Don’t be startled. The reason the water in your cup just started shaking amid loud, intermittent thudding noises is because LeBron James is officially an unrestricted free agent. Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon is reporting that James will not exercise his player option for next season, forgoing the remaining $35.6 million on his contract to instead have his pick of teams to sign with this summer. Here’s what James’s decision means moving forward.
Houston, We Have A Problem!
(Have you guys ever heard that Houston joke before? It’s famous from popular culture.) James’s choice to make his next move as a free agent as opposed to a one-year deal is quite significant. Basically, James is now likely to only sign with a team that has ample cap space. If James had opted in, he could have chosen to approach this summer like Chris Paul did last year, and essentially force his way onto a team through a trade. The Rockets, for example, were likely hoping for James to opt in so they could facilitate a trade to bring him to Houston with Paul and James Harden. The Rockets can’t really open up a max salary slot this summer while also keeping Paul and valuable role players like Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza. So unless James is planning on taking a massive discount to sign somewhere, the chances of him joining the Rockets are now incredibly slim. Houston could still try to acquire James in a sign and trade, but that triggers all kind of salary cap ramifications and would still necessitate losing important pieces to the point where LeBron wouldn’t really be joining last year’s version of the Rockets. (If LeBron had exercised his player option, his theoretical new team post-trade could have offered him a four-year deal next summer.)
Cleveland Isn’t Dead Yet
Though James opted out, the Cavs can still sign him to a massive contract. Basically, until James signs somewhere else or Cleveland renounces his rights, the Cavs can offer LeBron a full five-year max deal utilizing his Bird Rights. This isn’t insignificant. If James looks around the league and doesn’t see a situation he loves, he can [looks up teen slang] secure the bag by signing a long-term deal in Cleveland. No team can offer James as much money or as many years as the Cavs. Of course, for someone who values flexibility as much as LeBron, that may not mean much. But James’s opt-out doesn’t eliminate Cleveland as an option. (Just don’t hold your breath, Cavs fans.)
Los Angeles and Philadelphia, This is Your Moment
The Lakers and Sixers have to be the most excited by James’s decision. L.A. has the requisite cap space to sign LeBron the second free agency begins on July 1. The Lakers could be as far as $61 million under the cap this summer if they renounce Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas. Basically, the L.A. dream of acquiring James, and then perhaps Paul George and Kawhi Leonard is still very much in play. The exact order of operations may need some fine tuning, but the Lakers’ plan for now would be to sign George and James into their cap space, and then trade for Leonard. The team would be top heavy, but with some shrewd maneuvering the Lakers could have their non-taxpayer mid-level exception available, a nearly $9 million chip to bring in another solid free agent.
The Sixers don’t have the room to sign LeBron right away, but they can get there pretty easily. Philly would have to renounce guys like J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson to clear space, and probably trade Jerryd Bayless (with an asset attached) to make enough room for LeBron. That shouldn’t be overly difficult. And in that scenario, the Sixers would probably still have enough pieces to at least make a competitive offer to the Spurs for Leonard. Perhaps Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, draft picks and some salary filler (or a third team) could get the job done. Whatever the case, Philly is firmly in the LeBron running, and they have the ability to bring in two stars to join Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
It looks like the three teams James will be deciding between are the Lakers, Sixers and Cavs. There is room for him to sign somewhere else, but that would require James taking a big discount or picking a wild-card team no one has really thought much about over the last year. If I had to guess right now, I’d say James’s pecking order looks like this:
But all that is is a guess! Let the speculation begin. For the third time in eight years, the NBA world will be waiting on LeBron.