LeBron James did not win the NBA title or the Finals MVP award, but his stellar playoff run provided yet another reminder that he is the best player in the game, maybe even of all-time. And he is about to become a free agent.
With the Finals in the books (and the Golden State Warriors celebrating the latest step in their dynasty), attention now turns to the NBA draft (June 21) and free agency. Many are anticipating that this summer will be jam-packed with player movement - and James’ decision will impact a number of other deals.
James will probably take meetings with a handful of teams as he figures out his next move. The Cleveland Cavaliers are thought to still have an outside chance at keeping their star man, but most signs point towards James wearing a different jersey when the 2018/19 season tips off.
Here’s a look at the teams likely to be high on James’ list:
Los Angeles Lakers
With Magic Johnson running things, the Lakers are sure to get a meeting with James. They have cap space to add another star player too (perhaps Paul George). But would that be enough? James is desperate for another championship. A supporting cast of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma does not look equipped to take down the Warriors. However, if the Lakers were able to turn some of those younger pieces into a third star (Kawhi Leonard, for instance) then this becomes a very appealing option. James has acknowledged that his family will be a factor in his next choice - and he has property in Los Angeles.
Staying in the Eastern Conference would certainly increase James’ chances of more trips to the Finals. The Warriors are not going anywhere, the Houston Rockets will contend again next season and the rest of the Western Conference remains strong. Joining forces with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, plus the possibility of trading for a fourth top tier player, is intriguing. Embiid’s health would be one cause for concern, and the fit alongside Simmons (a primary ball handler and a poor shooter) is not ideal. But great players make these things work, and the 76ers already seem poised to take a bigger leap next season. One other wildcard to keep in mind is the Bryan Colangelo saga and whether that has any bearing on James’ decision.
The salary cap situation would require more gymnastics, but there is likely a way for the Rockets to add James this summer if he picks them. A James-Chris Paul-James Harden trio would cause nightmares in Golden State but it remains to be seen how much of Houston’s depth would be impacted if they have to clear space for James. This is the clearest path for an immediate championship push.
Given that Kyrie Irving left Cleveland and James behind last summer, it would be a surprise if the pair were reunited. That said, Boston’s future is extremely bright. With Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum ascending, the Celtics are set up to compete for the next decade and James could eventually transition into more of a supporting role. Irving and Gordon Hayward provide more experienced star power to take on the Warriors. Of all the teams on this list, the Celtics would be the shrewdest choice for a long, sustained championship charge over the last part of James’ career.
It is hard to see how Cleveland can put together a pitch that is as compelling as the packages offered by others on this list. James knows the limitations of the current roster after dragging them to the Finals this season, and there is no easy path to bringing in stars to lighten the load. Aside from Kevin Love, this is an average team. James brought Cleveland the championship he promised and may well feel it is time to move on.
There is a lot for James to weigh up over the next few weeks and we will only get his answer in July. Until then, sit back and enjoy the endless speculation.