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ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith sure sounded like he knew which teams LeBron James is planning to meet with in free agency this summer. Then again, the “First Take” host’s opinions never lack conviction.
It is with those caveats that I present the following from Stephen A. on Wednesday morning:
“LeBron James will have a conversation with the Golden State Warriors this summer. That is one of the teams that he will have a conversation with. That’s right. I said it. I’m telling you what I know.”
(Well, we kinda knew this. ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported in February: “Out of respect for the Warriors’ winning culture, James would listen if Golden State explored ways to clear the necessary cap space.”)
Stephen A., being Stephen A., didn’t stop there. “I’m not finished,” he said. “I have more.” And he did:
“LeBron James is going to have a conversation with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Obviously they can offer him the most, and they are willing to do anything they can to keep him here, etc. etc. And obviously the wife is going to have a major, major say in that, so you got that going on.
“He’s going to have a conversation with Boston. He’s going to have a conversation with Philly. Obviously the Lakers. Houston is in the mix as well. They are going to go after him. Make no mistake about it.
“So, you’ve got Cleveland, Philly, Boston, Houston, L.A., Golden State. I don’t think there’s anything Miami can do, but obviously because he was there and brought them two championships, that’s a conversation that Pat Riley will have. You’ve got to remember Pat Riley made amends with Dwyane Wade, and you all know how LeBron feels about D-Wade. These are all conversations he’s going to have. Those are the seven teams.”
From the moment he was asked about his impending free agency at media day in September to the dawn of the Finals, James has maintained, “Any time I’m able to be either a free agent or my contract is ending, then I’ll approach that when the summer comes. I won’t ever cheat my teammates or cheat the fans or be in a situation where I’m worried or talking about free agency all year long, because I’m not going to give energy to something I can handle in the summertime when I should be focused on what I need to do on a day-to-day basis to help this franchise compete for a championship.”
Speculation surrounding his interest in L.A. and Houston’s interest in him has followed James all year. NBA cities from Philadelphia to Portland and beyond have posted billboards recruiting James, and all the while he’s held firm: “Not a distraction. It is actually very flattering that I’m sitting here at 33 and in my 15th year and teams or guys — I don’t want to say teams because that becomes tampering. But people in their respective city want me to play for them. That’s cool I think. That’s dope.”
That said, here’s my first take: LeBron has definitely given energy to free agency, and he definitely has an idea of which teams he would like to sit down with this summer. Am I doing this right, Stephen A.?
The Cleveland Cavaliers
Because James has played the last four of his 15 NBA seasons in Cleveland, the Cavs can sign him to an estimated five-year, $205 million max contract. Any other team can offer four years and roughly $152 million. That seems like a healthy discrepancy, until you realize he made $85.5 million last year.
After the Cavs traded Kyrie Irving to the Celtics last summer, James dragged an underwhelming roster to a fourth straight Finals appearance this season. The question he must now ask himself is whether playing with Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and George Hill is enough to stay on his hometown team — an organization that also features an owner, Dan Gilbert, with whom he has openly feuded.
Or does James want to improve his chances of competing for a championship in the final stage of his career? The hometown discount isn’t so much of a hometown discount when you consider he has traditionally signed short-term deals throughout his career anyway, but still his ties to Ohio remain.
The Golden State Warriors
The Warriors have $127 million in salary committed to eight players next season, and they would exceed the projected $101 million salary cap even if Kevin Durant declined his $26.25 million player option. Any attempt to clear max cap space would require completely restructuring a team that is now two wins away from capturing its third championship in four years. Of course, it’s also not impossible.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton concocted a scenario in which the Warriors send Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala to Cleveland in a sign-and-trade for James in addition to convincing Durant to take an even bigger pay cut and shipping Shaun Livingston to a team with cap space. That would leave James, Durant, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green to play with rookies and anyone on the veteran minimum who wants to go along for the ride. That would also require Gilbert OK’ing a sign-and-trade.
Oh, and Durant has all but said he’s not taking another massive pay cut this summer.
But, sure, the Warriors.
The Boston Celtics
I’m pretty sure Antoine Walker was the first to trot this LeBron-to-the-Celtics bit out last week.
The Celtics also don’t have the cap space to sign James to a max contract or anywhere near it this summer. They also do have the assets to sign-and-trade for James, if Gilbert were ever open to it.
The question is what that would look like. The Celtics with James would no doubt be a serious contender. There are still some obstacles to climb. They feature Irving, the 25-year-old superstar who fled Cleveland to emerge from the four-time MVP’s shadow. They boast Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, two budding wings with limitless potential who could make Boston a contender for the next decade. And they have a city full of fans who have rooted against James for a decade now.
Do you sell your soul for a couple runs at the title with one of the game’s all-time greats? Maybe.
The Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers can create max cap space. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons form one of the league’s most formidable young duos. And James shares an agent with Simmons. Philadelphia sure seems like a natural fit if James is looking for a plug-and-play place to contend for another four-year window.
Except, the Sixers may have the same reservations as the Celtics about pairing James with their young core. Simmons dominated the ball as a rookie in much the same way James has throughout his career. Move him off the ball, where he hasn’t shown the ability to shoot, and suddenly the Sixers might be stunting the development of a future all-timer. This is to say nothing of Embiid’s force of personality.
On the other hand, you’re adding LeBron James to one of the best young teams in basketball.
The Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are the only one of these teams that can create enough cap space to sign a pair of max free agents, which means James could recruit Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins or another All-Star with him to L.A. The Lakers also have Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, a pair of recent high lottery picks that could either grow with James or serve as trade chips to build a team capable of contending now.
And there are countless other reasons that point to James’ interest in L.A., from team president Magic Johnson greeting his agent courtside to his two homes in Brentwood and vested Hollywood interests.
The Houston Rockets
Chris Paul reportedly started recruiting James to Houston as soon as his Rockets were eliminated from the playoffs. Paul and James are buds, and considering the Rockets pushed Golden State to the limit without either of them in uniform for Game 7, they seem like his best option to beat Golden State.
Is it possible? As ESPN’s Zach Lowe posited in October, the Rockets could trade Eric Gordon for a pick, use that to dump Ryan Anderson’s contract, sell off everyone but James Harden and renounce their rights to Clint Capela and others to create enough cap space for both James and Paul this summer.
Anderson’s deal is Houston’s biggest obstacle here. He was barely even been playable in the playoffs, and he’s due another $41.7 million through the 2019-20 season. That contract was the sticking point to the Rockets acquiring Carmelo Anthony, and it might take more than a first-rounder to dump him now.
In addition to creating the cap space to make a run at LeBron, the Rockets could try to negotiate with Cleveland. LeBron could opt in to the final year of his contract, and Cleveland could trade him prior to free agency, as the Los Angeles Clippers did in dealing Paul to Houston last summer, or the Cavs could work a sign-and-trade after July 1, as they did in sending him to the Miami Heat in 2014. If the Cavaliers are convinced LeBron is leaving, they may see value in getting something back in return, but if that something is assuming Anderson’s contract, they might be better served letting him walk.
And would Harden, James and Paul, without the supporting cast that made Houston such a strong contender this season, be enough to beat the Warriors? GM Daryl Morey would love to answer that.
The Miami Heat
The Heat don’t have the cap space to sign James, and team president Pat Riley reportedly hasn’t spoken to him since he left Miami for Cleveland and told reporters “some people that I trusted and built relationships with in those four years told me I was making the biggest mistake of my career.”
But, hey, he is friends with Dwyane Wade.
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