LeBron James’ seven most likely landing spots, which starts with Miami

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LeBron James is opting out of his contract in part to threaten Pat Riley and the Miami Heat — “you need to upgrade this roster or else.”

But that’s the thing about a threat, you can’t make it unless you are willing to follow through. You have to mean the “or else” part.

Does LeBron really mean it?

Maybe. Starting July 1 he is a free agent and you can bet 30 teams will make some kind of move to see if there is interest, but only a few have a real chance. Here are his top seven potential landing spots.

1) Miami Heat. They are still easily the leaders here. By a mile. He won two titles here and he has a level of trust with Pat Riley he never had in Cleveland. As mentioned above, LeBron was threatening Pat Riley to upgrade but there is another key thing LeBron knows — Pat Riley couldn’t upgrade unless he, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all opted out and made a financial sacrifice. If all three opted in this season, along with Mario Chalmers, the Heat were already right at the salary cap number and Riley’s hands would have been tied.

LeBron opted out early and how much he consulted with Wade and Bosh is not known (it is very likely he told them his plan, but regardless they reportedly will meet soon). But the message to the other two members of the big three is unmistakeable — this is LeBron’s team. They don’t win without him, and if they choose getting paid  as their top priority, he can and will leave.

Expect them all to opt out and re-sign in Miami. For example, if LeBron and Bosh take $17-$18 million a year and Pat Riley can convince the aging Wade that he will get more money long term if he signs for four years, $48 million (he gets $7 million more guaranteed) then Riley would be roughly $9 million under the cap (counting place holders) and he could chase a couple quality free agents plus have his mid-level exception to spend. The Heat could bring in talent that would help.

Is Wade really going to do that? He is the wild card.

[MORE: There’s a simple explanation for LeBron opting out]

However the big three choose to work out the money, this remains by far the most likely scenario.

2) Chicago Bulls. If LeBron is going to leave, he is in full legacy-building mode now — he needs rings. This is the best place to get them. The Bulls have chased the idea of Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love as their power forward, LeBron is a big upgrade over either of those. This takes a lot of pressure off Derrick Rose to create all the offense, the Bulls’ defensive system would become shut down and they would be a threat to any team that came out of the West. LeBron would take a public relations hit (he will take one no matter where he goes other than Miami) and be accused of being in Jordan’s shadow, but he could build a legacy there.

3) Los Angeles Clippers. LeBron can pretty much force his way anywhere, if he so chooses. This would be him forcing an outcome on Pat Riley — LeBron would love to play with Chris Paul and for Doc Rivers, but the Clippers do not have the cap space to sign him. This would have to be a sign-and-trade and LeBron is going to have to take a pay cut ($17 million a year, maybe a little more). If I’m Riley, I push hard for Blake Griffin in that trade coming back. Would the Clippers do that? They say no. Griffin is the fan favorite and the heart of the marketing program in Los Angeles. He gets announced last in pregame, not CP3. Griffin is not yet in his prime. But this is LeBron we’re talking about, if he will take the pay cut the Clippers should pull the trigger.

4) Houston Rockets. This is the same idea as Chicago — they are trying to add a star and if you put LeBron James with James Harden and Dwight Howard you are the best team in the West on paper. There are a million hurdles with this one — the Rockets have to dump Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, and Chandler Parsons has to be allowed to walk, but if you can create space you have a big three. Now, this big three isn’t as smooth — it’s hard for LeBron to drive the lane with Howard in it, plus Howard pouts when he doesn’t get his touches — and we can question if Kevin McHale is the coach who can make all the pieces fit, but this is an option. Also, LeBron has no ties to this market at all and it’s not one of the handful of large markets he would like.

5) Cleveland Cavaliers. We have moved from the “unlikely” to “crazy long shot” portion of the program. While a lot of fans think LeBron returning to Cleveland is the only non-Miami option, I think it would be a disaster. First, it is a half-hearted apology to return at this point (to borrow Matt Stroup of Rotoworld’s phrase). Next, this team is not ready to take on the best out of the West — Kyrie Irving and the No. 1 pick and LeBron with Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson get swept by the Spurs or the Thunder or the Clippers. If you’re dreaming of Kevin Love and LeBron in Cleveland with Kyrie, I suggest you stop eating the “special” brownies.

6) Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers have the cap space and they have the best brand in basketball in a major market. They have whatever’s left of Kobe Bryant. But they are in the Western Conference which means just to get back to the Finals the Lakers have to get past the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies, Rockets, Warriors and Blazers. They could in theory get Carmelo Anthony and LeBron, but again that big three has to fight its way out of a brutal West. Plus, does LeBron really want to come play in Kobe’s shadow (this is still Kobe’s team)? Long shot at best.

[MORE: LeBron’s wife causes Internet stir with Instagram post]

7) Atlanta Hawks/Phoenix Suns. LeBron is not going to go to these teams in these markets, but they would be fascinating. I love the Atlanta idea, they could have in the ballpark of $17 million if they trade Lou Williams and that would give the Hawks a starting five of Jeff Teague (better than any Miami point guard), Kyle Korver to space the floor, LeBron at the three, Paul Millsap at the four and Al Horford at the five. That’s a good team. The Suns could sign Lebron to a near max and if you put him with Eric Bledsoe and shooters on a fast-paced teak it would be fun to watch. Probably not good enough to get out of the West, but fun. The other interesting team in the West would be the Dallas Mavericks, but again like these teams not sure they have enough.

(What about the New York Knicks? Good luck. Phil Jackson can dream but he can’t make this happen. The Knicks don’t have the cap room to sign him and Pat Riley isn’t taking on some combination of Amare Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani and Tyson Chandler back in a sign-and-trade. The Knicks don’t have tradable assets — Iman Shumpert doesn’t count. Even if this trade happened, while LeBron and Anthony together is enough to get out of the East, it’s right back to the Miami situation of needing to find a way to build a team good enough to challenge the best of the West. It makes no sense for him to go to New York. But Phil will try.)

Chris Paul scores 29, Clippers beat Jazz 98-93 to force Game 7

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Clippers coach Doc Rivers put it simply when he said Chris Paul willed his team to victory with the season on the line.

Paul scored 29 points and the Los Angeles Clippers forced a Game 7 in their first-round series with a 98-93 victory over the Utah Jazz on Friday night.

The Clippers will host the only do-or-die game of the first round Sunday, with the winner advancing to face the Golden State Warriors.

“It’s just Chris,” Rivers said. “He is as competitive as a human being as I’ve ever been around. When you put that with the talent and the will, that’s why he has performances like this in big games.

“Chris was amazing. He just willed the game for us.”

Los Angeles began to edge away in the third quarter and appeared to be in control when Austin Rivers capped a 9-2 run with a step-back 3-pointer that pushed the lead to 91-77 with 3:58 remaining.

He hit another with 1:29 left to make it 96-86, but Gordon Hayward scored seven straight to bring the Jazz within three before Joe Johnson missed a 3-pointer in the waning seconds.

Paul pushed Los Angeles throughout the night and just wouldn’t let the Clippers lose. The nine-time All-Star dominated and finished with eight assists, three rebounds and two steals. DeAndre Jordan added 13 points and 18 rebounds.

“We do it together,” Paul said. “I came to (Jordan) during one of those timeouts in the fourth and said let’s find a way. We’ve been in these situations time and time again. Some of us since we were kids playing AAU. You’ve just been in that situation. High school basketball. College basketball. It’s the same game, it’s just a lot more people at the games. You just go out there and try to stay in the moment.”

The Clippers overcame a slow start to finish at 49 percent shooting from the field. The Jazz went in the opposite direction, getting sloppy with the ball in the third quarter and making numerous defensive mistakes. They also shot just 41.0 percent from the field and were 7 for 26 from behind the arc.

Hayward led the Jazz with 31 points, George Hill added 22 and Rudy Gobert finished with 15 points and nine rebounds.

“I thought we were competing,” Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “I’m not sure if we got tired or got tired of missing. They were the more energetic team. Their physicality on the defensive end, we didn’t respond offensively the way that we needed to, or as forceful as we needed to be.

“When you’re not aggressive enough with your frame of mind, I don’t think you shoot the ball as well.”

The Clippers took a 47-45 lead into halftime after closing on an 8-2 run, including a pair of jumpers by Luc Mbah a Moute.

The Jazz jumped out to a 22-13 lead and looked to be on the brink blowing the game wide open before the offense went cold and the Clippers ripped off an 11-0 run. Utah shot just 3 for 13 from 3-point range in the first half and missed several wide-open attempts.

“Some days are diamonds, some days are stones,” Hayward said. “We didn’t shoot the ball well tonight. We got the looks we wanted, which is a positive thing for us. I think that’s the important part, we found the open shots, found the good looks.

“Dug ourselves a hole there and it’s hard to dig out of it. I don’t think we were nervous, we just couldn’t find it tonight.”

TIP-INS

Clippers: Austin Rivers started for the first time this series after missing the first four games with a hamstring injury. … Jordan’s six double-doubles in the first six games are a playoff high. … The Clippers held Johnson to 3-for-9 shooting.

Jazz: Utah is 5-1 all-time when leading a playoff series 3-2. … The Jazz opened the game as the only team in the playoffs ranking in the top three in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

GOBERT OK

Gobert was taken out of the game in the fourth quarter after suffering a mild left ankle sprain. X-rays were negative and he’s expected to be fine for Game 7.

PAINT POINTS

The team with the points-in-the-paint advantage won the first five games. That streak came to an end as the Jazz outscored the Clippers 42-36 in the paint.

Report: Magic will offer team president job to David Griffin after Cavaliers’ season ends

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David Griffin has been the man pulling  the strings for Cleveland since LeBron James returned to town — he made the trades for everyone from Kevin Love through Kyle Korver, he fired David Blatt mid-season to bring in Tyron Lue, and he locked up the Cavaliers’ core for years — but apparently that hasn’t been enough. Even with LeBron’s endorsement.

Griffin doesn’t have a contract past the end of this season in Cleveland.

However, the Orlando Magic plan to offer him one, reports Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

The Orlando Magic intend to offer their president of basketball operations position to Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, multiple sources said.

The Magic can engage Griffin in contract talks at the conclusion of the Cavs’ season, sources said.

Griffin’s contract with Cleveland is up at the end of the season, and he and the team have not held meaningful discussions on an extension.

One of two things is happening here.

First, this could be a leak out of Griffin’s agent in an attempt to get the Cavaliers to pony up. The threat of competition might get Cleveland to up its offer, or at least to move more quickly than the very deliberate pace they are on now.

Second, the Magic are serious while the Cavaliers are ready to move on. To a degree what LeBron wants LeBron gets in Cleveland, but there could be dynamics pushing the Cavaliers to move on from Griffin. The fact there have been not substantial talks with Cleveland suggests a rift.

The Cavaliers can work out a deal quickly. The question is will they? It’s going to be an interesting summer on the lake.

Avery Bradley scores 23, Celtics eliminate Bulls 105-83

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CHICAGO (AP) — Avery Bradley scored 23 points, and the hot-shooting Boston Celtics pounded the Chicago Bulls 105-83 to win their first-round series 4-2 on Friday night.

The top-seeded Celtics simply torched Chicago to finish off a tougher-than-anticipated series and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Boston regrouped after dropping the first two games at home and will meet Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Game 1 is Sunday.

Bradley finished one point shy of a playoff career high he set in Game 5. He nailed three 3-pointers and the Celtics hit 16 of 39 from long range.

Gerald Green scored 16 and Isaiah Thomas had 12 before heading home to Washington state for his sister Chyna’s funeral on Saturday. Her death in a car accident the day before the playoff opener dealt a blow to the Celtics. But Boston rallied around its star player and regrouped when it looked like the series might slip from reach.

Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 23 points. But the Bulls never really found their rhythm over the final four games with point guard Rajon Rondo sidelined by a broken right thumb.

Dwyane Wade shot just 1 of 10 in a two-point effort that could be his final appearance for the Bulls. He has a $23.8 million option on the two-year deal he signed last summer to leave Miami and come home to Chicago.

The Celtics led by 13 at the half and outscored the Bulls 34-18 in the third quarter to put this one away. Things got so bad that loud boos started ringing through the United Center.

TIP-INS

Celtics: Bradley said he was planning to attend Chyna Thomas’ funeral. That hinged on the flight options and whether the Celtics were playing on Sunday. “If I’m not able to be there I’m going to make sure I’m supporting him however I can to let him know I’m here for him during this time,” Bradley said.

Bulls: Hoiberg said there is no structural damage in Butler’s right knee. He also had this response when asked what soreness means: “Uh, that it hurts.” … New Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky, the No. 2 pick in the draft, got a rude welcome from the Chicago crowd. He was booed when he was shown on the videoboard in the third quarter.

“Fire Hoiberg” chants break out as Bulls eliminated from playoffs

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The problems with the Chicago Bulls — the ones that led to a mediocre season and a first-round exit from the playoffs after being up 2-0 on the Celtics — are certainly not all coach Fred Hoiberg’s fault. Blame starts with the roster that GarPax put together.

However, Hoiberg didn’t have the respect of his stars, his rotation management was bizarre at points, and there just seemed to be no consistent structure. What kind of team where the Bulls trying to be? What was Hoiberg doing to get them there?

As the Bulls were being eliminated by the Celtics Friday night, “Fire Hoiberg” chants broke out at the United Center.

Bulls fans are understandably frustrated, but they are not going to get this wish. Not this summer.

Hoiberg was the handpicked replacement for Tom Thibodeau, the guy Gar Forman and John Paxson — the Bulls front office brain trust — had their eye on and plucked out of the college coaching ranks. They bet big on him, and to admit that was a mistake after two years could endanger their jobs. So Hoiberg will stay.

What the Bulls roster will look like next season is another, more vexing question. Will Dwyane Wade be back? Jimmy Butler? With the seeming lack of a plan by GarPax, it’s all just speculation where they might go.

Whatever happens, Hoiberg will be coaching Chicago next season. Sorry Bulls fans.