The Summer of LeBron has officially begun.
After taking the Cavaliers to their fourth straight NBA Finals, LeBron James has turned down his player option worth $35.6 million next season to become an unrestricted free agent. There's still a possibility LeBron will be on the Cavaliers next season - Cleveland can offer him a new contract worth more than $200 million over five years - but the four-time MVP will have the choice of joining a franchise in better position to compete for a title in free agency.
We've been through this once before, when James signed with the Heat in 2010 to play alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Will he do it again now that he's delivered his promise to Cleveland, or will he choose to stay home despite another one-sided loss to the Warriors in the NBA Finals?
Let's take a look at his best options...
With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid leading the way, the 76ers won 52 games this season and entered the 2018 NBA playoffs with the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference. Simmons and Embiid are franchise-level players under the age of 25, giving James an opportunity to play with two of the league's rising stars while he is still performing at an MVP level.
The fit might not be as smooth as other situations - the Sixers would need more volume shooters from the perimeter, and LeBron and Simmons are point forwards who get their points and assists in similar fashion - but it would give James a chance to compete now and in the future when Embiid and Simmons enter their primes.
Trust The Process!!!! Find a new slant @KingJames- Joel Embiid (@JoelEmbiid) June 9, 2018
Just imagine teams trying to score against LeBron, Simmons and Defensive Player of the Year finalist Embiid on one end of the court. (Remember, the 76ers had the third-best defense in the NBA this season without LeBron.) Now imagine trying to slow down a trio of physically imposing players who are each comfortable breaking down mismatches with their backs to the basket on the other end of the court with two knockdown shooters spacing the floor for them.
It sounds pretty scary, doesn't it?
The Celtics can offer James some of the same things as the 76ers, only they might be better equipped to take down the Warriors.
For one, Boston came within one win of the NBA Finals without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. If LeBron had been with the Celtics this season, there's no doubt they would've made it out of the Eastern Conference finals instead of the Cavaliers. The addition of the 14-time All-Star would make them the runaway favorites to represent the East in the NBA Finals next season, even though they will still be one of the youngest teams in the league.
The Celtics match up well with the Warriors, too, with a roster filled with long and athletic wings who can play both ends of the court. Age and experience might prevent them from dethroning Golden State immediately, but a core of LeBron, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown is built to dominate the NBA for years to come. We all know what LeBron is still capable of, and Tatum and Brown have the potential to be All-Stars in the future - and, in the case of Tatum in particular, possibly MVP candidates.
That's assuming the Celtics can acquire James without having to part ways with Tatum and/or Brown. They'd have to sacrifice a number of assets to execute a sign-and-trade with the Cavaliers - that could mean including Irving, Hayward, Terry Rozier and/or some of their future draft picks in the deal - but the long-term potential of Tatum and Brown would likely be the biggest draw for LeBron.
If it isn't, the Celtics would still be able to surround James with some combination of Irving, Rozier, Brown, Tatum, Hayward and Al Horford.
The Rockets pushed the Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals with James Harden and Chris Paul. Add LeBron to the mix, and it would give them the firepower they need to do what no team in the Western Conference has been able to accomplish since 2014 .
James would come at a huge cost, though. The Rockets already have $30 million committed to Harden for next season, and team owner Tilman Fertitta said in the aftermath of their postseason loss that they " gotta sign Chris [Paul]" and " want to keep Clint [Capela]." Houston would need to gut its roster to make room for LeBron, especially if Paul, who is expected to sign a max contract, and Capela, who could sign a near-max extension, return.
A sign/trade is extremely difficult to pull off because of the hard cap (projected $129M). So, if you are a team like Houston, how do you fit 3 max players in Harden, CP, LeBron ($100M+) and possibly Capela plus fill out your roster and stay under $129M?- Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) June 29, 2018
There's the question of whether Harden, Paul and LeBron could make it work on the court as well. Paul made some sacrifices to play alongside Harden this season, and yet LeBron, owner of the league's fifth-highest usage rate during the regular season, would move both of them down the pecking order. The fact that Harden and Paul are excellent 3-point shooters helps, but it doesn't solve everything.
If they could make it work, the results would be terrifying. Harden and Paul have already proven to be perfect fits in Mike D'Antoni's system, and James is just as good of an isolation and pick-and-roll scorer as them.
Los Angeles Lakers
It's almost impossible to know what the Lakers would look like next season if LeBron decides to sign with them. The only player on their roster guaranteed to make eight figures in 2018-19 is Luol Deng ($18 million). Everyone else, from Lonzo Ball to Brandon Ingram, is still on a rookie contract.
Unlike the Rockets and Celtics, the Lakers don't have to make any moves to sign James outright, so they'd have the option of entering next season with a core of LeBron, Ball, Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. However, they are also in a unique position to sign two All-Stars this offseason, such as James and Paul George, opening up the possibility of trading away some of their younger assets (for Kawhi Leonard, perhaps?) to build a team that's better prepared to compete while LeBron is still in his prime.
Either way, the Lakers can offer James an opportunity to play for one of the most storied franchises in the league (with Magic Johnson now calling the shots) - and one that is in good shape to build a championship contender around him.
James knows what he's getting if he stays in Cleveland. The Cavaliers already have over $100 million committed to their roster next season, with Kevin Love, George Hill, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith and Jordan Clarkson combining to make around $88 million. They might be able to move some of those players in the hopes of closing the gap between them and the Warriors, but they don't have the same promise as some of the other teams on this list.
Nevertheless, Cleveland is home, and LeBron has taken the Cavaliers to four straight NBA Finals. Not only will they continue to revolve around him as long as he's there, the Cavaliers can give him more money than any other franchise.
Is it enough to keep him in Cleveland? We'll soon find out.
The Nuggets, because they'd have the talent around him: Now that Denver has reportedly locked up Nikola Jokic and Will Barton, new reports have surfaced about them making a run at the league's biggest prize. A youthful core of Jokic, Gary Harris, Jamal Murray and Barton (and potentially Paul Millsap if he doesn't need to move to make a LeBron deal work) could give The King enough supporting firepower to contend with the champs for a few years. Speaking of ...
The Warriors, because it's the closest guarantee to a title that LeBron is going to get: The Warriors would have to ask themselves if it's worth it - a hilarious question that puts Golden State's dominance into perspective considering we're talking about one of the greatest players of all time here - because adding James would require them to break up their core.
The Spurs, because of Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich: LeBron's desire to move to San Antonio likely hinges on Kawhi Leonard's status. The two of them would immediately be one of scariest one-two punches in the league if Leonard can return to his 2016-17 form, although the Spurs would have to convince Leonard to stay and pull off some salary cap gymnastics to unite them.
The Heat, because they're loaded with role players who could complement LeBron: The problem is those role players are getting paid a lot of money, and the Heat don't have another star to pair with James. Having already won two championships in Miami, what's the motivation for LeBron to return to South Beach?
FREE AGENCY FITS: Paul George | DeMarcus Cousins | Isaiah Thomas