It’s been four years since LeBron James returned to Cleveland after winning two titles with the Miami Heat. LeBron’s homecoming was just the first step in repairing his relationship with Cavaliers fans following “the decision” to leave Cleveland and party with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The fairy tale climaxed in 2016 when James ended the Cleveland curse and became the hero Cleveland needed.
But the tale of LeBron James took an extreme turn when Kevin Durant announced he was signing with the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors who won an NBA record 73 wins the previous season and went to their second-straight NBA Finals before infamously blowing a 3-1 lead.
That’s the story we all know. What nobody is sure of, likely not even LeBron James, is what the next chapter will be.
This is the first time since LeBron’s return to Cleveland in 2014 that there is a real threat of him leaving. Everyone though the King would ride off into the sunset after bringing Cleveland a few more titles. His lackluster supporting cast, the wave of emerging young talent, his desire to conquer Golden State, and of course the pursuit of Michael Jordan’s legacy have all lead LeBron to this decision.
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, and the free agency Buddha Adrian Wojnarowski have all given their input as to the teams King James will meet with. While there are a number of commonalities in the pundit’s expectations, I believe there are some teams that have an outside shot of landing LeBron James. Here are the positives and negatives for five teams that could realistically recruit James and that experts feel he will talk with.
BetOnline gives the Cavaliers the fourth best odds (+700) to retain James, but for the sake of fantasy booking I’m operating under the assumption that LeBron will not return to Cleveland. It’s entirely possible if Dan Gilbert is able to recruit big names in free agency to appease LeBron, but there are no indications as of right now that any of the big name athletes intend to do so.
POSITIVES: If LeBron wants to recreate the magic (pun very much intended) of Lakers-Celtics type rivalry in the 1980s, then a move to Boston is in order. Boston is a team ready to win now. If not for injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, the Celtics may have been in the NBA Finals as we speak.
This can potentially make a number of teams happy. The first step would be for Danny Ainge to trade Kyrie Irving back to Cleveland. Irving wanted to make it on his own by separating himself from LeBron last season. But why not do it with the team that drafted him and made him the face of the franchise for three seasons. Ainge has already proved that emotional ties aren’t everything (see: Isaiah Thomas) and Kyrie didn’t even play an entire season with the C’s. Or, perhaps a trade for a big like Karl-Anthony Towns?
With an extremely versatile roster as it stands, the addition of James could eliminate the need for a traditional point guard. Brad Stevens would have Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Al Horford, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Aron Baynes, and LeBron James all as potential starters depending on the opponent. Add in role players in Greg Monroe, Marcus Morris, and Shane Larkin, in addition to the best coach LeBron will have played under (sorry, Erik Spoelstra) and you’ve got a team that could realistically prevent a 3-peat in Oakland.
NEGATIVES: Would the Celtics even want LeBron James? As ludicrous as that statement sounds, the Celtics made it to the conference finals when the best player on the team was 20-years-old. They very nearly earned the top seed in the east when Kyrie Irving was playing. And when LeBron ultimately retires, will they have enough young pieces to contend?
If Kyrie wasn’t traded, how would that work? It was clear that he didn’t want to play with LeBron anymore. Trading Hayward after he gave up more money to win in Boston would not look good on the franchise either. This is one of those choices that looks good on paper but in reality isn’t too practical.
POSITIVES: Winning. If LeBron wants to win NOW, Houston is one of the more ideal choices (I can’t definitively say it’s the most ideal choice yet). Adding LeBron to a team that took Golden State to Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals seems like the perfect recipe for success.
As is the case with Brad Stevens in Boston, I think Mike D’Antoni would be the best coach that LeBron has had. D’Antoni made it work with Chris Paul and James Harden when no one thought he could. Speaking of Chris Paul, LeBron is very big on playing with his pals. Add to that the depth of a team potentially involving Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Ryan Anderson, and Clint Capela, and LeBron may go west for the first time in his career.
NEGATIVES: Once again, how would this work? If D’Antoni could integrate LeBron into his system, then the Rockets would be nearly unstoppable. But having two players that need the ball in their hands doesn’t spell instant success. Both Paul and Harden compromised their roles when joining forces. Could you really see James taking a reduced role like that?
Financially, the Rockets would have to part with a number of role players to afford James. That’s not to say there aren’t potential buyers, with teams like Phoenix ready to offer Capela a big payday, but like the Celtics, it may not bode well. D’Antoni’s system got the Rockets to the Western Conference Finals. Had CP3 been healthy, it may have given the franchise it’s third-ever championship. Disrupting the flow may not be in the cards for GM Daryl Morey.
POSITIVES: Does LeBron trust the process? Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons brought forth results of the process in the 2017-2018 season. It’s taken years but Philly is finally a contender. Or, rather, a piece away. Embiid has been campaigning for James to join the Sixers for months now, and it’s hard to argue with playing against two of the most talented young players in the league.
Staying in the East also gives James an easier path to his ninth consecutive finals. If the 76ers can keep role players happy and increase their defensive presence, they may be the favorites to win the title by adding LeBron.
NEGATIVES: If LeBron wants to win, why go to a less-experienced team? When J.J. Reddick is the player you look to for playoff leadership, you may not be ready for the big time.
A similar problem that would arise in Houston, LeBron works the best when he has the ball in his hands. He can’t rely on Simmons to be a spot up shooter, especially considering the rookies 3-point track record (he still hasn’t made a three in the pros, seriously). Joel Embiid may have a similar play style to Chris Bosh, but he’s not there yet.
Golden State Warriors
POSITIVES: There are none.
NEGATIVES: No one watches the NBA this year, Cleveland riots again, LeBron’s legacy officially becomes worse than Kevin Durant’s, and I lose a bet.
Los Angeles Lakers
POSITIVES: This is the option that people have been talking about all along. We all know LeBron has considered a career in Hollywood and that he owns property in LA.
There are two main things (basketball-wise) that would attract LeBron to playing with Lakers. The first is the plethora of young talent on the team. Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle are players in their early 20s that would surround LeBron. The other is the potential for other starts to join him. While you have to take the words of the Laker faithful with a grain of salt sometimes, the names Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and DeMarcus Cousins have been thrown around as potential future Lakers.
NEGATIVES: Much like Philly, LeBron would be joining a team with little playoff experience. If George or Leonard were to join him, then that’s a different story. But there is no such thing as a sure thing the NBA. Does LeBron really want to spend his mid-30’s recruiting instead of winning?
It’s also worth mentioning that James would be in the West with the likes of the Warriors, Rockets, Spurs, and Thunder. It’s different if he’s alongside stars in Houston, but leading a group of lesser players to the playoffs wouldn’t be much different than this past season in Cleveland.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith