated goal of leading Cleveland to a championship back in 2016, and he has literally nothing left to accomplish with the Cavaliers.

James’ first departure from Cleveland was acrimonious, to say the least. LeBron made the highly controversial choice to broadcast his “Decision” to leave Cleveland for Miami on television, which drew the ire of many. Cavaliers fans took to the streets to burn their LeBron jerseys and he was relentlessly trashed on social media. James would go on to win 2 titles in 4 seasons with the Heat before making his dramatic return to Cleveland in 2014.

The Cavs and Warriors split their first 2 head-to-head meetings in the Finals, but things changed when KeviN Durant decided to leave Oklahoma City for the Bay Area. The Warriors disposed of Cleveland rather easily in their 2 Finals clashes since. With Kyrie Irving having been shipped to Boston last summer, it’s been made clear that this iteration of the Cavaliers doesn’t have what it takes to take down Golden State.

There has been rampant speculation all season that this would be LeBron’s final year with the Cavs. He has the ability to opt out of his contract this summer, which obviously leaves him as an unrestricted free agent. The big question this summer will be: will he stay or will he go?

Per BetOnline, the following are the most likely teams to land James when he becomes a free agent on July 1.

  • Houston Rockets +150
  • Los Angeles Lakers +275
  • Philadelphia 76ers +350
  • Cleveland Cavaliers +400
  • San Antonio Spurs +1200
  • Los Angeles Clippers +1800
  • Golden State Warriors +1800
  • Boston Celtics +2000
  • Miami Heat +2800

The Case for Cleveland

Per the odds, remaining with the Cavs is the fourth-most likely option for LeBron this summer. That sounds wild considering they are his incumbent team, but oddsmakers seem convinced he’s on the verge of skipping town a second time.

I think the possibility that James remains in Cleveland is greater than these odds would indicate. In Cleveland, James is already a god and he essentially runs the Cavs organization. Why would you want to leave a place with those kinds of perks?

It also makes sense for James to prefer to stay in the Eastern Conference. While the quality of teams at the top of the conference has improved over the years, it’s still the weaker of the 2 conferences by a wide margin. As a result, James has a far smoother path to the Finals with the Cavs than he would if he were to go West to a team like thE Lakers or the Rockets.

The Cavs’ front office has also shown a willingness to do whatever it takes to build a winning roster around the best player they’ve ever known. This past February, general manager Koby Altman essentially pulled the plug on the nucleus of the roster around LeBron. Isaiah Thomas, Iman Shumpert, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Channing Frye were all traded on the day of the trade deadline. George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood were acquired.

While the players that came to Cleveland ultimately didn’t help lift the team to a title, the moves were still hailed as savvy at the time. James is already playing alongside an underrated star in Kevin Love, but it may be tough to lure a third star unless the Cavs nail their upcoming lottery pick.

The Case Against Cleveland

The Cavs have advanced to the Finals 4 years in a row, so it’s hard to argue with the success the team has enjoyed since LeBron came back. They got their championship, but you know LeBron is hungry to win at all costs. He helped orchestrate the contract extensions that were given to role players like Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith.

Now, though, those same deals look horrendous moving forward. Smith was never really worth the $13-plus million he was paid this past season, while Thompson’s deal is even more cumbersome. Both players are borderline untradeable at this point due to their high salaries and minimal effectiveness on the floor.

The Cavs are also committed to long-term, lucrative deals with George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Love. If you include James’ option for next season ($35.6 million), the Cavaliers are on the hook for nearly $140 million in salaries. That is well over the projected salary cap, which will make it impossible for the team to lure a big-name free agent like Paul George unless they miraculously unload some of those high-priced players in trades.

Upgrading this roster in the immediate future is a tall task.

It’s also worth noting that LeBron’s relationship with the Cavs’ owner, Dan Gilbert, has been tenuous at best over the years. Gilbert penned an angry open letter that ripped James after he left Cleveland in 2010, and it was frankly surprising that James was willing to return to the team 4 years later. James won’t think twice about how his potential departure may negatively affect Gilbert moving forward.

While they did make it all the way to the Finals, it’s also safe to say that the Cavs are on the verge of falling behind in their own conference. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers are both up-and-comers with arguably better talent on their respective rosters than what the Cavs can put out there. Those are a couple of young teams that only figure to get better, while the Cavs have an aging roster and a bunch of unmovable players.

Rather than risk slogging away in Cleveland while the Cavs get surpassed in the East, LeBron surely wants to play somewhere with a legitimate chance to add to his collection of rings. At this point, it’s tough to see how the Cavs are the best option for him on that front.

Houston is Complicated

Somewhat surprisingly, we have the Houston Rockets checking in as the odds-on favorites to land LeBron James’ signature this summer. On the surface, James going to Houston makes plenty of sense. There, he would be afforded the chance to team up with 2 other superstars (Chris Paul, James Harden) alongside an up-and-coming young center in Clint Capela.

That said, getting LeBron to Houston is challenging. CP3 is about to become an unrestricted free agent, while Capela will be restricted. Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will also be free. While the Rockets will have some cap space with which to work, retaining their key players in addition to landing James (on a presumed max deal) is tricky.

For it to work, the Rockets would need James and/or Paul to take pretty substantial pay cuts. You can bet some team is going to throw a hefty offer sheet Capela’s way, so if the Rockets plan to keep their prized young big man they’re going to have to fork over some serious cash.

You can be sure Rockets GM Daryl Morey has already spent countless hours contemplating how it could work. The team would almost surely have to find a taker for Ryan Anderson’s huge contract, which proved literally impossible when Morey tried it last summer. Anderson just endured a mediocre season, so trying it again this summer could prove even more difficult.

Even if the Rockets renounced the cap holds on all of their players except Paul, Houston would have about $8 million left over. Obviously, LeBron James is going to command a salary waaaaaaaay more than $8 million next season. Getting LeBron to Houston without having he and/or CP3 accept huge pay cuts is a monster challenge.

Philly or LA?

The Lakers and 76ers are the next-most likely destinations for King James. Both teams are flush with cap space this summer, so extending a max offer to LeBron is much easier for both of them than it would be for the Rockets. In Philly, James would get to team up with the exciting young core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz. Adding LeBron to the mix not only transforms the Sixers into prohibitive Finals favorites out of the East, it puts them in the conversation with the Warriors at the top of the league.

Going West to join the Lakers has been a rumor forever. James owns 2 homes in the L.A. area, and the Lakers are in desperate need of a new face. We haven’t seen the Lakers in the playoffs in a few years, and obviously adding LeBron would be a quick ticket back into contention for the league’s most prestigious franchise.

The core of talent currently in LA isn’t as intriguing as that of the Sixers, but there’s still plenty to like. Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram are hugely promising young talents, while Kyle Kuzma is also coming off a very strong rookie campaign. If he chooses to join the Lakers, LeBron would almost certainly be joined by another superstar in Paul George, who seems likely to head back to his hometown following a season with the Thunder.

Would adding LeBron and PG13 to their current core group be enough to propel the Lakers ahead of the Warriors? No, but they would instantly become the second- or third-best team in the conference, depending on what happens with the Rockets this summer. James would also get to live in Los Angeles, which I imagine is more appealing than living in Cleveland. Sorry, Clevelanders.

I could honestly see either of these scenarios playing out. The Sixers just parted ways with GM Bryan Colangelo, and the prevailing rumor has been that ex-Cavs GM David Griffin will replace him. Griffin and James have an established relationship already, so it stands to reason that hiring Griffin can only help the 76ers’ chances of signing LeBron.

Because the Sixers are in the East, I feel like they have a slight edge on the Lakers. I like both bets, but if forced to choose I would take the 76ers to sign James at +350 before taking the Lakers at +275. If the salary cap didn’t exist i would have the Rockets as the favorites, but the lack of value (+150) combined with the complicated cap situation has me feeling like that’s a less likely outcome.

What About the Long Shots?

Aside from the Rockets, 76ers, Lakers and Cavs, we have the Spurs, Clippers, Warriors (gross), Celtics and Heat listed as potential destinations for the league’s best player.

I have a hard time believing James is going to seriously consider any of these potential landing spots. He could have a desire to play for Gregg Popovich, but the Spurs’ roster outside of Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge is nothing special. He could choose to play for the Clippers, but the Lakers look like the more appealing destination at this point among the L.A. teams.

He could always take his talents back to South Beach to play with his buddy D-Wade back in Miami, but again, that’s a pretty middling roster. James has been going toe-to-toe with the Warriors for 4 years, so it would be incredibly lame of him to go join them this summer. That is also a horrifying prospect that would literally end the concept of competitive basketball as we know it, so let’s pretend that the words were never even uttered in the first place.

The one among this group of teams that stands out a little bit is the Celtics. Boston is the other of those Eastern Conference up-and-comers, and the argument can be made that they have even more talent than Philly. One potential stumbling block is the presence of Irving, who forced his way out of Cleveland last summer because he wanted to get out from under LeBron’s shadow. While it would be a hilarious troll move for James to come overshadow Kyrie in Boston, it just doesn’t have the feel of a move James would actually pull.

The Celts could also trade Kyrie in order to avoid the potentially awkward reunion, but Irving’s value isn’t particularly high coming off of 2 different season-ending knee surgeries. There would certainly be plenty of teams out there willing to take a chance on trading for Irving, but he may not command as much in a deal as he did last summer.

LeBron would have an excellent chance to win titles in Boston, so the idea of moving to Boston has to at least be on his radar. I think the Celtics are worth a punt at +2000, but I would be pretty surprised if that’s a bet that wound up hitting.

I’ll rank my list of favorite potential LeBron destinations as follows:

  • 76ers +350
  • Lakers +275
  • Cavaliers +400
  • Rockets +150
  • Celtics +2000
  • Clippers +1800
  • Heat +2800
  • Spurs +1200
  • Getting run over by a car +500000
  • Warriors +1800
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