Utah Jazz v Miami Heat

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.)

Kawhi Leonard drops 41, Spurs best Cavaliers in OT in what may be game of the Year (VIDEO)

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The Spurs would like you to include them in your conversations about contenders.

Without Pau Gasol (hand) or Tony Parker (foot), San Antonio went into Cleveland and beat the defending NBA champions in OT 118-115 in what was one of the wildest, most entertaining games of the season. Check out the clutch-time action above, including LeBron James hitting a three Shaker Heights.

But the real star was Kawhi Leonard, who put up a career-best 41 on 30 shots. He’s the guy who has to create and make plays for this offense, and he did it on a big stage. LeBron added 29 points. Between them, they put on quite a show.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum lead Hornets past Nets 112-105

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04:  Nicolas Batum #5 of the Charlotte Hornets in action against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Barclays Center on November 4, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Nic Batum has certainly had better shooting nights.

But the eight-year NBA veteran from France was feeling pretty good after making two clutch 3-pointers in the fourth quarter to help the Charlotte Hornets defeat the Brooklyn Nets 112-105 on Saturday night for their third straight win.

“I missed some easy that I need to make,” Batum said. “So I feel like when it’s a close game like that, I need to make some big plays and I did.”

After letting a 17-point first half advantage slip away, Charlotte grabbed the lead for good with 3:21 left in the game when Batum got a fadeaway 3-pointer to fall after the ball bounced lazily on the rim four times before going in. Batum, who was fouled on the play, added the free throw to complete the four-point play.

Batum added a 3-pointer from the left wing on the next possession to push the lead to 104-98. Kemba Walker then sank a leaning 3-pointer from the top of the key to give Charlotte some extra breathing room.

Coach Steve Clifford said he has no idea how Batum shoots the ball so well off-balanced.

“He’s done it since before he got in the NBA,” Clifford said. “He’s got great balance and hand-eye coordination.”

Batum finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists for the Hornets.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist had 17 points and 14 rebounds for Charlotte, which avenged a 120-118 loss to the Nets on Dec. 26 in which Randy Foye beat them with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Brook Lopez had 24 points for the struggling Nets, who have lost 12 of their last 13 and failed in their quest to become the last NBA team to reach double digits in wins this season.

“We came in and we were exhausted from last night and had a bad first quarter, but we responded to that,” Lopez said. “We came in the second half and definitely made it a game and that’s the way we’ve got to play every night.”

TIP INS

Nets: Jeremy Lin remained out with a hamstring injury. … Attempted 41 3-pointers in the game, making 17. … Lopez had his 15th 20-point game this season. … Quincy Acy had a season-high 14 points off the bench. … Had a season-high 30 assists.

Hornets: Shot 54.5 percent in the first half from the field, including 6 of 13 from 3-point range to build a 60-46 lead. … Marvin Williams has made a 3-pointer in 18 straight games.

TOUGH FIRST QUARTER

The Hornets jumped out to a quick 16-4 lead as the Nets missed 11 of their first 12 shots from the field. Clifford called it the team’s best first quarter of the season, considering the Nets put up 143 points against New Orleans the night before.

“They’re hard to guard,” Clifford said. “They have so many ways to drive the ball. They’re very difficult to guard. I thought our guys battled hard.”

3-POINT SHOOTING

Charlotte, which made 14 of 29 3-pointers, had seven of those in the fourth quarter.

“Two of them were off our turnovers,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. “You turnover, you have to sprint back, matchup and find 3-point shooters. Credit to them, they made some huge shots.”

SCHOOL IN SESSIONS

Here’s a rarity this season: Ramon Sessions, Charlotte’s backup point guard, had 17 points and actually outscored All-Star candidate Kemba Walker, who had 16 points.

“Kemba carries us every game, so when we can step in and give those guys a rest,” Sessions said. “Last game, he didn’t have to play in the fourth quarter, so during the season if we can get those stretches where he doesn’t have to play as many minutes that will be good for us in the long run.”

UP NEXT

Nets: Host the San Antonio Spurs on Monday night.

Hornets: Play their third game of a five-game homestand Monday night against the Washington Wizards.

Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard help Hawks pull away from 76ers 110-93

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ATLANTA (AP) The young Philadelphia 76ers are on the rise, but the Atlanta Hawks’ experience and attention to detail made the difference Saturday night.

Paul Millsap scored 22 points and combined with Dwight Howard to dominate on the boards as the Hawks beat the Sixers 110-93 for their ninth win in 11 games.

Howard grabbed 15 rebounds in addition to scoring 13 points, Millsap added 10 rebounds and Atlanta used a 48-38 rebounding edge to beat Philadelphia for the sixth straight time.

The Sixers (15-27) lost for just the third time in 11 games, done in partly by 21 turnovers that led to 17 Atlanta points.

Nothing mattered more than the way the Hawks (26-18) were shooting in the second quarter. They made 16 of 23 shots and outscored the Sixers 37-29 in the period to take a 62-54 halftime lead.

“We got into a good rhythm,” said Millsap, who shot 9-of-14. “We were moving the basketball, playing with each other, all the things that make us successful.”

Ersan Ilyasova led the Sixers with 21 points, and when Robert Covington (15 points, 10 rebounds) made two free throws with 6:46 left in the game, Philadelphia had whittled an 18-point third-quarter deficit to a 94-87 Atlanta lead.

The Hawks cruised from there to win for the 11th time in 13 games. They are a season-high eight games over .500, and a half game behind the Celtics for the No. 3 spot in the East.

WRONG END OF RUN

In the second game of back-to-backs, the Sixers looked as if they ran out of gas in the second quarter about 24 hours after their 93-92 win over the Trail Blazers.

“There was an energy that wasn’t with us tonight,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I think the second group struggled. I thought that the energy and the activity of that second group tonight wasn’t what it has been.”

HOWARD’S HEROICS

When the Atlanta Falcons play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in the NFC championship game in the Georgia Dome, which is less than a mile from Philips Arena, Howard said he’ll be cheering like mad.

“I don’t want to jinx myself, but I said before the season the Falcons and Patriots would be in the Super Bowl,” the Atlanta native said. “Go Falcons! Rise up!”

TIP-INS

Sixers: Saturday was to be a rest day for center Joel Embiid anyway, and while he didn’t play against the Hawks his availability is unclear after he suffered a knee contusion in Friday’s win over the Trail Blazers. Brown said Embiid will be further assessed upon the team’s return home. … Backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez did not play for just the fifth time in 42 games, including 30 starts. Brown said he’s trying different combinations.

Hawks: Backup big man Mike Muscala missed his fourth straight game with a left ankle sprain. … Atlanta has scored 100 or more points in six of the last seven games.

KEEP PUNCHING

Although the Sixers scored just 16 points in the fourth quarter on 5-of-16 shooting, they made a game of it with late defense. Atlanta missed seven of its first nine shots in the quarter as Philadelphia cut the deficit to seven points.

“I think the last time we played them, we came out at halftime and the game was pretty much over from there,” said point guard T.J. McConnell, who finished with eight points, a game-high 11 assists and three of Philly’s eight steals. “But this time, they punched us in the mouth again and we didn’t go away. We’ve kind of been showing that resiliency.”

UP NEXT

Sixers: have a day off and then practice Monday before playing host to the Clippers, who will be without point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin, on Tuesday.

Hawks: The Clippers will stop in Atlanta before heading to Philadelphia, meeting the Hawks for the first time this season on Monday night.

Sam Dekker scores career-best 30 leading Rockets past Grizzlies

Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley (2) congratulates forward Sam Dekker (7) after Dekker scored 30 points in an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. The Rockets won by a score of 119-95. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Sam Dekker scored a career-high 30 points, James Harden added 29 points and 10 assists and the Houston Rockets leaned on their usual 3-point offense to beat the Memphis Grizzlies 119-95 on Saturday night.

Eric Gordon added 21 points as the Rockets built the lead to as many as 20 in the fourth quarter before easily coasting home.

Dekker, making his first career start in place of the ill Ryan Anderson, made 12 of 19 shots, including 6 of 11 from outside the arc. Houston shot 51 percent overall and 38 percent from distance.

Marc Gasol scored 32 points and Mike Conley added 15 for the Grizzlies, who lost for the third time in the last four.

Memphis struggled shooting the entire night, finishing at 37 percent and unsuccessfully tried to follow the Rockets’ long-range attack but converted only 9 of 34 from outside the arc.

Even with Dekker starting instead of his normal reserve role, the Houston bench outscored the Memphis subs 44-29 as the Rockets dominated most aspects of the game.

Houston took the lead in the first half and never really let up the rest of the night in bouncing back from a home loss to Golden State on Friday.

After missing their first seven 3-point shots to open the game, the Rockets converted a trio late in the first quarter to run the lead to double digits.

Meanwhile, the Rockets’ aggressive defense gummed up Memphis’ offensive flow. Houston defenders double-teamed Memphis and closed out on jumpers, resulting in the Grizzlies shooting under 30 percent in much of the second quarter.

That helped Houston stretch the lead to as many as 16 in the half before holding a 58-49 advantage at the break. Dekker already had 16 points to lead the Rockets, connecting on seven of his nine shots, missing only one of his three shots from outside the arc.

Gasol had 17 points to lead Memphis.

By the third quarter, the Rockets stretched the advantage to 91-72, and even when Memphis put together a bit of a rally in the fourth, it never cut the deficit to single digits.

TIP-INS

Rockets: Anderson missed his third game with the flu. He sat out two games and tried to play in Friday’s loss to Golden State before leaving after nine minutes on the floor. .The Rockets used their 10th different starting lineup this season. .Despite the slow start from outside the arc, the Rockets ended the night 16 from 42 from 3. Houston has failed to connect on at least 10 3-pointers in only four games this season.

Grizzlies: Reserve G Troy Daniels sat out with a right knee injury suffered in the Friday night’s win over Sacramento. . F Chandler Parsons, who sat out Friday’s win over Sacramento for rest, returned to action, scoring 12 points.

BACK-TO-BACKS

The game featured two of the most successful teams playing on the second night of a back-to-back. Houston is now 11-1, while the Grizzlies, who beat the Kings on Friday, dropped to 8-3 on the second night of back-to-backs.

UP NEXT

Rockets: Play the second game of a five-game road trip on Monday against the Bucks in Milwaukee

Grizzlies: Close out a three-game homestand against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday.