LeBron James was rumored to be joining the Los Angeles Lakers for more than a year before officially signing with them. This move was a little unusual compared to James’ previous free agency decisions since he was not joining an instant contender. His move to Los Angeles was more than a basketball decision, but of course, the basketball mattered.
While the Lakers weren’t competitive enough to compete for a championship in James’ first season there, they did have enough trade assets with their many talented prospects and first-round picks to offer. They eventually parlayed their assets into Anthony Davis and built a juggernaut that would win the 2020 championship.
Fast forward to 2023 and it’s safe to say James’ tenure in Los Angeles has been more mixed than anyone anticipated. It has been a success with the title, but it also has featured two seasons out of the playoffs and possibly a third if they don’t turn things around this year. There have been plenty of discussions recently on how the Lakers are wasting the remainder of James’ prime and the situation in L.A. probably isn’t getting better any time soon. He is under contract with the Lakers for two more years, including a player option for 2024-25.
While James joining the Lakers was seemingly set in stone, he did have several other good options in 2018 free agency. If his decision prioritized being in the best basketball situation, it’s possible he could’ve found that on a different team. Here are some of James’ rumored suitors in 2018 and an analysis of how things could’ve played out.
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In 2018, the Rockets nearly eliminated the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals after taking them to seven games. James Harden was coming off his MVP season and Chris Paul had an incredible playoff run. Shortly afterward there was discussion on what if James were to join the Rockets, a move that could’ve put them over the top at the time.
Getting James to Houston would’ve been complicated to the point that it was an unlikely scenario even if he chose to go there. His path there while earning a maximum contract required either an opt-in-and-trade or opt-out-and-sign-and-trade. The latter would’ve made building the rest of the roster under the hard cap challenging, which also would’ve required sacrifices such as not re-signing Clint Capela, who just had a breakout season.
While a trio of James, Paul, and Harden would’ve been successful, it’s hard to say if it would’ve been more sustainable than his with the Lakers. The Paul-Harden duo would only last another year with Paul getting traded, and Harden would soon sour on the Rockets a year after that. Getting Cleveland to cooperate with a James trade likely would’ve required Houston to surrender multiple future first-round picks, leaving them with little flexibility to improve the backend of their roster. Seeing how things played out in Houston shortly after their 2018 run, James probably was better off in LA.
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The Sixers finally transitioned out of The Process when they not only made the playoffs but also won a first-round series. Ben Simmons immediately became an impactful player in his Rookie of the Year season while Joel Embiid broke through with his first All-Star appearance. The young duo was set to lead the next great Sixers team and the organization had plenty of flexibility and trade assets to build a contender around them.
It only made sense for the Sixers to pursue James in free agency as they were ready to take the next step and got a meeting with him, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. They didn’t quite have enough cap space to sign James to a max but were close enough that they could’ve gotten there with a moderate salary dump. Not only could they have signed James but they also had enough trade ammo with young prospects and future draft equity to go after another All-Star who was available at the time. They would later acquire Jimmy Butler for a package featuring Robert Covington and Dario Saric without giving up any first-round picks.
A lineup featuring James, Embiid, Simmons, and potentially Butler would’ve been stacked and dominant on defense. Potential fit issues could’ve led to tinkering down the road with the overall lack of shooting, especially with James and Simmons having many overlapping qualities. Using all their flexibility to bring in James would’ve come at the cost of re-signing JJ Redick, who was vital to Philadelphia’s success that season. They also wouldn’t have been able to trade for Wilson Chandler, who would end up being salary ballast in the trade for Tobias Harris.
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Reports of Denver’s interest in James came out of nowhere and we barely had time to consider it since it was reported on the first day of free agency. According to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix, the Nuggets were trying to get a meeting with James in hopes of convincing him that they were a good fit for him. James would agree to a deal with the Lakers later that day.
Generating the cap space necessary for James was tricky but not impossible for the Nuggets. They had already agreed to terms with Nikola Jokic and Will Barton but could’ve reserved those signings for later after using cap space. They did not have cap space going into free agency but could’ve gotten in the mix after their eventual salary dumps of Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, and Darrell Arthur. They probably would’ve needed to offload another player like Gary Harris or Mason Plumlee to get closer to James’ $35.7 million maximum salary while retaining the Bird rights of Jokic and Barton.
The Nuggets could’ve surrounded James and Jokic with a core featuring Barton, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Michael Porter Jr. Jokic’s ascent to being a two-time MVP alone makes the Nuggets a very interesting hindsight destination for James. It’s possible they would’ve won a title by now and would’ve remained a contender each year considering they haven’t missed the playoffs since 2018.