While this may not be what Cleveland Cavaliers fans want to hear, it’s the truth. If LeBron James wants to win another championship while he is still in his prime, he probably needs to leave Cleveland (again).
This time, however, it’s pretty much impossible to take issue with it, because the Cavaliers failed to put the necessary supporting cast around him (again) – the same failure that was one of the main reasons he left Cleveland the first time. While James’ teammates during the 2017-18 postseason were certainly talented (the fact that they’re all in the NBA proves that much), winning an NBA Championship today is much different than it’s ever been in the past, and, as talented as James is at this point in his career, even he can’t do it without at least one other NBA Superstar (and Kevin Love, as good as he is from time to time, unfortunately doesn’t qualify).
Excluding LeBron, there aren’t too many players in the history of the NBA that could have gotten the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Finals this season; even for LeBron, it took an absolutely incredible level of play, which without, would have almost certainly resulted in the Cavaliers being bounced by the Pacers in the first rounds. Nevertheless, as much as the Cavaliers making it to the Finals this year is a testament to LeBron’s level of talent, the sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors is evidence of just how weak the Eastern Conference is in comparison to the Western Conference. Along those lines, the Cleveland Cavaliers would have most likely lost to the Houston Rockets had they advanced to the Finals instead of the Warriors.
Moving forward, the stronghold that the Western Conference, and the Warriors, in particular, have on the NBA is probably not going to change. Likewise, for a variety of reasons, the prospect of the Cavaliers being able to obtain the caliber All-Stars it would need to beat the Warriors is almost impossible. While the NBA salary cap for the 2018-19 season,which is projected to be around $101 million, has not been announced yet, the Cavaliers are guaranteed to be above it.
Being above the salary cap means that the Cavaliers will only be able to sign free agents using salary-cap exceptions, which effectively (subject to limited exceptions) prevents them from signing anyone that would make it worth it for James to stay (think Chris Paul and/or Paul George). Otherwise put, the Cavaliers can’t offer anywhere close enough to what it will take to land George or Paul, at least not currently. Since Paul and George are both unrestricted free agents this summer, the Cavaliers could theoretically acquire one or potentially both of them through sign-and-trades, but that would require George or Paul to (1) want to go to Cleveland and ask for the sign-and-trade; and (2) the Cavaliers to trade away more than half of their current roster, including Love.
Given Houston’s success this season, the chances of Paul wanting to go to another team, especially the Cavaliers is extraordinarily slim. Meanwhile, George has the chance to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, which would be a homecoming that he has desired for quite a while. All in all, the Cavaliers’ chances of obtaining Paul and/or George is slim to none, and without at least one of them, nothing Cleveland does will allow the organization to top Golden State, let alone beat many Western Conference teams in the Finals.
All of the foregoing leads to the main point, which is that if LeBron wants to win more championships, he really has no choice but to leave Cleveland. The choice LeBron does have in front of him, however, is which team he joins.
At the outset, three potential destinations for James stand out -- Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers. Which one makes the most sense? If the answer is to win championships now, then the answer is fairly clear.
Over the next two weeks, leading up to the start of free agency on July 1, every Monday and Friday, I will get into the nitty gritty for you and breakdown the chances/ability the Cavaliers, Rockets, Lakers and 76ers have to win the LeBron James sweepstakes based on each team’s current NBA salary-cap position. First, is the 76ers.
The Spirit of '76
The 76ers have some absolutely great, young talent in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. The emphasis on the word “young” is no mistake. Simmons is just starting his career and Embiid is still very young, but as good as they currently are now, and as good as they will become in the not-so-distant future, the team’s performance in The Playoffs against the Boston Celtics shows they still have a long way to go before they’re NBA Championship ready. If LeBron wasn’t about to go into his 16th season, the 76ers would be a solid fit, but given that he is much closer towards the end of his career than the beginning, time is not his friend.
Moreover, the 76ers are going to be over the cap, which means, as of right now, the organization only has the ability to sign free agents using exceptions and league-minimum salaries. In other words, the only way the 76ers could sign LeBron would be through a series of trades and/or a sign and trade, because even if the 76ers renounce all of their rights to resign their free agents to create cap room, they still wouldn’t have enough to pay LeBron the maximum salary he is eligible to earn as a free-agent signing with a team other than the Cavaliers, which is $35,350,000.
Even if the 76ers renounce their rights to resign their free agents, the most the 76ers could offer LeBron for the first-year salary of a new contract would be $30,505,304 (which would be a notable pay cut). In addition, if the 76ers renounce their free agents, they would actually end up losing their mid-level exception, bi-annual exception and any trade exception, which would further limit their ability to operate above the cap the rest of the season. Why does that matter? It matters because it could prevent the organization from potentially being able to sign additional role players.
Acquiring LeBron through a sign-and-trade is another potential option, but not necessarily a good one. First, in order to make the transaction possible and for it to make sense for Philadelphia, LeBron would need to opt out of his player option and sign a multi-year contract. If LeBron exercises his player option for next season, the 76ers would be taking a huge risk by acquiring him via a trade, since he could easily leave for another team the following year if he doesn’t win a championship.
Furthermore, the mechanics of the trade would be very tricky. If the 76ers don’t renounce their free agents, the team would be forced to unload a little bit over $28,406,375 in contracts to make the trade work with LeBron’s salary of approximately $35,607,969 (assuming he exercises his player option). Here is where the real issue arises.
Obviously, it would basically defeat the purpose of acquiring LeBron if the 76ers have to trade away Embiid or Simmons in the process, so they are both untouchable. As a result, in order to make a trade work between the 76ers and the Cavaliers, the 76ers have very limited options (especially if they don’t want to waive their right to resign a free agent like J.J. Redick using an exception as discussed above). Even if Philadelphia trades Robert Covington (’2018-19 salary of $10,464,092), Jerryd Bayless ($8,575,916) and Markelle Fultz ($8,339,880), the 76ers still wouldn’t be able to acquire LeBron without adding in another player, such as Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who has a salary of $1,446,360.
Alternatively, the 76ers could trade Covington, Fultz or Bayless, Dario Saric ($2,526,840), Justin Anderson ($2,516,048), Furkan Korkmaz ($1,740,000), Richaun Holmes ($1,600,520), and T.J. McConnell ($1,600,520).
In other words, the 76ers would, more or less, have to trade away, at a minimum four players, but potentially seven players just to acquire LeBron. Realistically, the 76ers may even need to throw in a draft pick just to sweeten the pot. Seeing one of these scenarios play out, however would require LeBron to tell Cleveland that he wants to go to Philadelphia. Otherwise, Cleveland would have very little incentive to make the trade; the primary upside to making a trade with the 76ers from Cleveland’s perspective would be that Bayless, McConnell and Holmes are all free agents next year, and Anderson, Saric, Fultz, and Korkmaz all have team options attached to their contracts for the 2019-20 season. If next season goes well with any of them, the Cavaliers could resign them, and, if not, the organization would end up with a lot of salary coming off their books in 2019-20, which could open some nice options depending on how free agency shapes up that year.
If LeBron does not exercise the player option and signs a new contract as a part of a sign-and-trade, the amount of salary the 76ers would have to unload would drop a tiny bit, but the scenario basically stays the same. Keep in mind, we’re only analyzing the ability for the 76ers to acquire LeBron, not any other NBA superstar, such as George or Paul.
Bottom line, assuming LeBron isn’t willing to take a paycut at this point in his career, or at the very least, be more or less willing to forego a salary bump next season, it will be extremely tough for Philadelphia to land LeBron. With all of that being said, however, let’s assume that the 76ers' front office somehow manages to acquire LeBron and retain the core of its team from this past season, the odds of it making a difference (and I mean NBA championship difference) are probably still pretty slim.
There is no doubt that a team consisting of James, Embiid and Simmons could do some real damage, especially in the Eastern Conference (let’s face it, adding LeBron to any team makes them almost an instantaneous threat). In fact, it would probably be fair to assume the 76ers would be one of the top teams in the East, if not the best (the Celtics are going to be very good in the years to come, especially if Kyrie Irving stays). The fact of the matter, though, is even if the 76ers are able to gel quickly and handle business in the East, a team consisting of James, Simmons and Embiid, without more, isn’t going to be able to overtake Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala.
Given all of these issues, it just doesn’t make sense for James, from both a practical perspective and a salary-cap standpoint, to take his talents to Philly.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR --Steven Howard Roth is an attorney in Cleveland, representing clients in mergers and acquisitions, commercial real estate transactions, banking and finance matters, and business start-ups. Steven holds a JD and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University, and has extensive experience in the area of sports, media and entertainment law, having worked for multiple professional sports teams, governing bodies and sports agencies, and representing athletes, artists, media personalities and Grammy -winning recording artists.