The world has been holding its breath for the last year waiting on the summer of 2018.
No, it wasn’t because of the potential meeting of two world leaders. And it wasn’t because of the potential of new music from a controversial hip-hop icon. This is bigger than both.
The summer of 2018 is crucial for one reason and one reason only: LeBron James, the hometown savior of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is set to become a free agent again. And his impending decision has been front-of-the-line fodder for every major sport news outlet.
And since we here at The Ball Out like to give the people what they want, we’re going to break down the four main options he has available. So, with that said, let’s get to reading and have some fun.
1. STICK WITH THE STATUS QUO
When we’re talking about the status quo, we’re talking about sticking with the one team he has complete dominion over: the Cleveland Cavaliers.
LeBron knows that all he has to do is snap his fingers, and owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman will do whatever it takes to make sure he has the help he needs. No one will say it in public, but we have seen evidence of this: when both J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson were stuck in dead-end contract negotiations, it was LeBron who told then GM David Griffin to do whatever it took to re-sign them. And even though he’s probably slapping himself for making such proposals, at the time it was considered genius because of the contributions they had made toward the 2016 championship.
While the 2017-18 season may have been James’ most stressful in his career, there is something to build on there. The Cavs have young building blocks in Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr., Kevin Love is proving more often than not that he can be a decent number two option, and the team also has the eighth pick in a draft where there are good role player options.
On top of that, James has roots in Ohio. Not only was he born there; his kids go to school there, he is opening up a public school in his hometown of Akron, and his “I Promise” initiative is providing students with full scholarships if they complete high school with a 3.0. To the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio, LeBron is more than just a basketball hero…he is a patron saint.
2. STAY IN THE EAST
Based on multiple reports throughout the playoffs, there are two teams in the East that have a serious chance at luring King James: the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers. Let’s break down how this could potentially work for both teams, and why is is and isn’t a good idea.
a) Philadelphia: According to Spotrac, the 76ers have $30.5 in practical cap space this offseason. It would take a little bit of creative tinkering to make a James contract possible (his cap hit for 2018-19 is $35.6 milion), and even denouncing their cap holds wouldn’t be of much help. Getting James would require more than just letting go of four players, and even a sign-and-trade deal with Cleveland could mean having to get rid of at least one of their foundation pieces.
The most likely piece that would go in a deal for James is 2017 number one pick Markelle Fultz. Of the core that Philly has, Fultz is the most expendable; he hardly played in his rookie year, and questions of his shooting ability dogged him throughout.
The only issue with letting him go is that it would be admitting Philly whiffed on the top pick they so coveted; but if that means you get the best player in the world and get to team him with perennial All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid…you make that move 100 times out of 100.
b) Boston: Of the two teams, they definitely have the upper hand here. While they have negative cap space, they also have a mastermind general manager in Danny Ainge. He could put a possible deal together to entice LeBron to do a sign-and-trade deal, and this is where it gets interesting.
To make a deal like this work, Boston would have to get rid of either Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving. Why not Al Horford, who is taking up 27 percent of their cap? It’s easy: Horford is the only true center, you can’t let him go. Especially because he’s still one of the best centers in the league. So now you have the above dilemma: who do we keep?
The real answer here is Gordon Hayward. The NBA and its fans were robbed of what could have been a monster takeover of the Eastern Conference when Hayward fractured his tibia and dislocated his ankle five minutes into the Celtics’ season opener against none other than James’ Cavs. So you never got to see just how dangerous a lineup with Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford could be. With that being said, the team made it to the Eastern Conference Finals without him and Irving. Can you imagine a lineup with a healthy Hayward and James? The East would be theirs for the taking.
The reason you get rid of Irving in any deal for James is simple: Irving requested the trade from Cleveland to begin with because he no longer wanted to be the Robin to James’ Batman. With Boston, Irving was finally going to be the centerpiece to their budding dynasty.
Getting James instantly puts Irving back into the back seat, and possibly makes what was a good situation instantly unmangeable. Plus, with his injury history, Irving is more of a liability that Hayward. Even if Irving is a top-3 point guard in the league, if you’re Boston, you take the risk of trading him if that means LeBron James will be wearing your uniform.
3. GO WEST, YOUNG MAN
A lot of pundits think that the possibility of LeBron going west is an absurd notion, because he basically owns the Eastern Conference. Why would he go to a conference where he would have to go through Golden State to get to the Finals? Well, let’s take a look at why he actually could do just that.
As has been reported, James’ most likely targets are, in no particular order: the Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and…none other than his nemesis, the Golden State Warriors. Let’s take a look at all four of these teams and whether any of them are realistic.
a) Houston: If we have seen anything, it is that you can never bet against general manager Daryl Morey. They have about $22 million in practical cap space, eight pending free agents, and all the pieces necessary to pose as a threat to the Warriors’ reign of terror.
It wouldn’t be hard to convince Chris Paul to come back and take less money if LeBron says he wants to come to Texas; you could also probably talk Trevor Ariza into taking a pay cut to make this dream come true. The problem would be, however, is who starts at center.
Clint Capela is the center of the Rockets’ future, and he proved during the playoffs that he is deserving of a big money contract. Acquiring James would most certainly mean having to roll the dice with Capela and let him leave; the only other options they have are unknown prospect Chinanu Onuaku and 35-year-old Nene Hilario. We’ve already seen that head coach Mike D’Antoni has a problem with making good use of his depth chart; if the Rockets pulled the trigger on James, they would have little to no proven depth.
b) Los Angeles: As the only team in the league with enough cap space for two max contracts, the Lakers have set themselves up to be the front-runner in the James sweepstakes. They could conceivably make enough room to not only sign James, but also bring in another star-quality player. Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder said last summer that he was planning on signing with his hometown Lakers this summer; whether that still happens remains to be seen.
Another possible star they could pair with James is New Orleans Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins; the only concern being that you wouldn’t be 100 percent sure how soon he’ll be able to suit up due to the ACL injury he suffered in January.
The Lakers could also entice James in a couple of other ways: they have a young core in Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, and they could conceivably make a move in 2019 to pick up either Golden State’s Klay Thompson or San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard.
Also, James has a summer home in Brentwood, he got married in San Diego and he owns a production company in Los Angeles; his post-basketball career is set. However, there has been one strong rumor that has been floated around in multiple circles: if LeBron decides to come to LA, he is going to try and lure Golden State’s Kevin Durant to wear the purple and gold with him.
c) San Antonio: It’s no secret that James has a history with the Spurs; they’ve faced each other three times in the NBA Finals, and both James and the team have strong competitive spirits. James also has a high amount of respect for head coach Gregg Popovich.
While this looks like an option based on stability, the cap space is what keeps this from happening. The team only has $671,ooo in practical cap space, and they would have to convince no less than seven players to take a pay cut to make this work.
That being said, the most likely thing that would have to happen is to cut ties with long-time point guard Tony Parker, convince a team to take on the contracts of Danny Green, Patty Mills, Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay (combined 34 percent of their current cap), and hope that Aldridge and Leonard will be willing to take a pay cut.
This is obviously a pipe dream, but could you see the potential of Aldridge, James, Leonard and Popovich going all-in for one win-or-bust season just to try and break up the Warriors’ stranglehold on the West? Never say never.
d) Golden State: This one is last simply because it would take too many pieces to fall in the right places, and there’s no team who is in a position to want to help the Warriors stay on top. While it is being reported that James wants to meet with the Warriors, I imagine it’s simply just to do his due diligence.
The reason I can’t see this happening is for three big reasons:
1) The Warriors have already proven that they don’t need James to be the best team in the league; they’ve beaten him in three of the last four Finals, and this year swept his Cavs in embarrassing fashion.
2) Their main core of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry are already locked in for the 2018-19 season, and Kevin Durant has already told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he is staying in the Bay Area.
3) Acquiring James would involve having to completely gut their bench; and that just isn’t worth it. You also would have to look at the chemistry issue: even going into his 16th season, James is still an alpha dog. Would he be willing to concede the control for so long for the best interests of the team?
However, there is a positive for Golden State in this case, and something that LeBron defenders would have to think about. If by some chance the Warriors clear enough room for James, and he signs, people would have to get off Durant’s back about leaving OKC to try and win a ring. Would his fans be able to justify this decision as strictly business, or will they jump on his back as well for ring chasing? I don’t see this as a win for James, but at this point I also don’t think he is concerned with the noise.
4. UN-TIE THE SHOELACES
Of all the options, this seems like the most unlikely scenario seeing how this Finals folded out, but hear me out here.
His resume speaks for itself: 14-time All-Star, 13-time All-NBA, six-time All-Defensive Team, four-time MVP, three-time Finals champion and MVP, among many more accolades. He is the current active leader in field goals, free throw attempts, points per game and PER (Player Efficiency Rating). And he is one of only five players in league history to play in eight straight NBA Finals (the other four being Frank Ramsey – 8; Tommy Heinsohn – 9; Sam Jones – 9; and Bill Russell – 10).
Sure, this Finals loss is probably one of the most painful of his career, and he is now 3-of-9 in his appearances. But honestly, one can’t say that James didn’t try this year: not only did he play all 82 games for the first time in his career, but he led his team in almost every major statistical category while undergoing not one, but two major roster overhauls. Overall, James played in 104 games in the 2017-18 season. You can only ask so much of one man.
Also, it’s not like James has to worry about life after basketball. He has his charity foundation, he has a lifetime contract with Nike, a production company, and his 13-year-old son, LeBron Jr. is on the verge of making a similar career path. His post-basketball life is fairly secure by all means.
LeBron James has nothing left to prove to anyone, except to himself.
Regardless of what LeBron James chooses to do this summer, all we need to know is this: James has the whole basketball world in his hands.