LeBron James’ decision to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010 reshaped the landscape of the NBA. The Heat advanced to the Finals four straight times and won two titles, and James picked up two MVP awards and two Finals MVP awards along the way. The 2014 free agency period doesn’t officially open until July 1, but we've already learned James will opt out of his deal with the Heat, allowing all 30 teams to spend the next week dreaming about how they could land James and change their franchise’s fortunes.
Here’s a rundown of what all 30 teams have to offer, and what might ultimately stand between them and James.
The pitch: Want San Antonio’s winning culture without the rigors of playing in the West? President Danny Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, two former Spurs, could facilitate James’ continued journey through the cake Southeast Division, while the underrated/overlooked core of Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver offers a ready-to-go starting lineup to surround him. ATL’s nightlife scene is a reasonable replacement for South Beach, too. Or so I've heard.
The fine print: After making four straight trips to the Finals, James would be joining an organization that hasn't advanced to the conference finals in its 44 years since joining the Eastern Conference in 1970. Oh, yeah: Horford has missed 50+ games in two of the past three seasons with injuries.
The pitch: The franchise’s history and prestige need no explaining. After all, James received the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy from Russell himself in both 2012 and 2013. More immediately, Boston offers Danny Ainge (an executive with experience constructing a title team), Brad Stevens (an up-and-coming, smart-as-a-whip coach), Rajon Rondo (who pushed the Heat to the limit in the 2012 East finals) and an overload of future assets that could be cashed in immediately to fill out a rotation. Upgrading from Heat fans to Celtics fans is akin to trading Massachusetts for Miami in January.
The fine print: A major knee injury separates 2014 Rondo from the masterful 2012 Rondo, and the rest of the Celtics roster is just a long list of question marks. Ainge would clearly have some heavy lifting to do – moving out Gerald Wallace, for starters – to put Boston in a position where they could really build something significant around the James/Rondo pairing. A recovering Rondo, a gaping hole at center, no other 2014 All-Stars on the roster, and more than $20 million owed to Wallace through 2016 doesn’t exactly scream “ready to win now.”
The pitch: All the benefits of New York City without the stench of the Knicks. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov is so eager to prove that he’s committed to winning that he would have maxed out Mike Miller before cutting him with the amnesty clause. Brooklyn has a former All-Star point guard in Deron Williams to handle the offensive initiation while All-Star center Brook Lopez can relieve some of the pounding James experienced in small-ball lineups. The franchise is on an upswing after winning its first playoff series since 2007, and James’ arrival could give Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett one last crack at the Finals. Jay-Z often sits courtside.
The fine print: James needs large amounts of sports drinks to avoiding cramping up, while Nets coach Jason Kidd has issues spilling liquids. Brooklyn’s league-high payroll is so far into the luxury tax that GM Billy King would need to undertake an insanely complicated series of salary dumps to even come close to fairly compensating James.
The pitch: Defuse all of the Michael Jordan comparisons by teaming up with him. What better way to get the upper hand in the “legacy” conversations than by winning a championship in Charlotte, thereby transforming MJ’s reputation as an owner from “terrible” to “title-winner”? The re-branded Hornets have an All-NBA center in Al Jefferson, young talent at multiple positions, an elite defense under the guidance of Steve Clifford, and extra picks to make things happen. And as an 80s baby, James surely has a soft spot for those teal Starter jackets like the rest of us.
The fine print: Charlotte’s quick first-round exit and the youthful nature of its roster means James might need to wait a few years until his supporting cast is ready to seriously challenge for the third title of his career. The 51-year-old Jordan has been known to challenge his players to games of one-on-one, and there’s no way that ends well.
The pitch: Sick of taking a beating in the post without any quality interior protection? Meet 2014 Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, who can handle all that. Miffed at the Heat’s inconsistent defensive effort and execution? Join a disciplined and gimmick-free squad coached by a legit guru in Tom Thibodeau. Fed up with Mario Chalmers’ no-shows in the Finals? Come play with 2011 MVP Derrick Rose, one of the most dynamic guards in the game. James could pursue his career and many off-court pursuits in Chicago, the same metropolitan stage from which Michael Jordan vaulted to global superstardom.
The fine print: Thibodeau and company hate the Heat more passionately than just about anyone in the league, and some feelings simply can’t be undone. Can James, in his prime and with a 2-3 Finals record on his résumé go to work every day with a statue of Jordan literally standing right outside his office? It’s possible that we have a better chance of seeing Bigfoot than of seeing the 2011 version of Rose after knee injuries have limited him to just 49 games combined over the last three seasons. If Rose isn’t Rose, then the ceiling of James/Noah/Thibodeau is “painstaking, valiant loss in the Finals.”
The pitch: Look, jerseys can’t be un-burned, but time does have a way of healing most wounds. With two titles and four Finals appearances to show for The Decision, James’ move in 2010 has been validated, particularly when compared to the continued failings of the Cavaliers. Even if it’s still a bit begrudging, perhaps Cleveland now has a better perspective on what James was seeking four years ago while also recognizing the type of redemption that a return to his hometown team would offer. The cupboards aren’t barren: Kyrie Irving is one of the most promising young talents in the league, Cleveland holds the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft and the rest of the roster is full of liquid assets that could be moved with ease.
The fine print: Dan Gilbert is still the Cavaliers’ owner and this letter is somehow still posted on the team’s website. The fine print is, of course, written in Comic Sans: “[Cavaliers fans] simply don't deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal. … This heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called ‘curse’ on Cleveland, Ohio. The self-declared former ‘King’ will be taking the ‘curse’ with him down south.”
The pitch: If you’re going to team up with a past-his-prime All-Star with knee issues, do it with one who managed to play 80 games and average 20-plus points as the No. 1 option for an elite offense last season. If trading Dwyane Wade for Dirk Nowitzki isn’t enough, there’s the opportunity to play for Rick Carlisle, the only coach whose team managed to push the Spurs to a Game 7 this year. Owner Mark Cuban oversaw a title team in 2011 – as James knows all too well – and would relish the opportunity to surround the James/Nowitzki pairing with enough role players to keep up in the West.
The fine print: Dallas simply doesn’t have the personnel to play quality defense, and it would be asking a lot of James to single-handedly fix that. Tagging along with the 35-year-old Nowitzki could be a fun romp in the short term, but any title window the duo could generate would be incredibly narrow, requiring James to go back to the drawing board yet again in 2016. Why trade the soft Southeast for the Southwest, also known as the NBA’s Group of Death?
The pitch: Mountains are beautiful. Ty Lawson, James and Kenneth Faried could easily lead the NBA in double alley-oops.
The fine print: Cost-conscious owner, nepotistic president, unproven GM, unproven coach, a lack of clear direction after falling off a cliff in 2013-14, no other true star players, a host of rotation guys coming off of injuries, a tough division, and an average high temperature of 49 degrees in February (compared to 75 in Miami). Not to pile on here, but it’s worth pointing out that Carmelo Anthony was thrilled to join the Knicks after making the playoffs 10 straight times with the Nuggets, and Andre Miller wasn’t ashamed to pout his way out of the Mile High City last season.
The pitch: The Joe Dumars Era is over! Charlie Villanueva’s huge contract is finally gone! Brighter days have arrived! After being stuck in a rut for so long, Detroit’s definitely in a position where it can only reasonably promise that things will be better than horrible. That said, Stan Van Gundy took the Magic to the Finals and was an inspired hire, capable of making the most of his stars and fashioning an elite defense. Andre Drummond is a future star, and the best is still yet to come for Greg Monroe. Add James, re-sign Monroe, dump Josh Smith, jettison Brandon Jennings and find a few shooers, and the “Jumboball” frontline approach just might have a chance to prove itself.
The fine print: Detroit hasn’t cracked .500 since 2008, their roster has been in a steady churn for years, it’s no guarantee that Monroe will be back, and Van Gundy is lacking a first-round pick to jumpstart his rebuilding process. Moving out Smith and Jennings so quickly after they were signed to long-term, big-money deals would be no easy task, and James has no reason to want to start from the bottom this summer.
SI Now: LeBron creates pressure for Heat
On Tuesday's SI Now, Sports Illustrated senior writer Chris Mannix discusses how he isn't surprised LeBron James is opting out of his contract as it puts immense pressure on the Miami Heat to improve their roster.
The pitch: One of the NBA’s rising powers could immediately ascend to the very top of the heap for James. If the Kevin Love trade rumors aren’t tantalizing enough, imagine adding James to a core of Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes. Throw in one more shooter and you’re looking at a team that has the potential to be elite on both sides of the ball. The ownership group is committed to winning, highly respected coach Steve Kerr is now in charge and a hyperactive fanbase would go absolutely nuts with James in the fold.
The fine print: Imagining how awesome James in the Bay would be is much easier than making it happen. The Warriors owe big money to Curry, Iguodala, Bogut and David Lee, plus Klay Thompson is soon due an extension. Bogut’s long list of health problems is the biggest basketball-related question mark. Without the Australian center at 100 percent, the road out of the West would prove difficult, even with James on board.
The pitch: The Rockets’ 2014 vision isn’t all that different than the Heat’s 2010 blueprint: assemble three stars who are the best players at their positions and the rest will fall into place. Instead of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Houston has James Harden and Dwight Howard, two exciting perennial All-Stars who each have lost in their only Finals appearances. Houston has rock-solid ownership, a savvy GM in Daryl Morey, a Hall of Fame player turned coach in Kevin McHale, and the ability to make James a compelling financial offer. A starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, Harden, a re-signed Chandler Parsons, James and Howard should be able to make a run at 65 wins, even in the West.
The fine print: It took a full season for Miami’s Big 3 to sort out its chemistry questions and pecking order. Would James/Harden/Howard ever be able to get there? Harden’s laissez-faire approach and Howard’s general goofiness don’t seem like ideal fits alongside the uber-focused James, even if their combined talents would most definitely frighten opposing defenses. James also lacks direct ties to Harden, Howard and the city of Houston. Perhaps most importantly, the Rockets would represent a leap of faith, as they haven’t made a conference finals during the Morey Era.
The pitch: Intrigued by the idea of the Bulls but put off by Michael Jordan’s shadow and Derrick Rose’s knee issues? Check out Indiana, who stepped into Chicago’s shoes by riding an elite defense to battles with Miami in each of the last two Eastern Conference finals. The logistics of adding James to Indian are tricky, but he could certainly do worse than forming a “Big 3” with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, even if the big man was MIA down the stretch of last season. Pacers president Larry Bird has the cachet to look at James eye-to-eye, while Frank Vogel should be regarded as one of the best coaches in the league despite Indiana’s ups and downs.
The fine print: Currently, Indiana’s biggest offseason concern is whether they can figure out a way to pay ear-blower Lance Stephenson. That doesn’t bode well for James’ ability to receive something close to his market value. Indeed, the Pacers would be looking at something resembling a halfway-teardown to make it happen. After eliminating the Pacers in 2012, 2013 and 2014, why wouldn’t James conclude that he could do it again in 2015 and save himself the hassle of a move?
The pitch: Palm trees, Hollywood, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and Doc Rivers. That’s all pretty self-explanatory. The Clippers would have their hands full clearing real room to add James, and such a course of action would probably involve parting with center DeAndre Jordan even though the roster lacks other good interior options. Even so, there aren’t many destinations where James could join two of the NBA’s top eight players, and the fact that he’s close friends with Paul is a nice ace in the hole.
The fine print: It’s impossible to ignore the Clippers’ ongoing Donald Sterling mess, which continues despite a sale agreement between Shelly Sterling and Steve Ballmer. James was active in encouraging the NBA to take a hard line against Sterling, and it’s hard to imagine anyone rushing to join the Clippers until this is fully put to bed.
The pitch: “We’re the Lakers.” The league’s biggest brand name could offer James the opportunity to hand-pick his coach, and L.A. has a little bit of flexibility to build a core from scratch. At this point, joining the Lakers would be more a matter of “starting fresh” rather than “joining a Superteam,” what with so many open roster spots that need to be filled.
The fine print: Kobe Bryant is owed $48.5 million over the next two years, and he will earn nearly as much as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green combined next season. It’s quite difficult to build a team capable of unseating the league’s deepest team when one 35-year-old, twice-injured star is making a lineup’s worth of dough. Further, would a Bryant/James partnership really offer the former anything that his current pairing with Dwyane Wade lacks? Even further, can Lakers executive Jim Buss be trusted to do anything right?
The pitch: Few teams are as thoroughly “Strictly business, no B.S.” as the veteran Grizzlies, who went to the 2013 Western Conference finals and nearly upset the Thunder this year. Memphis already has major salary commitments on the books, but could probably find a super creative way to team James with Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen. Going from the high-flying Heat to the grit-and-grind Grizzlies would be a major identity change, but James is one of the few players in the NBA who could fit seamlessly into either ethos.
The fine print: Owner Robert Pera wears a shooting sleeve in his Twitter avatar and, according to Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, wanted coach Dave Joerger to wear a headset to receive instructions during games. Memphis is one of many talented teams in the loaded Southwest Division, meaning James would have a much harder go of it than he currently does in the Southeast. James is at his most lethal when surrounded on all sides by shooters, something Memphis has worked to address but not yet mastered. Market-wise, Memphis doesn’t have much of a track record when it comes to appealing to high-profile free agents.
The pitch: Four straight Finals appearances, two titles, two All-Star teammates, a legendary executive, and a proven coach. If that’s not enough, Miami president Pat Riley can sell an annual cakewalk through the Eastern Conference, which the Heat have absolutely dominated since 2010.
The fine print: With Miami’s season hanging in the balance, Dwyane Wade was outscored by Patty Mills (!) in Games 4 and 5 of the Finals. The 32-year-old Wade is the biggest X-factor in all of this, as it’s difficult to envision any scenario in which he leaves Miami and he hasn’t yet clearly indicated he’s interested in taking a huge pay cut for the sake of the Heat’s roster-building efforts. The maintenance of Wade’s knee this season put more strain on James, and James realized quickly in the Finals that he would be asked to overcome a serious depth disparity against San Antonio. Unless major sacrifices by the Big 3 are made, Riley will be stuck doing what he’s done the last few summers: cobbling together a veteran cast of complementary pieces that may or may not prove to be difference-makers when it matters most.
The pitch: Go to Milwaukee and you could single-handedly be responsible for tripling the Bucks’ win total from last year. What other team can offer such a thrilling challenge? Also, a “Big 3” of James/Giannis Antetokounmpo/Mallory Edens would be Basketball Twitter’s dream.
The fine print: James hasn’t exactly cultivated a reputation as a glutton for punishment, and nobody represents punishment quite like the sad-sack Bucks. It’s too early in James’ career for him to get excited about playing mentor to either Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker and … this section is already two sentences too long. There’s just no chance.
The pitch: Kevin Love puts up video game numbers (26.1 points and 12.5 rebounds) and Corey Brewer scored 51 in a game that one time. Ricky Rubio is one of the few players who can match James in the vision and distribution departments, and Nikola Pekovic could thrive as a bodyguard.
The fine print: Sorry, this one is dead on arrival. Love clearly wants out, Brewer only scored 51 points that one time, Rubio’s offensive game is incomplete enough that he often was benched in the fourth quarter last season. The words “Pat Riley” and “Flip Saunders” really don’t belong in the same sentence, either.
The pitch: Anthony Davis has a shot at being one of the NBA’s top 10 players next season, and the Pelicans have a fairly solid core with Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and Tyreke Evans, as long as everyone comes back healthy. There’s really no way for opponents to gameplan against the James/Davis duo, and it’s frightening to imagine where they could be a few years from now. Pairing Headband and Unibrow could, with a little patience, make for a lengthy championship window.
The fine print: The Pelicans haven’t been able to find a winning formula since the Chris Paul trade, and the team’s ownership, management and coaching staff aren’t major enticements. Even with Davis’ insane upside, James’ arrival wouldn’t guarantee a Southwest Division title next year, much less a deep playoff run. The timing just isn’t quite right on the life cycle.
New York Knicks
The pitch: New York City. New. York. City. These streets will make you feel brand new, big lights will inspire you. The Big Apple. Did we mention the location of our franchise? If playing on that stage isn’t enough, Phil Jackson’s arrival and subsequent hiring of Derek Fisher signals a newfound commitment to team basketball, a style of play James himself regularly advocates. If Jackson magically finds a way to match up James with fellow free-agent Carmelo Anthony, and Fisher can get the Triangle Offense humming, the ceiling is 55 wins and a Finals trip.
The fine print: The city’s appeal and Jackson’s glittering track record as a coach doesn’t hide the fact that New York’s books are tied up in deadweight money that limits the organization’s ability to immediately construct a title-ready team. Unfortunately for the Knicks and their fans, New York would be a much more appealing destination in 2015, if Anthony stays, rather than this year, as the books would be clear and the Superteam building process could be undertaken more easily. Add on Jackson’s inexperience, Fisher’s inexperience, Anthony’s own reluctance to commit to the Knicks, a total lack of positive momentum after a disastrous season, and the New York tabloids and there are plenty of good reasons why James would look elsewhere. In Miami, James refers to the local media by their first names; in New York, he might find himself preferring four-letter words.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The pitch: Kevin Durant is way better and younger than Dwyane Wade. Serge Ibaka is at least as good, if not better, and younger than Chris Bosh. Russell Westbrook is so much better than Mario Chalmers it’s hilarious to even write their names side-by-side. In other words, James would be joining a “Big 4” that outclasses Miami’s “Big 3,” for the 2014-15 season and into the future. Putting together that core would require that James take a very large pay cut and it would require Thunder ownership to sign off on the dumping of Kendrick Perkins via the amnesty clause. Do you want to win? Join two of the league’s top-six players on a team that won 59 games without Westbrook for long stretches of last season. Why not take a crack at 70 wins?
The fine print: Sadly, this one seems just too good to be true. The Dust Bowl is always a tough sell for free agents, much less a player of James’ stature, who has his pick of 30 teams. If Oklahoma City couldn’t convince Dorell Wright to sign last summer, what makes them think James would be any different? What’s more, teaming up with Durant and Westbrook would only heighten the talk that James is a basketball mercenary, and it would be strange for an organization where roles are so clearly defined to totally rework itself around a player of James’ magnitude.
The pitch: James can maintain his Florida residency while joining an up-and-coming roster that is close to turning the corner, one that includes young talent (Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, a top-five pick this year) and cap flexibility heading into the summer.
The fine print: There just isn’t enough talent in Orlando for James to feel confident that he can win now. Unfortunately, the Magic’s 2013-14 season failed to reveal a breakout star in the making, and they’ll be thrilled if they can mount an overachieving run at the East’s No. 8 seed next season. Nothing about that last sentence jibes with James’ needs at this point.
The pitch: The Sixers have so many open roster spots and so little loyalty to their players that James could bring childhood buddies Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and Romeo Travis along with him ]to the 76ers if he really wanted to. In all seriousness, it’s hard to strip down a roster further than Philadelphia, so if James has a blueprint for teaming up with multiple stars, the Sixers have the (lack of a) foundation and an outside-the-box thinking GM in Sam Hinkie to make it happen.
The fine print: Well, the short version is that Philadelphia suffered through a record-tying 27-game losing streak and first-year coach Brett Brown publicly admitted that no free agents would want to play sign with Philadelphia this summer. James has no obvious ties to the city of Philadelphia, its management team, its coaching staff or its players. The bright spots, like 2014 Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams and 2013 lottery pick Nerlens Noel, are still years away from being major factors in the postseason. The short version is probably sufficient, lest any salt get rubbed into the wounds of long-suffering Sixers fans.
The pitch: How’s this for compelling? Combine a warm weather climate, a promising coach in Jeff Hornacek, a savvy GM in Ryan McDonough, a roster oozing with potential, and James’ friend Eric Bledsoe. Phoenix might not offer a traditional star-dominated destination, but the addition of James would easily vault the Suns to 50+ wins. The Seven Seconds or Less Suns are a thing of the past, but a James/Bledsoe/Goran Dragic/Gerald Green core would be off the charts in terms of entertainment value, and McDonough is far enough under the cap that he could do some meaningful wheeling and dealing in addition to signing James. Among 2014 lottery teams, Phoenix is easily the most enticing landing spot for James.
The fine print: Being fun to watch and a nightmare to defend doesn’t necessarily equate into immediate contender. Phoenix does need to shell out big money to retain Bledsoe this summer, and they won’t catch anyone by surprise next season like they did this year. One fundamental problem: could James, Bledsoe and Dragic – all primary ball-handlers – maximize each other’s talents, or would Dragic need to go? The biggest hurdle, though, is the advantage that Miami has by virtue of playing in the weaker East. Justifying a move from the East’s champions to a West lottery team is hard to do, even if that team has as much positive momentum as the Suns.
The pitch: Teaming up with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in L.A. or James Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston are both promising opportunities, but the LaMarcus Aldridge/Damian Lillard combination isn’t that far behind those other pairings in pure basketball terms. In Portland, with Nike’s headquarters nearby, James would join a 54-win team with an exciting, three-heavy offense that would give him a permanently spaced court. The Blazers prefer a traditional two-big approach, with Aldridge and center Robin Lopez, meaning James could enjoy a relatively easier life on the perimeter defensively.
The fine print: Geographically isolated from the rest of the basketball world, Portland has always struggled to compete for free agents. Lacking the size, entertainment and weather offered by many other NBA cities, Portland would require sacrifices that James didn’t need to make in picking Miami. Fitting in James could mean parting with Nicolas Batum and/or Wesley Matthews, which would break up Portland’s starting five and stretch a team that is totally lacking in depth. Again, the difficulty of the West rears its head here: replace Batum with James and add minor help to the bench, and it’s no guarantee that the Blazers would be able to overcome the Spurs and Thunder.
The pitch: The Maloofs are a thing of the past, replaced by a forward-thinking owner in Vivek Ranadive who has found ways to incorporate Bitcoin, Google Glass and crowdsourcing draft advice into the Kings’ new direction. Miami might be in the conversation for the best team of the 21st century, but Sacramento is positioning itself to be the franchise of the 22nd
The fine print: There’s only so much forward-looking that can be done before you have to deal with the present, which is a mess. The Kings are stuck with one of the league’s least-balanced rosters position-wise, and Rudy Gay’s decision to opt-in means that James would be joining a core that includes Gay and DeMarcus Cousins, which doesn’t exactly scream title contender. Sacramento, a lottery team in each of the last eight years, needs to get serious about trimming the fat from its payroll and piecing together a logical core before it can hope to catch the attention of a player of James’ caliber.
San Antonio Spurs
The pitch: The single best landing spot if James wants to win a title in 2015, bar none. Just consider the possibilities: James could join a starting lineup that includes Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan. He could be surrounded with a ball-movement group that includes Parker, Manu Ginobili, Diaw and Duncan. I haven’t even mentioned Tiago Splitter’s name yet. Forget a “Big 3,” this would be a “Big 13,” more or less. Furthermore, James would be coached by the league’s best in Gregg Popovich, a man who shares James’ view of basketball. “That’s how team basketball should be played, it’s selfless,” James during the Finals, sounding almost jealous of the Spurs’ style. Popovich could even entice James by promising to limit his minutes, as he does for all of his star players. If San Antonio re-signed Diaw and then inked James with their mid-level exception, you’re talking about a 62-win team adding the league’s best player. An NBA record 73 wins would be a distinct possibility, even in the West. Why stop in 2014-15? What would stop these theoretical Spurs from winning a title in 2016? Two years from now, a 31-year-old James could be the proud owner of a 4-3 Finals record. Watch out, Mike.
The fine print: Joining the Spurs would clearly require a major, major pay cut in terms of salary for James, and it would mean trading Biscayne Bay for Bexar County. Even if Spurs GM R.C. Buford offered to let James hire his own personal air conditioning specialist to handle the AT&T Center, he would also need to convince James – the NBA’s brightest star – to adapt to an organization that puts the constellation before the individual. Also hanging over such a move would be the “If you can’t beat them, join them” accusation that would attempt to paint James as a short-cutter or a mercenary. This would be an ultimate “swallow your ego” decision, a fact that might make it prohibitive.
The pitch: Toronto’s surprising 2013-14 season pulled it out of the NBA wasteland. Combine a run to the No. 3 seed, one of the league’s sharpest executives and deal-makers in Masai Ujiri, a quality coach in Dwane Casey, a well-balanced and hard-working roster, perhaps the league’s most diehard fan base, a major market, the return of the purple dinosaur jerseys next year and – yes – lint-rolling kingpin Drake and that’s actually a pretty nice package.
The fine print: Star players have generally fled from Toronto, rather than flocked to it, and Toronto seems fully focused on developing its current core. Ujiri could likely find a way to piece together a group that includes James, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas; as promising as that quintet sounds, it’s not noticeably better than what Pat Riley should be able to pull together during his promised retool. Unless he has the desire to expose his children to international living at an early age, James can surely find a situation of comparable promise stateside.
The pitch: Well… uh… that’s a hard one. What the Jazz’s roster lacks in star power, it makes up for in promise, with Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward (once he’s re-signed) and Trey Burke set to lead the organization’s next era. What Salt Lake City lacks in global appeal, it makes up for with … stories about the John Stockton/Karl Malone glory days and Jerry Sloan’s love of tractors? Honestly, there’s only so much lipstick for this pig of a pitch.
The fine print: A James/Jazz partnership would be arguably the least probable match in the league. Utah is pursuing its roster construction plan with a deliberate rebuilding vision, and James won’t exactly be eager to leave the East’s champions to join the West’s worst squad. The allure of James wasn’t always enough to help the Heat land free agents, and that reality would be magnified significantly if he somehow decided to join the Jazz. To be clear: it’s no great insult to the Jazz that James makes no sense there, they just have a totally different path in mind.
The pitch: Washington offers the opportunity to take a talented, on-the-rise group that was two wins shy of making the Eastern Conference finals all the way to the promise land. The Wizards have an All-Star guard in John Wall and future one in Bradley Beal, plus a pair of low-post pillars in Nene and Marcin Gortat (assuming he is re-signed). Add James to that group and you’re looking at one of the best starting fives in the league, a team capable of beating just about anybody with its offense or defense.
The fine print: The Wizards’ roster isn’t perfectly aligned age-wise: by the time the Wall/Beal combination hits its peak years, Washington will likely be searching for a new frontline. It’s possible that this stagger would prevent James from ever realizing a true contention window in D.C., even if a James-led Wizards group would be favored to win the East next year. Washington is simply lacking in the depth department, and would need to sacrifice at least one piece to add James and retain Gortat. For James to leave Miami, he will likely need to feel feel like the new situation is a risk-free slam dunk, and the Wizards aren’t quite there. Miami’s ownership situation, front office and coaching staff are all preferable to Washington’s based on their sustained level of postseason success.
After a thorough review, I would rank the best destinations for James as follows…
We’ll soon find out whether James’ priorities and thought process are in sync with the pitches made for those five markets, or the 25 listed above.