Friday could be LeBron James’ final game with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Cavaliers are in 3-0 deficit to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, and their chances of climbing out of it, even with a Game 4 win, are slim.
The situation immediately puts James’ future in the spotlight. This postseason has revealed that James doesn’t have enough talent around him to truly compete for a championship — not in a league ruled by the Warriors. Rumors were already circulating that James could leave the Cavs this summer when he becomes a free agent. The Cavs’ Finals performance has only strengthened that belief around the NBA world.
However, James, clearly the game’s most dominant player, could run into an unusual problem this summer — there doesn’t appear to be any good fits for him around the league.
When considering potential destinations for James, several factors must be considered: market size, surrounding talent, contention odds, and ability actually to land him.
But looking at the most prominent destinations, James doesn’t seem to be a perfect fit for any of them.
Finding a way to get James is the first problem.
The Houston Rockets have been mentioned as a potential landing spot for James. They’re the closest thing to a challenger to the Warriors, and they have two stars in James Harden and Chris Paul, who is a close friend of LeBron’s.
However, the Rockets have virtually no path to re-signing Paul and signing James to their maximum salaries, and neither player has indicated a willingness to take a pay cut. To create the room for both, the Rockets would have to clear the roster essentially. They can go over the cap to re-sign important free agents like Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza, but it would leave them with a frequently seen problem — a top-heavy team with little depth.
Several other teams would have this problem, too. Rumors have been floated about whether James would sign with the Warriors. It’s highly unlikely, but James reportedly respects the organization enough to take a meeting with them, and the rumors have been so strong that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green have both addressed them.
But the Warriors can’t simply add James. They would have to trade some combination of Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston to create room for James. And what would be the point of adding a superstar if it means breaking up your super-team?
There is also increasing buzz that the Boston Celtics could land James. As The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote, the Celtics could put together an easy package of Gordon Hayward or Kyrie Irving, a role player, and a future pick. Such a return would be a huge win for the Cavs.
There’s an obvious problem, though— if the Celtics traded Hayward to Cleveland, Boston would be pairing Irving and James. Recall that Irving asked out of Cleveland, in part, because he did not want to play with James any longer.
Conversely, would the Cavs be interested in trading for Irving, given his history with management? He is also a free agent in one year, meaning he could leave next summer.
The actual basketball fit is the next issue.
Other contenders have issues regarding roster fit. The Philadelphia 76ers have the cap space to sign James and surrounding talent in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid that would appeal to James. The Sixers would become instant contenders, but that doesn’t mean the fit is perfect.
We’ve already seen that James is at his best surrounded by shooters. The Sixers, as presently constructed, offer little of that. Simmons can’t shoot and taking the ball out of his hands is questionable in the first place. James can play off the ball better than Simmons because he’s turned into a great shooter, but that isn’t the best way to utilize him either. Embiid can spread the floor, but his shot isn’t reliable, thus adding to the spacing issues. Teams would collapse the floor on those Sixers. Head coach Brett Brown could find ways to make it work, but the fit would never be perfect.
The Los Angeles Lakers are also contenders to land James because they have the cap space and off-court culture to appeal to James, who has a production company and two houses in LA.
But James still cares about the basketball end of things. As he told reporters on Thursday, the entire league is game-planning for the Warriors.
The Lakers have promising future with young players like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma, but are those young players ready to contend for a championship immediately? Even if James lured another star to LA with him — Paul George, for example — it seems unlikely that that core of players could immediately challenge the Warriors. James could lose two years of his prime waiting for that team to grow into a contender.
Could James put off the decision for one more year?
James could theoretically take a look at the NBA landscape this summer and decide to wait one more year.
James has a player option for this season, and playing out one more season with the Cavaliers might not be the worst idea. While the Cavs are not on the same level as the Warriors, they are in the Finals. If the Cavs could find a way to provide a little more help for James, a fifth straight Finals appearance next season is not that unrealistic, even in an improving Eastern Conference.
Furthermore, putting off free agency until 2019 could open up more options for James. The confluence of a stalled-out salary cap and large contracts has made the 2018 market a shallow one. In 2019, the cap is expected to grow slightly as many of those contracts expire, meaning James might have more options. The question is if he’s willing to make one more run with Cleveland.
James’ free agency will be especially intriguing this summer because there is very little clarity about what lies ahead. If James decides to jump ship, there are some good options for him. But as of now, none of those options look perfect, like it was for Kevin Durant when joined the Warriors, the free agency decision that rocked the league.