LeBron Tracker: If he's going to L.A., he wants to make sure he's not going solo

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Dan Devine
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LeBron James stops and thinks. (Getty)
LeBron James stops and thinks. (Getty)

With the NBA Finals and NBA draft behind us, all attention now shifts to the start of free agency on July 1 — and, more specifically, to the free agency of LeBron James. The best basketball player on the planet has the right to hit the unrestricted market once again, and as was the case in 2010 and 2014, the entire basketball-watching world will be waiting on his next move. So, while we’re waiting, here’s the latest in LeBron-related news and notes:

Previously, on the LeBron Tracker:

Day 1: The King reportedly starts working the phones

Visualizing (what might be) LeBron’s thought process

From Reddit user qbjohnny comes this handy-dandy flowchart of the likeliest landing spots, and how LeBron might land in each of them:

The main takeaway: Unless LeBron decides before Friday night to opt into the final year of his current contract, thus leaving the door open to a “getting to the Rockets the same way Chris Paul got to the Rockets” scenario, this is looking like a three-team race between the Cleveland Cavaliers (who can use James’ Bird rights to re-sign him despite being over the salary cap), the Los Angeles Lakers (who have the salary cap space to sign him to a maximum-salaried deal) and the Philadelphia 76ers (who don’t have enough cap space for that right now, but who can get there in fairl short order). There’s no single no-brainer choice. All have their pros and cons; every evaluation you make along the way might lead you to a different destination.

Get it? Got it? Good.

The bulk of American Twitter users seem to think it’ll be L.A.

The folks at sportsbetting.ag used trend-analyzing software “with direct access to geotagged Twitter data: to review more than 200,000 tweets about LeBron’s free agency since the end of the NBA Finals. Based on the analysis, “it’s clear the U.S. overwhelmingly thinks LeBron is going to the Lakers.” Here’s the map:

A visualization of where U.S.-based Twitterers think LeBron will be going in free agency. (Image via sportsbetting.ag)
A visualization of where U.S.-based Twitterers think LeBron will be going in free agency. (Image via sportsbetting.ag)

We’ll soon find out how much faith to put in the wisdom of crowds. Especially because …

So, about that whole “no pressure” thing

… there might be some slight hiccups in the whole “LeBron-to-L.A.” idea.

Just one day after Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson told reporters that there’s “no pressure on [him]” to land a franchise-changing free-agent because the team’s intended rebuild is a “two-summer thing,” and that he’d step down if he hadn’t succeeded in securing superstar talent by the close of business in the summer of 2019, ESPN reported that “pressure is mounting for the Lakers front office to execute a trade” with the San Antonio Spurs for two-time All-NBA forward and Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard before James’ Friday-night opt-out decision.

The general idea: the rumblings that All-Star forward Paul George might actually choose to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder are getting louder and louder, and LeBron “remains hesitant” about agreeing to go to L.A. without any assurances that another top-tier talent will be joining him there. The problem: the Spurs don’t seem particularly enthused about trading Leonard to the Lakers, or perhaps anywhere in the West, or perhaps anywhere at all.

If the Spurs don’t believe that whatever they can get from L.A. in the next 48 hours is the best deal they’ll be able to get for Kawhi, and if LeBron doesn’t think George is going to be swayed by a Jamie Foxx soundalike, and if the idea of shopping at anything less than the top of the market or being the sole A-lister on a team stocked with young and unproven talent doesn’t seem all that enticing to James … well, then, maybe LeBron really does just stay put. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

In the past week, two members of the 2017-18 Cavaliers — a player and another staff member — relayed to ESPN that they believe Cleveland has the best chance of any team to land LeBron. […]

When James walked off the court after Game 4 of the Finals as the first Cavs player to make his way to the locker room, he greeted his sons with handshakes. He hugged his mother, and then he kissed his wife as he journeyed down the tunnel, but he did not stop to acknowledge or wave to the crowd to say goodbye.

Maybe because there was no need for him to do so just yet.

Except …

From the murky depths of the Cuyahoga

The report from Adrian Wojnarowski, Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne also featured this nugget:

James hasn’t ruled out a return to Cleveland, but his chances of staying with a reshaped and upgraded roster are murky.

The Cavaliers have been working on several trade and salary-cap clearing possibilities to be aggressive in free agency, but have been stymied in attempts to meet or discuss scenarios with James, league sources said. James had been clear that he wouldn’t engage with the Cavaliers throughout the pre-draft and pre-free agent process, and has stayed consistent with that posture. […]

Now, the longer the Cavaliers go without clear communication with James, the less chance that the Cavaliers can find ways to upgrade the roster to James’ satisfaction.

With the Cavs on the hook for nearly $110 million in salary for next season even without James’ max, and well over the luxury-tax threshold of $119,266,000 if he were to return to the fold, it’s going to be awfully tough for Cleveland to add the kind of talent that would convince James he’s got a truly meaningful chance of competing for a championship with the Warriors team that just beat him in four straight.

Teams over the “apron” — the point $6 million over the luxury-tax line — aren’t allowed to receive players in sign-and-trade deals, limiting Cavs GM Koby Altman’s options for importing talent in deals. They have to use a smaller midlevel exception ($5.3 million) than non-tax-paying teams ($8.6 million) to offer free agents. They’re barred from using the biannual exception (projected to be worth $3.4 million) to sign players, too.

If they bring LeBron back and stay over the tax line, Cleveland would basically have the taxpayer midlevel, the trade exceptions created by past swaps exporting Kyrie Irving (about $5.8 million), Richard Jefferson ($2.5 million), Dwyane Wade ($1.5 million) and Kay Felder ($1.3 million) and minimum-salaried slots to fill out the roster. It’s not impossible that Altman could make some magic there — though the limitations on how teams can combine exceptions in deals limits the likelihood of a single big swing — but it’ll be very tough. Maybe too tough a sell for LeBron.

The MVP has no idea, man

Shortly after earning the first Most Valuable Player award of his career, Rockets superstar James Harden — whose team has been tied to James’ free agency thanks in part to LeBron’s longtime close relationship with CP3 — was asked for his view on what his MVP runner-up was going to do next. We couldn’t quite tell whether he was giving side-eye behind those blackout shades, but he did offer what amounted to a verbal shrug:

“Honestly, like, what, LeBron’s about to be in his 16th year in the league?” Harden said. “I don’t think there’s anybody that can persuade him to go where he wants to go. I think it’s all up to him at this place in his career. He’s got three championships. It’s about business, it’s about family for him. Whether he wants to go to Houston or L.A. or stay in Cleveland, no GM, no friend, nobody can persuade him other than maybe his kids and his wife. Whatever he decides to do, he’ll do it.”

Harden’s teammate Chris Paul is a close friend of James’. The “banana boat” group of Paul, James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony are called that because they vacationed together and were photographed on a banana boat. But Harden insists Paul isn’t pushing James with a recruiting pitch.

“Nahh,” Harden said. “Him and Chris are really tight. As a friend, him and Chris are really good friends. I don’t think they talk about him coming to Houston. I think they talk about basketball and if LeBron wants to say, ‘Hey, I’m thinking about coming your way,’ then that’s a discussion we can have. I don’t think they talk about it.”

And, for what it’s worth, one summer after reportedly leading the full-court press to land Paul, Harden sure didn’t sound like he was rolling out the red carpet for a third primary ball-handler … especially at the cost of decimating a roster that held double-digit leads on the Warriors in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference finals, despite losing Paul to a hamstring injury after Game 5.

“We were a half away from the Finals,” Harden told reporters. “I don’t think there’s a piece we need to bring in or take away. We’re great with what we have, from top to bottom, from front office to coaching staff to players, personnel. Our main focus is getting better, getting healthier, and then doing what we do. You’ve got to realize, like, just Chris and P.J. [Tucker] and Luc [Mbah a Moute], you know, our new guys, that’s their first year, and look where we got to. Imagine a little bit more time together. It can get pretty scary.”

Not as scary as it would with LeBron, though

Then again, Harden’s not the guy who makes the deals or signs the checks. “A person with knowledge of [Houston’s] situation” told Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports that the Rockets are still all in on pursuing James. You probably don’t need a whole heck of a lot of an explanation as to why, but we’ll let Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated offer one anyway:

With [LeBron’s] arrival, the concerns of last season would be deemed irrelevant. Should Paul get hurt, Harden and James could easily carry a conference champion. In the event that Harden fades over the course of a playoff series—one made more unlikely by his lighter workload—it would only allow LeBron to do what he does best. To bolster this roster with a third superstar would make it something close to calamity-proof. You worry less about depth and injury when you have three All-NBA-caliber talents capable of filling minutes as needed and making all of their teammates better in the process.

Any questions about the “your turn, my turn” nature of pairing ball-dominant stars has already been asked and answered. Houston runs a pick-and-roll heavy offense that all but forces opponents to switch. Their frequent isolations were a byproduct—one that was expected, if not necessarily preferred. The Rockets ran their stuff, their opponents made (often fatal) compromises, and Harden and Paul feasted against defenders ill-equipped to stop them. LeBron did more or less the same thing throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs, albeit with less support. Flank him with other creators in proper spacing and James could actually raise the ceiling of a historic offense.

His pinpoint passing would be a best-case vehicle for setting up Houston’s three-point specialists, and his own shooting would help keep the lane clear for Harden and Paul. All three stars are brilliant with the ball in their hands and demanding without it. You can’t help off James or Harden or Paul, nor chase them off the arc to any great success. The best a defense can do is to stay attached, which plays right into the hands of the team creating and attacking mismatches.

Making this fantasy into reality would require some extremely unlikely moves in Houston, starting with finding a taker for the $41.7 million owed to stretch forward Ryan Anderson over the next two seasons, plus some other cap-space clearing moves. The Rockets seem like a long shot. But if James opts into the final year of his contract, locking in his $35.6 million salary for next season, he’ll at least give Rockets general manager Daryl Morey a solid number to work off, a target to hit — a chance to shift the balance of power once again.

Joel Embiid changes his brand for no man, and for no King

It’s a familiar tune, but you can still dance to it. Sing it, JoJo:

Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid stuck to the party line when he offered his free agency pitch to LeBron James.

“Trust the process,” Embiid said. […]

“The process worked out pretty well, we got 50 wins last year, we got a lot of talented players on the team,” Embiid told USA TODAY Sports ahead of last week’s NBA draft. “We feel like adding another piece of his caliber is going to help us.”

On that score, we agree! One wonders, though, how LeBron will feel about having a running buddy who is nakedly and blatantly gunning for the MVP. (One suspects he would find it fun, and funny.)

A change of Pace?

Evidently unsatisfied by merely winning Most Improved Player honors this season, Victor Oladipo chose to toss his hat in the ring for Executive of the Year, too:

“If you want to win, come to Indy,” Oladipo told TMZ Sports.

There’d be some poetic justice to James heading to Indianapolis after spending much of the earlier part of this decade destroying the most recent excellent iteration of the Pacers, and a couple of weeks this spring being taken to the limit by Kevin Pritchard’s newly built Oladipo-led competitor. Alas, while up-and-coming Indiana is one of the few playoff teams with significant salary cap space — and one that could get within hailing distance of a max salary slot if power forward Thaddeus Young opts out and they move on from some players with non- or partially guaranteed contracts (Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, Al Jefferson) — we’re guessing this sales pitch won’t be music to LeBron’s ears.

If Victor was to sing it, however …

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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