Ranking LeBron James’ Most Likely Free-Agent Destinations
LeBron James’ free-agency odds come via BetOnline and are accurate as of Friday March 16. Most definitely make sure you’re double-checking these lines before deciding on or placing a wager. They will be changing as the regular season wears on, the playoffs unfold and more rumors come to light between now and the start of free agency.
5. San Antonio Spurs (+2000)
If you’re looking to work a super long shot, the San Antonio Spurs are your team. It’s harder for them to dredge up the cap space necessary to sign LeBron, but other pipe-dream options include the Milwaukee Bucks (+1200), New York Knicks (+1600) and Detroit Pistons (+1200). All of those destinations are a complete waste of your money.
Not one of them will have the breathing room required to ink James without clearing the decks. Nor are any of their front offices particularly respected around the league. LeBron isn’t risking a large chunk of his legacy for squads who don’t profile as potential sure things.
The Golden State Warriors (+1000) would technically be another option. Emphasis on technically. They’re not laying nearly lucrative enough odds to warrant your hard-earned cash. They, too, have to jump through a ton of hoops, including one that entails busting up their current core, likely by trading three of Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
That leaves the Spurs—and not just by default.
LeBron has expressed great admiration for head coach Gregg Popovich in the past, and San Antonio is known for extending the primes and overall careers of its best players. Just look at how Tim Duncan’s time in the NBA panned out.
The Spurs’ biggest obstacle is money. They aren’t slated to have cap space right now and would have to ditch a bunch of other players to even sniff the vicinity of James’ $35.4 million max salary. Kawhi Leonard has also missed most of this season with a quad injury, so there’s ample risk caked into signing with San Antonio.
Still, put Pop and LeBron in the same room, and magic might happen. If the four-time MVP takes more than two or three meetings in free agency, you better believe San Antonio will be one of them.
4. Philadelphia 76ers (+500)
Plenty of people think LeBron should sign with the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s understandable. They’re one of the Association’s most promising up-and-comers—the unique outfit that both becomes an instant championship contender with LeBron and is built to carry him should he ever regress into a traditional twilight.
Creating cap space won’t be a problem for them. Dump Jerryd Bayless’ contract over the summer, and the Sixers are there. They’ll need to include a first-round prospect or pick to sweeten the deal, but they have some of those too.
But even with their recent rise to playoff contention, the Sixers’ fall well short of being a sure thing.
Rooke Markelle Fultz has appeared in only four games this season while dealing with shoulder issues. Ben Simmons has been spectacular, but he missed all of last year with foot issues. Joel Embiid, the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year this season, basically missed the first 2.5 campaigns of his career.
Joining up with the Sixers ties too much of LeBron’s legacy to uncertain health bills. Plus, the on-court dynamic between him and three other ball-dominant talents would be weird. Philly would make it work, in large part because James, Fultz and Embiid all have three-point range and should be able to play off the ball more, but this scenario still feels closer to a long shot than not.
Keep the Sixers on your radar. Just don’t invest in them unless their odds creep closer to +1000.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (+400)
Now things will start to get interesting.
The Los Angeles Lakers don’t give off the appearance of a perfect LeBron James destination on the surface. They’re a young team—spunky, but young. Adding him to a core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle and Josh Hart doesn’t make for a legitimate challenger to the Warriors. Not right away at least.
Cap space, however, is the Lakers’ trump card. They have the ability to carve out two max slots with relative ease, without having to get rid of Hart, Ingram, Ball, Kuzma or even Randle.
Theoretically, then, the Lakers can sell LeBron on syncing up with the superstar of his choosing. Many already think they have the inside track on signing Paul George (player option), a Los Angeles native who also happens to be a perfect complement to James.
If the Lakers can get him on board, that and their young core should be enough to get them face-time with James. They could even sell him on the prospect of combining a few of their youngsters into trade bait for a third star—Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, etc.
Take the Lakers seriously. They aren’t leaving this discussion anytime soon.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers (+250)
The Cleveland Cavaliers should be the favorites. And to some extent, they are. They are laying the same odds as our No. 1 choice. But things between the organization and James are too shaky for us to slot them in the top spot.
Consider everything that’s wrong with the Cavaliers: Their defense is terrible. They don’t have another reliable face-up weapon, not even after trading for Jordan Clarkson and Rodney Hood. They won’t have cap space this summer. They’re not guaranteed to have many trade chips either.
Kevin Love still has value, but he will be on an expiring contract (player option), has an awkward history of injuries and isn’t the most explosive weapon in today’s unicorn-heavy NBA. Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith, meanwhile, may be on immovable contracts. No one will jump at the chance to acquire the final two years left on Clarkson’s deal. The Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick will play hard in negotiations, but the Cavaliers will need it to land inside the top three to have any hope of parlaying it into another star.
So if LeBron commits to the Cavaliers, he’s essentially recommitting to more of the same. That, or he’ll have to trust that they can turn whatever assets they have into another high-end acquisition. It’ll be easier for him to hold such faith if they make it back to the NBA Finals.
Should they get bounced beforehand, though, all bets are off.
1. Houston Rockets (+250)
Yes, the Houston Rockets.
To be absolutely clear, they cannot actually sign LeBron outright. Carrying a max hold for Chris Paul along with James Harden’s contract puts James’ max out of reach even if general manager Daryl Morey jettisons the rest of the roster.
The Rockets instead need LeBron to follow in Paul’s footsteps from last summer: He’ll have to opt into the final year of his current deal and force a trade.
That’s not as crazy of a scenario as you might think. The Rockets acquire LeBron’s Bird rights as part of any deal, so they can give him a four-year max with eight percent raises next summer. He won’t be able to sign a five-year deal, due to the NBA’s Over-38 policy, but the money he loses by playing out this deal compared to a max salary next year is minimal.
The Rockets, remember, already have the NBA’s best record without him. They’re considered the biggest obstacle to the reigning-champion Warriors by a large margin. James only amplifies that standing. Harden, Paul and himself will have to make concessions, but given the way the former two have fared together this year, the transition should be pretty straightforward—if not seamless.
Don’t count out the Cavs. They could still come back to take the lead in these sweepstakes. For now, however, the Rockets must be in front of everyone. They make too much sense for LeBron, both next season and beyond, not to be.
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