A King’s Ransom

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“The NBA is rigged. KD doesn’t deserve the rings. The refs cost the Cavs the game.” Yeah, okay. Refs don’t play the game. Players do. And unfortunately for LeBron James, his players did not play well. LeBron James is 33 but only seems to be getting better year after year. The best player in the world had the almost impossible task of carrying a lackluster roster to the Finals while attempting to beat one of the greatest dynasties of all time.

As everyone knows, the Cavs got swept in a bad series to the Golden State Warriors. After carrying this Cavs teams in a historic way, nobody is questing The King’s play anymore. In The Finals, James averaged an insane 34.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG, and 10.0 APG on an equally insane 52.7 FG%. Assist percentage is a tool that estimates the percentage of teammates field goals a player assisted on while on the floor. LeBron had an insane 44.7 AST% against the Warriors. The next highest on his team was 15.9%. That really shows how much this Cavs team struggled to create their own shot, LeBron had to do it all.

LeBron had too much on his plate, but you already knew that. The question on everyone’s mind is, “what’s next?” Where will the best player in the world take his talents next?

This is set to be a LeBron James driven free agency. Players will make their decisions based on where LeBron signs. Teams will sign/trade/cut players based on The King. Any and every team would make space for LeBron if the opportunity presents itself. But the only thing that matters is, where does LeBron want to go?

 

Houston Rockets

Let’s start with one of the most popular destinations for LeBron to land. Houston has serious appeal for LeBron. With future hall of fame point guard Chris Paul and superstar shooting guard James Harden, this would give LeBron serious star power that Cleveland sorely lacked. Let’s not forget this is with coach of the year candidate Mike D’Antoni at the helm.

People have questioned LeBron’s fit with D’Antonio’s pick and roll offense dominated by Harden and Paul. D’Antonio solved this “fit” problem once before. When Chris Paul joined this team, D’Antonio was able to stagger Paul and Harden’s minutes, always having one of his two superstars on the floor. If/when LeBron joins, this will a whole new task. LeBron, Harden, and Paul will all need to figure out how to share one ball. I personally think D’Antonio will easily be able to figure this out. By staggering minutes and having James, Harden, and Chris Paul play more without the ball, his system will continue to succeed. At LeBron’s age, you would imagine he would love to have fewer minutes and usage on his back after carrying the Cavs to the Finals.

The Rockets’ cap space situation is one of the most interesting. In case you didn’t realize, Chris Paul isn’t currently a part of this team. The Rockets’ currently have the 7th most cap space, but if they get LeBron they must choose their next moves wisely. The first thing they must do is get rid of Ryan Anderson. While he may be a solid role player, his $20/mil a year is burning a hole in the Rockets’ checkbook. Anderson looked to be out of the rotation in the playoffs, so yeah, he’s got to go. For this move to work, Chris Paul and LeBron James will need to take a pay cut from their usual gigantic salaries. Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, despite being extremely important, will most likely not be resigned. Clint Capela who is deserving of a max contract will need to take a pay cut to remain.

This Rockets’ team was a 65 win team who was just one win away from knocking off the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for LeBron, he wouldn’t be joining the same team. The Rockets’ look like a perfectly constructed roster, but they will need to do a lot of editing to accommodate LeBron. The one thing you can surely count on is solid role players will come running and take pay cuts to play with LeBron. Chris Paul, who also happens to be one of LeBron’s’ best friends, has already started recruiting LeBron to Houston. The talent and situation are most definitely appealing for The King, hence leading to one of his most likely destinations.

 

LA Lakers

Everyone would love to play in LA. LeBron has the chance to “take his talents to Hollywood.” This LA roster has serious promise, but that’s not why LeBron would join. It’s the cap space. The Lakers will have more than $61 million in cap space, highest in the NBA. Let’s not forget the highest paid player is Luol Deng with $18 million, who will likely be bought out or traded, creating almost $80 million in cap space. Their free agents include Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, Isiah Thomas, and Kentavious Caldwell Pope. Players the Lakers should not resign if they hope to bring LeBron in.

The puzzle starts with LeBron, of course. This is a largely unproven roster with lots of promise for the future. LeBron teaming up with Paul George and heading to LA seems to be what is necessary here. The logistical fit here is perfect. PG-13 has shown the ability to play tremendously without the ball, as he’s shown with uber ball dominant player Russell Westbrook. While everyone is screaming for a 3rd superstar, the reality is any 3rd “superstar” LeBron James has teamed up with has essentially become a catch and shoot player. Chris Bosh and Kevin Love most notably. The Lakers are flush with young talent. Lonzo Ball is a low volume player who passes and makes his team better. Brandon Ingram is an up and coming star who can play with or without the ball. Kyle Kuzma is a future star who is a fantastic catch and shoot player with a deadly dribble drive. These are the exact type of skill sets which would complement LeBron perfectly.

As I mentioned before, the Lakers have a ridiculous amount of open cap space. With the potential of more than $80 million before hitting the soft cap and $100 from the luxury tax threshold, the Lakers have the luxury of signing 2 (or 3) max contracts this offseason. LeBron would be the first, obviously. Paul George would be a perfect fit as the next max contract player. The Lakers could possibly sign all-world center DeMarcus Cousins. This would happen without compromising their future with Lonzo, Ingram, and Kuzma still on low number rookie deals.

The thought of a super team forming in LA is tantalizing. Magic Johnson and the Lakers have done a fantastic job of saving up cap room for a super team. Coach Luke Walton, a disciple of Steve Kerr, runs an up-tempo offense who loves to push the break. LeBron and Paul George would thrive in this system. His help defense system would help LeBron at this stage in his career. The fit in LA, the spotlight, and the situation may just give LeBron the best chance to win.

 

New York Knicks

Stop laughing.

Like in LA, playing in New York would give LeBron the spotlight. With the very little talent on this roster apart from Kristaps Porzingis, this will be another team who needs to bring in star power to attract LeBron. The luxury for NY is they have an absolute stud in Porzingis. Porzingis is one of the best, young power forwards already and is only getting better. The fit would be perfect next to LeBron, as Porzingis makes a lot of his points catching and shooting right over defenders using his 7’3” frame. Porzingis shot 9.0 of his 18.5 FGA off the catch and shoot, it would be a seamless transition next to LeBron where that number would rise even higher.

Obviously, Porzingis and LeBron would not be enough to attract The King. Once again, Paul George would need to join LeBron and come to NY for this to work. The Knicks have two huge problems with their salary cap. Their names are Enes Kanter and Joakim Noah. The Knicks are about $500k above the salary cap, with Kanter and Noah burning about $18 million for each player. The Knicks would need to find a way to either trade or buyout these players, as their on-court productivity does not match their salary.

Bringing in LeBron would be a hefty task for NY, but would bring excitement to a team that has been lacking that for many years now. Tim Hardaway Jr. had a breakout this past season and would be another solid piece to this team. Not to mention, the Knicks own the no. 9 pick in this draft, where they could draft another strong player which would attract LeBron. New York has something of an uphill battle to bring in LeBron, but if they can get the numbers right, NY could be quite enticing for LeBron.

 

Philadelphia 76ers

Now, this is an interesting one. Philly is filled with talent. With star center Joel Embiid and star “point guard” Ben Simmons, who’s been touted as “baby LeBron”, the talent is mouthwatering. But does LeBron really want to play next to LeBron? Uber ball dominant Ben Simmons has no business standing at the three-point line with his nonexistent jump shot. LeBron has never really a great track record with post up players (Bosh and Love). With those two players in the fold, the fit is very much in question here.

On the contrary, Brett Brown is of the brightest, young minds in coaching. He is very good at adapting his offense to his personnel. He will figure out this conundrum. There would be too much talent on this offense for it not to work. The cap figures would definitely work out. The 76ers have more the 3rd highest cap with an excess of $30 million before hitting the soft cap. They could even opt to resign J.J Reddick. If they decide not to do that, they could trade/sign another star on the market.

The 76ers are stacked with talent. In addition to the aforementioned players, the 76ers also have Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz, and Robert Covington. This in addition to the no. 10 and no. 26 overall picks. They could use the no. 10 on a player like Mikal Bridges, a prototypical 3 and D player that LeBron loves to play with. The star power and financial flexibility is most certainly there for Philly to bring in The King, making this another likely destination.

 

Boston Celtics

Conspiracy theory? Kyrie Irving asked for a trade to a better team and LeBron planned to join him a year later. Or LeBron and Kyrie are just playing one huge game of tag. Jokes aside, Boston could be a beautiful fit for LeBron. The King is a huge fan of coach Brad Stevens.

The Celtics are not in the best of cap situations as it stands, about $6 million over the salary cap. Fortunately for them, they have the best GM in the league in Danny Ainge. For this trade to work, LeBron would need to opt into his contract and be traded to the Celtics for either Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving. This would give the Celtics the cap space required. Even without Kyrie Irving on the team, the Celtics have star-in-the-making Terry Rozier at point guard.

A front line of Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, LeBron James, and Al Horford would be a daunting task for any team. This coupled with the coaching of Brad Stevens will have teams scared night in and night out. Let’s not forget about Boston’s first-round pick, who Danny Ainge will surely turn into another impact player. Boston may be too enticing for LeBron to pass up. Teaming up with Brad Stevens and this fantastic roster would be just flat out terrifying.

 

San Antonio Spurs

LeBron loves and respects Greg Popovich. It would be a treat to watch two of the smartest minds in basketball pair up and wreak havoc on the league. The talent is most definitely on the roster for the Spurs. Superstar Kawhi Leonard is the best 2 way player in the league. LaMarcus Aldridge is a handful in the post. This is in addition to several key role players including Patty Mills, Danny Green, and up-and-coming player Dejounte Murray.

The Spurs are bouncing right around the salary cap max. Their biggest issue is the $16 million they awarded Pau Gasol who is essentially a glorified role player at this stage in his career. They will need to trade or buy out Gasol to have the space to sign LeBron.

The biggest question that arises is the culture fit. LeBron is outspoken, to say the least, meanwhile, Pop’s players are calm and composed. On the contrary, LeBron is a professional who respects Pop and will buy into the Spurs culture because he understands what it takes to succeed. The other problem is Aldridge. He faltered once before when having to play 2nd fiddle to Kawhai, what will he do when he is the 3rd option on this team? My guess is that Pop is too good a coach to let LA make himself an afterthought. Pop brought the greatness out of Aldridge once before, he will be able to do it again. Seeing LeBron team up with Pop would be extremely exciting, with all the factors there for The King, he may just end up in San Antonio in a few weeks.

 

Miami Heat

“This fall, I’m going to be taking my talents to South Beach.” Everyone remembers LeBron’s historic announcement to join the Heat in 2010. This would not be the same team, however. The Heat are a young and inexperienced team without any real star power outside of Goran Dragic. This Heat team that is run by a strong, hard-nosed, and tough defense. A very deep team gave coach Erik Spoelstra many options all year long.

The Heat are $19 million over the salary cap, only a few million dollars from the luxury tax threshold. To be able to sign LeBron, the Heat would most definitely need to trade away Hassan Whiteside, who almost fell out of the rotation toward the end of the year. The Heat may also trade away Tyler Johnson and his $19 million/year. Despite being a solid role player, he is costing the Heat more than he is producing. The added bonus for LeBron would be his best friend, Dwayne Wade, would join him where they first joined forces together.

While the Heat may not look like the prettiest team on paper, they may be what LeBron needs. LeBron would give the Heat some real star power. He would not be the only scorer, however, as he and Goran Dragic would form a very strong duo. Miami is flush with solid scorers like James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, and many more. The depth on this roster will keep the Heat afloat when LBJ hits the bench, something the Cavs struggled with severely. The tough, physical defense the Heat play will allow LeBron to need to put up such ridiculous numbers, once again giving LeBron a luxury he didn’t with the Cavs. While the Heat may not look like a great fit with the lack of star power, the Heat and LeBron reuniting could work very well for both sides.

 

Golden State Warriors

Yeah, I know, you don’t want to hear it. But I must cover all my bases. I don’t need to sell anyone on how LeBron going to the Warriors would be overkill. What I will do is tell you why this would not work.

As is stands right now, the Warriors are $2 million above the salary cap. Not bad, right? Now take into consideration that Kevin Durant, Nick Young, Zaza Pachulia, Kevin Looney, JaVale McGee, and David West are all unsigned. Given that most of those guys are signing for $1-2 million, Young will be at about $5-6 million, and Durant at $35-40 million. That $2 million over the salary cap quickly becomes $50 million over the cap. The Warriors can swallow that amount given the fact they will be favorites to win another championship. What they can’t do is bring LeBron in and be $90 million over the salary cap.

They will be forced to start slashing players away at will. Draymond Green, who is the heart and soul of this team, in addition to being their best defender, leader, and their de facto point guard, will be traded away along with his $18 million. Klay Thompson is the most unselfish player on this team and a star without needing the ball (indispensable to the Warriors system). His $19 million will be traded away. Andre Iguodala may be “overpaid” at $16 million a year but makes his mark through leadership, defense, and all-around skill set, he is an absolutely invaluable player to this Warriors culture. Yeah, he’s gone too. Or maybe the Warriors decide to trade away the 2nd best player in the league in Durant and simply replace him with LeBron.

The Warriors would be able to make it work if they tried. But system the Warriors run would be in question to the style to which LeBron plays. They can all adapt and coach Steve Kerr would find a way to make it work, but do they really need to? Maybe GM Bob Myers is bored after winning 3 championships in 4 years and wants a new challenge/ LeBron would be smart to do his due diligence and see what the Warriors have to say, but this is the one team I cannot imagine LeBron deciding to join.

 

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, I know. It’s crazy, right? Why would LeBron possibly return to this terrible Cavs team that he had to carry to The Finals? To be honest, this team is not as bad as it seems. I know. I’ve lost my mind. Jordan Clarkson (14.5 PPG), Rodney Hood (16.8 PPG), and George Hill (10.8 PPG, 45.3 3FG%) were all having very solid seasons before being traded to Cleveland. All these guys got thrown into the fire, playing 28 games or less before the playoffs.

The chemistry wasn’t there, evidently. Players not named LeBron James and Kevin Love struggled mightily with their productivity. An offseason of work may change things for the better. This alone would not be enough to keep LeBron in Cleveland however. If LeBron does opt-in they would stand $38 million over the salary cap, worst in the NBA. This would be without resigning Rodney Hood or Jeff Green.

The Cavs have a serious mess with their roster. Overpaying for a plethora of players, the Cavs will need to trade away some of their big money guys who are burning a hole in their salary cap. They will almost certainly need another big name free agent to keep LeBron around, Paul George would be the most likely. The Cavs do have the no. 9 pick, it remains to be seen who they draft with that and what exactly that pick will do for this roster. While the Cavs have a lot of work to bring their roster to relevance, it is not out of the question.

 

Final Decision

Let’s keep in mind that LeBron wants to play for a proven team. At his age, he doesn’t have the time to sit around and wait for players to develop. LeBron is looking for a team with players who are ready to win now.  A 3-6 Finals record does not look good on his resume and he knows it. James will go to a team that is ready to win now.

So that brings us to the big question. Where will The King end up?

He has more than a few suitors obviously, but it seems most likely to me he will end up in Houston, LA, or Boston. While he could very well end up on any team on this list, the aforementioned teams offer him the best chance to win without having too many “what if” questions. To be frank, LeBron can go to Sacramento and everyone would follow him there. The only thing I know for sure is this year’s free agency will be a LeBron James palooza.

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