Editor’s note: Every day this week—heading into the start of free agency at midnight ET July 1—Bleacher Report will look at every angle of LeBron James‘ upcoming decision with reports and features from our most plugged-in NBA reporters. Today, B/R looks at all the people affected directly, and indirectly, by LeBron’s choice.
Part 1: LeBron’s On-Court Options Are Limitless
LeBron James is only days away from the June 29 deadline to become a free agent—a move that will trigger an avalanche of free-agent comings and goings.
Eight consecutive trips to the Finals is one thing, but every time LeBron hits free agency, it’s the NBA’s version of the Super Bowl. In the discussion of who is the Greatest Of All Time, James is still working on his resume. But in terms of who will go down as the Greatest Free Agent of All Time? It’s not even close.
In addition to being a one-man dynasty, James has secured his place in history as the most influential figure of the NBA’s player-movement era.
Though his 2010 decision to leave Cleveland for Miami was clumsy and poorly received, it nonetheless marked a watershed moment in the NBA’s modern era of superstar power. James singlehandedly opened the floodgates for other stars to dictate the terms of engagement—from Dwight Howard to the Lakers and Carmelo Anthony to the Knicks, from Chris Paul to the Clippers and Kevin Durant to the Warriors.
In 2018 and beyond, the beat will go on. Depending on what path James carves out this time, it will have massive reverberations throughout the NBA’s free-agent landscape, not to mention serving as another tipping point in the league’s balance of power.
With LeBron-a-palooza once again upon us, let’s examine some of the key players, teams and other entities that will be most affected by Decision 3.0.
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The Cleveland Cavaliers could be back at square one: James returned home in 2014 with the goal of delivering Cleveland’s first major pro sports championship since 1964. In 2016, he delivered. In his post-Finals media address, James was careful not to get boxed into a corner with a question from The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd about whether he considers that promise fulfilled with one title.
“That’s a trick question at the end of the day, and I’m not falling for that,” he said.
From that, we can deduce that James will not feel pressured to re-up with the Cavs simply because he only came home with one trophy in four trips to the Finals in his second tour of duty in Cleveland.
If James leaves, the Cavs are back at square one. They’ll be left with one All-Star on the roster, Kevin Love, No. 8 pick Collin Sexton and significant future money owed to Love, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Jordan Clarkson and, if they decide to keep them, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr.
“If he leaves,” an Eastern Conference executive told Bleacher Report, “that’s not a good deal for them financially.”
Which brings us to…
Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Kevin Love may be on the move again: Having grown tired of being the best player on a team that kept missing the playoffs in Minnesota, Love welcomed the chance to get traded to Cleveland and team up with James and Kyrie Irving in 2014. With Irving in Boston and James at another career crossroads, Love understands that he could be collateral damage—and that another change of address could be in his future.
“I always wanted to be here,” Love told reporters after the Finals. “Always wanted to win here. But as you know, it’s probably going to come up. It always does. It’s also good to be wanted. But at the same time, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens. We just don’t know.”
Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
Tyronn Lue has a decision to make: The pressure of coaching a LeBron-led team ended up forcing Lue to take a leave of absence during the season to deal with health issues. He was crystal clear after the Cavs got swept by the Warriors in the Finals that he expects and wants to return next season regardless of James’ decision. If James leaves, does that afford Lue an opportunity to settle in and develop as a coach and leader without the enormous pressure that comes with coaching James? Or does he, too, look for a quick exit?
Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press
Chris Paul and the current Rockets better get used to seeing each other: The chatter on the NBA front office grapevine is consistent with reporting from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Marla Ridenour in recent weeks: James’ family is not enamored with the idea of relocating to Houston. Add to that reporting from ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith that Paul is telling people that James is heading to Los Angeles, and you have the Rockets positioned as the odd man out in a high-stakes game of musical chairs.
Though Paul and Harden represent the kind of talented and cerebral players that James has said he wants to play with, James has also made it clear that “the folks that have been with me for the last 20 years will have a say-so.”
Rockets GM Darryl Morey is on record as being obsessed with beating the Warriors. If James turns him down, where does that leave the Rockets in that quest? As USA Today‘s Sam Amick reported, “There remains a strong sense within Rockets circles that [Paul] is staying put.” Rival execs tell B/R they fully expect Morey to move quickly and aggressively to Plan B if LeBron says no to Houston, perhaps even putting on a full-court press to pry Paul George from Oklahoma City.
If that doesn’t work, the sensible path would be to keep several key players from the team that lost to Golden State in the Western Conference Finals—players who would’ve been jettisoned to make room for James. As ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton reported, the surest path for the Rockets to get LeBron would be for James to opt in for 2018-19 and get traded to Houston. Outside of the unlikely event that Morey is able to find a taker for Ryan Anderson (owed nearly $42 million over the next two years), he’d have to send out Eric Gordon, PJ Tucker, Nene and at least three more players to make a LeBron trade work. If LeBron to Houston is a non-starter, the fortunes of nearly half the Rockets roster would be altered. And Paul—like James—would be left wondering if he’ll have enough to dethrone the Warriors.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
If Paul George and Kawhi Leonard stay put, James might, too: Ah, if only the Thunder hadn’t blown a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. How the fates of multiple stars and franchises might have been altered.
Instead, Kevin Durant took advantage of that summer’s salary-cap spike to join the Golden State superteam, and Thunder GM Sam Presti pivoted to bringing in George and Anthony last summer in the hopes of surrounding Westbrook with enough talent to maximize the rest of his prime. All it got him was a 48-win season and a first-round exit at the hands of the Utah Jazz.
For the Thunder, the first shoe dropped over the weekend when Anthony turned down a shot at free agency by declining an early-termination option that would have cost him a guaranteed $27.9 million next season. According to USA Today‘s Amick, there’s “all sorts of optimism” within the Thunder that George will re-sign—as well as pessimism in James’ camp that George could be compelled to leave OKC for the Lakers. So while James may run the basketball world, he evidently does not run Oklahoma City. George staying put would be regarded in league circles as a huge blow to any plans James might have to forming a superteam with the Lakers.
The crux of that plan, according to league sources, has been two-fold: 1) Hope the Lakers can persuade the Spurs to trade them disgruntled All-Star Kawhi Leonard, and 2) Let James work his magic and convince a third All-Star (e.g. George) to join him there. The Spurs have been shutting down trade offers for Leonard since at least early May, and there has been no change in their posture, league sources said.
If there’s no Leonard (or George) in L.A., the path to a James-led superteam in Staples Center becomes infinitely more difficult to navigate. Which brings us to…
Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press
A trio of top-10 Lakers picks better keep their bags packed: The most storied inhabitants of Staples Center have a less-than-stellar recent track record of attracting star free agents, but president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka have the franchise in a strong position in the LeBron sweepstakes. When it comes to adding James and one more max-level free agent (e.g. George), the path is a little tricky but doable, and it starts with waiving Luol Deng and stretching the nearly $37 million he is owed over the next few seasons. That still wouldn’t get the team the space for two max salary slots, but it would be close, maybe close enough to convince two like-minded superstars to take a bit less to play together.
But if George and the Lakers’ young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma isn’t enough in James’ estimation to topple the Warriors, things become more complicated.
That’s where the Spurs and Leonard come into the picture…and where the Spurs’ intransigence on discussing any Leonard dealings becomes a significant roadblock to the Lakers’ plan.
A Lakers package for Leonard would, at minimum, need to include either Ball or Ingram, plus at least one more salary. A Western Conference executive told B/R that the Lakers’ preference in this scenario would be to keep Kuzma. Julius Randle could be the odd man out, as the Lakers would likely need to forfeit their rights to him to fill out the roster.
From the Lakers’ perspective, the collateral damage of James’ decision could affect each of their last two No. 2 overall picks (Ball and Ingram) and their 2014 No. 7 pick (Randle).
Elise Amendola/Associated Press
The 76ers–Celtics rivalry is about to become a lot more interesting: The stakes are simple here. If LeBron stays in Cleveland, it becomes a three-team race for Eastern Conference supremacy…and as long as LeBron is in the East, the road to the Finals goes through him. As he proved this season beyond any doubt, it almost doesn’t matter who he’s playing with.
If he goes West, we’re looking at Sixers vs. Celtics in the East finals for the foreseeable future.
Oddsmakers are down on the Sixers’ chances of landing James in free agency; indeed, James’ introspective comments during the Finals about the type of players he wants to surround himself with would seem to diminish the odds of him joining up with 20-somethings whose championship readiness he’d have to “fast-track,” to borrow one of his favorite terms. But hey, the basketball Twitterverse can dream, right? If somehow James does the unexpected and decides to team up with Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Dario Saric in the City of Brotherly Love, we’d be looking at LeBron vs. Kyrie on a collision course for the right to play the Warriors in the Finals.
Bruce Yeung/Getty Images
A partnership with DeMarcus Cousins could make Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo a bit restless: If this seems like an odd trio to put in the crosshairs of LeBron’s free-agent decision, it’s not so far-fetched.
James has a history of being a huge Cousins supporter, having tweeted praise of Cousins in January—before Cousins ruptured his left Achilles tendon in January and missed the rest of the season.
James is also on record having called Cousins “the best big man in our game.” Cousins is an unrestricted free agent, and how his recovery from the Achilles injury affects his value—in both James’ eyes and those of the marketplace—is worth watching.
If James were able to persuade Cousins to team up with him next season, where would that leave Davis? In the end, the superstar player-movement era that James launched in 2010 will hit the next wave of star players wondering how long they’ll have to wait for a chance to compete for a championship. The next two in line are Davis and Antetokounmpo, whose chances of luring an All-Star free agent to New Orleans and Milwaukee, respectively, are slim to none.
With so many tentacles to James’ looming decision, the ripple effects will be felt in the short and long term. And while Adam Silver is the commissioner of the NBA, it is most assuredly LeBron James who actually runs it.
And with the clock already running on Decision 3.0, LeBron’s power to alter the fates of stars and franchises has never been greater.
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.