It makes sense that the Houston Rockets would be interested in LeBron James’ services next season, because they are a professional basketball team, and he is the best in their business. It also makes sense that such interest might be mutual, since the Rockets are a ready-made roster built to contend with the Golden State Warriors for NBA supremacy over the next few seasons, and LeBron covets rings.
So, the latest from USA Today’s Sam Amick on LeBron’s 2018 free agency comes as little surprise:
While James has made it clear that he won’t deliberate his uncertain future until the Cavs’ season is complete, there is strong belief in Rockets circles that they’ll have a legitimate shot at landing the four-time MVP this summer. Rival executives also believe the Rockets will have a real chance.
This is no more concrete than the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers as rumored destinations. This past June, word “around the league” was that LeBron was “very much in play” and “likely” headed to the Lakers or L.A. Clippers, per Adrian Wojnarowski. And just last month, “executives around the league” figured Sixers president Bryan Colangelo would make a run at him, per USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt.
All the strong beliefs and league-wide speculation doesn’t really mean much right now, because any GM can believe he or another exec has a real shot at James. That doesn’t mean they will get him.
What hasn’t made sense, at least to me, is just how the Rockets would go about acquiring James.
They have $80.4 million committed to eight players next season, and that’s before they re-sign Clint Capela (restricted) and Chris Paul (unrestricted) in free agency. So, outside of renouncing their rising star center and a future Hall of Fame point guard — both of whom make Houston more attractive to James, especially given his friendship with Paul — and then signing LeBron for half his max value, I’m not sure how Rockets GM Daryl Morey can fit him under the projected $101 million salary cap.
The Rockets could try to shed some salary in anticipation of signing James, but they had no luck finding a trade partner for Ryan Anderson’s massive deal to make room for Carmelo Anthony this past summer, and dealing Eric Gordon and/or P.J. Tucker for expiring contracts this season would be a massive gamble on their ability to add LeBron at the significant cost of their current championship hopes. (They do, after all, have the best record and second-best net rating in the league right now.)
Amick presented the possibility of both James and Paul taking discounts to join forces in Houston, and that’s not out of the realm of possibility. Houston can decline Capela’s qualifying offer, renounce its other free agents (including Trevor Ariza) and find salary-dumping deals for Gordon, Tucker and whoever else to create about $40 million in cap space to split between James and Paul. Or, they could sign James into that space with a max deal and re-up Paul for the mid-level exception. Either option would require one or both of them to accept a pay cut far more severe than the one Kevin Durant took in July, allowing the Golden State Warriors to re-sign Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
There is another way the Rockets could pull off a James deal, and it’s one we should all be familiar with, because they employed it to acquire Paul in June. Paul made clear to the Clippers he did not intend to re-sign with them, essentially forcing them to decide between losing him for nothing or finding a trade partner. And Paul held all the cards, because he could have threatened to decline the 2017-18 option on his contract for any team but Houston and effectively blown up other scenarios.
LeBron could do the same. Is Cavs owner Dan Gilbert stubborn enough to let James walk without compensation rather than take, say, Gordon, Tucker and/or Nene Hilario, plus some expiring contracts and a future draft pick or two? Morey could also attempt to swing those players or Ryan Anderson in three- or four-team deals to make salaries match and produce a better rebuild package for Cleveland.
Of course, tampering rules prevented Houston from pursuing Paul prior to July 1, so either he had intricate knowledge of the salary cap machinations that made such a deal possible or the Rockets communicated their interest through some back-channel recruiting. And what better way to let James know it’s possible to team him up with Harden and Paul than to get the word out that “there is strong belief in Rockets circles that they’ll have a legitimate shot at landing the four-time MVP.” I’m not saying that’s how this latest report linking LeBron to Houston came to be, but what better way to do it.
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