So here we are, again, with LeBron James set to hit free agency and the balance of power threatening to tilt with his decision. Twice this decade James has reshaped the NBA landscape, first, in 2010, when James and the Super Friends morphed the Miami Heat into a superpower, and again, in 2014, when James made his triumphant return to Northeast Ohio — and leaned on the Cleveland Cavaliers to make sure Kevin Love came with him.
So let’s get this out of the way: LeBron James is going to Los Angeles, to be a Laker.
Has to be the Lakers, right? ESPN is saying Team LeBron is applying pressure to L.A. to close a deal for Kawhi Leonard. Think the Spurs smiled at that? Here’s San Antonio, the NBA’s most functional franchise, operated by one of the league’s best GM’s in R.C. Buford and reading that a potential trading partner is desperate. The Spurs? They are not. Teams that have spoken to the Spurs recently describe San Antonio as a team happy to listen to your offer, but not one ready to aggressively counter it.
And why should they? The Lakers’ need to satisfy a second star edict from LeBron isn’t San Antonio’s problem. The Spurs’ chances of repairing their relationship with Leonard have likely vanished — though it would be fascinating to see if Leonard passed on a five-year, super-max offer — making a trade inevitable. But the Spurs aren’t staring down any deadline. The Lakers’ interest in dealing significant assets for a player who could sign with them next summer could fade in a few weeks. Will Boston’s? A Kawhi commitment to the Celtics could engineer a Jaylen Brown-centered deal with San Antonio in a matter of hours. Will Philadelphia’s? The Sixers are flush with young pieces and possess the cap space to free the Spurs from taking back a bad contract.
OK, so it’s not Kawhi joining James in L.A. Paul George is … right? The possibility of George returning to Oklahoma City next season went from laughable in the immediate aftermath of the Thunder’s disastrous first-round defeat to Utah to holy bleep he might actually go back there days before free agency. Why? George likes Oklahoma City. Maybe not as much as L.A. — and during Episode 2 of his three-part free-agency documentary, George was transparent about his long-standing love for L.A. and desire to wear purple and gold — but enough. He admires the boldness the Thunder showed in acquiring him, respects the franchise’s singular focus on winning and enjoyed playing alongside Russell Westbrook. George and Westbrook have worked out together intermittently the last couple of months, a source familiar with both players told Yahoo Sports, and the two have stayed in steady contact. A five-year contract with Oklahoma City may not be appealing to George, but a two-year deal, which would get him to 10 years of service and eligible for a monster five-year deal when he hits the market again in 2020, at 30, could be appealing.
So the Kawhi situation could drag out in San Antonio, George could stay in OKC … forget it, LeBron isn’t going to Los Angeles.
He’s going to Houston.
This is easy, right? The Rockets were a 65-win team that had Golden State on the brink of elimination before Chris Paul injured his hamstring. They have the reigning MVP in James Harden, one of James’ closest friends in Paul, and a player-friendly coach in Mike D’Antoni who would have no problem reinventing his offense (again) to make it James-friendly. The Rockets have cap problems — Houston has to be terrified of Clint Capela signing a max-level offer sheet at the onset of free agency, putting it on the clock — but they also have Daryl Morey, who’s as good as any GM in the league at doing the required salary-cap gymnastics to clear the requisite space.
Yet things have been peculiarly quiet on the Rockets front, which makes you wonder: Does James want to live in Houston? Of the handful of things we know about James’ free agency, his family having a strong voice on his next home is one of them. The idea that James could dislike Houston picked up steam earlier this month, when Marla Ridenour, a columnist with the Akron Beacon Journal, said James told her last season that he didn’t like Houston.
No buzz, a market he may not want to move to … OK, it’s not Houston.
Of course, Cleveland! Northeast Ohio, the city, the region James appeared to pledge the rest of his career to in a well-crafted essay in Sports Illustrated four years ago. James cringes when he talks about molding a new team together, and in Cleveland, he doesn’t have to. The Cavs roster is locked, bad contracts and all, and Cleveland’s front office would gladly package Kevin Love and Collin Sexton if it meant adding a player more to James’ liking.
But to what end? The Cavs fans frantically trade-machining franchise-changing deals are dramatically overestimating the haul a Love/Sexton package would bring. Cleveland beat back Boston last season, but the Celtics are the Fortnite player that just added a pair of rocket launchers (Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward) to their arsenal. They will enter next season as the NBA’s co-favorites, at worst.
A stale roster, a rising power even James’ greatness can’t stop, an owner he doesn’t particularly like … OK, it’s not Cleveland.
It’s … forget it.
Predicting James’ next move is a futile exercise. Does he have a bead on what George is thinking? Considering the NBA long ago gave up on policing player tampering, there’s a good chance the two have spoken. Is he unwilling to be the first man in with the Lakers, uninterested in spending a season hall-monitoring rap battles between 20-somethings? Perhaps. Is Philadelphia — where James and Ben Simmons seem like an odd fit — a real contender? Only LeBron knows.
Welcome to James’ Free Agency 3.0 — the wildest one yet.
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• Paul George to opt out of his contract and become a free agent