Updated Odds on Where LeBron James Will Land in NBA Free Agency
Odds for LeBron James’ free agency come via BetOnline and are accurate as of Wednesday, May 30. In the weeks to come, as the NBA Finals unfold and near conclusion, these lines will move. Make sure you’re confirming them before placing a wager. And remember: These destinations are not ranked by increasing odds. We’re forecasting which teams have the best chance of housing him next season, irrespective of what the line-makers are saying. If you’d like to check out our previous edition of these rankings, you can do so here.
6. Los Angeles Clippers (+2500)
I’m going to simplify this for you: The Los Angeles Clippers shouldn’t be here. Like, not even kind of.
The Clippers do not sport a roster LeBron James would want to join. They are neither teeming with upside, like the Los Angeles Lakers, or overflowing with incumbent stars, like the Houston Rockets. They have DeAndre Jordan and Tobias Harris and Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari, not one of whom profiles as the superstar sidekick James is known to need.
Yes, these Clippers play in Los Angeles. And yes, LeBron owns a home in Hollywood. He spends his offseason there. People think playing there would appeal to him, if only so he can set up his post-career film endeavors. But if he goes to Los Angeles, it won’t be to play for the Clippers. They don’t have the built-in cachet right now.
More importantly, the Clippers don’t have a path to becoming a team fit for LeBron. If Jordan opts out of his contract, they’re looking at a payroll north of $145 million should they carry his free-agent hold along with Avery Bradley’s. And that puts them more than $20 million above the luxury-tax line, which means they shouldn’t be here to begin with.
Sure, other teams on this list don’t have cap space. But they at least have the general appeal and trade assets to overcome the logistical hurdles. These Clippers don’t.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (+150)
Oddsmakers have pegged the Philadelphia 76ers as favorites to land LeBron James in free agency. This would have made sense a couple of days ago.
The Sixers are the rare team with Finals potential as currently constructed and a clear avenune to max cap space. They can dredge up the $35.4 million needed to poach LeBron without giving up Robert Covington, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons. They merely need to reroute Jerryd Bayless’ expiring contract to make that happen, which shouldn’t take much. If it does, they have the sweeteners to push a salary dump through anyway.
Imagine that: The aforementioned core, plus LeBron. There would be some fit issues. James, Fultz, Simmons and Embiid are all ball-dominant players. But as a rule of thumb, you get LeBron James and figure out the rest later. Besides which, after signing the four-time MVP, Philly retains the asset ammo to go out and pull off a blockbuster trade. That’s part of the appeal of him signing there.
By now you’re probably asking: So, um, why are they so low on this exclusive totem pole?
Chalk that up to social media drama. According to The Ringer’s Ben Detrick, Sixers president Bryan Colangelo may have used burner Twitter accounts to stage self-serving agendas at the expense of his own players (Embiid, Fultz, Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel) and former colleagues (Sam Hinkie, Masai Ujiri).
This sounds ridiculous, because it is. It’s such a 2018 scandal. If true, though, it would be an epic breach of confidentiality and morality on Colangelo’s part. LeBron isn’t going to sign in Philly if its lead executive is associated with this type of drama.
Indeed, Colangelo could be proven innocent. Or the Sixers could fire him. Either way, they’ll be forever attached to this debacle. And when combined with the fit issues, Philly no longer looks like a worry-free landing spot for his Royal Highness.
4. Golden State Warriors (+1600)
Speaking of salary-cap issues: The Golden State Warriors have no space. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. That they’re even on LeBron James’ list of potential landing spots feels forced and pointless.
Then again, is it really that farfetched?
This isn’t 2016, when the Warriors poached Kevin Durant after falling to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Again: They don’t have cap space. But they do have the salary-matching tools to broker an opt-in-and-trade. If LeBron wants to join them, he’ll have no problem delaying free agency for another year. The Warriors, conversely, should have little trouble convincing the Cavaliers to take on Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, plus some firsts, or one of Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
In fact, the pull to the Warriors could be that much stronger for LeBron if and when he loses to them for the third time in the 2018 Finals. That’s largely how they sold Durant on joining them in 2016: They beat his Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
The real question is whether the Warriors should even want James. He’s not Durant, Thompson or Stephen Curry. He’s not used to coming around screens, making a bunch of off-ball cuts and firing spot-up triples in volume. He’s more ball-dominant than any of them. Incorporating him into offense that would still include Curry and Durant would be tricky.
Of course, the Warriors and LeBron would figure it out. Great teams and great players always do. But the Warriors would have to be truly terrified that their current title window is approaching its close over the next year or so to rock the boat to said degree. Monitor their odds, and treat them as viable long shots, but don’t talk yourself into them becoming favorites.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (+550)
Lakers fans will no doubt want their team to be higher. And they’ll have a partial point.
The Sixers’ scandal has torpedoed their appeal, while the Rockets and Warriors have financial obstacles to clear. The Lakers are the only team in this race, with the exception of the Cavaliers, that don’t need to jump through a bunch of hoops to welcome LeBron.
In the event they renounce all their own free agents not named Julius Randle, the Lakers will have about $47 million in cap space. If they renounce Randle, that number climbs closer to $60 million. If they then waive the final two years of Luol Deng’s deal via the stretch provision, they’ll have around $70 million or more. That’s enough to sign LeBron and another max free agent—such as Paul George.
Heck, if the Lakers figure out a way to trade Deng, they could add LeBron, George and keep Randle. That’d be something. They could also then look at using Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball as Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis trade bait down the line. That’s something, too. They may not be ready to contend for a title as presently constituted, but they have open-ended access to accelerated timelines of all different shapes, sizes and star power. That, plus their proximity to the film industry, will no doubt appeal to the incredibly smart and self-aware LeBron.
Still, joining a team that needs him to complete their rebuild isn’t James’ style. It’d be different if we’re talking about the Sixers. They’re already a proven winner. They’re just young. The Lakers are inexperienced and play like it. Nabbing James and another free agent pushes them up the Western Conference ladder, but it doesn’t make them a match for the Warriors or maybe even the Rockets or San Antonio Spurs.
2. Houston Rockets (+250)
The Rockets are another team that need LeBron to opt into the final year of his contract so they can try striking a trade. They won’t have the cap space to land him otherwise.
Carrying free-agent holds for Chris Paul and Clint Capela, in addition to James Harden’s 2018-19 salary, leaves them short of James’ $35.4 million max. And that’s before factoring in other players on the roster already under contract.
Striking a sign-and-trade is similarly unlikely. The Rockets would be held to a hard-cap if they negotiate the swap as part of James’ free agency, and avoiding the luxury-tax apron would be next to impossible when bankrolling deals for Harden, Capela, James and Paul at the same time.
If LeBron opts in, though, the Rockets can use Nene, Ryan Anderson and small-time fillers to make the money work in a trade with the Cavaliers. They would have to sweeten the pot enough with first-round picks to get Cleveland to bite, but that’s a barrier general manager Daryl Morey has a work around for. Houston can suss out third- and fourth-team facilitators to absorb Anderson’s money.
Make no mistake, LeBron’s path to the Rockets is complicated. But it’s far from implausible. He’s good friends with Paul, and the Harden-CP3 partnership serves as an example of all that could be if LeBron didn’t need to post record-breaking stat lines to carry a team to the playoffs on his own.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers (+175)
There’s no place quite like home.
Stashing the Cavaliers at No. 1 isn’t a compliment to them. It’s more so an indictment of the landscape. Short of orchestrating his escape to the Warriors, LeBron doesn’t have a sure bet outside of Cleveland. Neither Houston nor Philadelphia qualify, and he’d be taking a great risk by joining the Clippers or Lakers.
Even the Warriors stand to hurt him. His legacy will incite new debates about its authenticity if he joins forces with two other top-five stars, in Curry and Durant. That move, to many, would feel like a cop out.
Hence why the Cavaliers are No. 1. They play in the Eastern Conference, which still invites LeBron to the NBA Finals every year, and they have the tools to try improving over the summer. Dangling the No. 8 draft pick (the actual player they select) and salary fodder should get them in the running for any second-tier marquee names that reach the chopping block during the offseason.
The Cavaliers aren’t perfect. Far from it. This year’s postseason campaign is proof. Non-LeBron players are shooting under 34 percent from three and under 30 percent on pull-up jumpers. They’re flawed. But they’re also familiar. The rest of these destinations aren’t. And let’s face it, sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
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