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.
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.
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.)