LeBron James informed the Cleveland Cavaliers Friday he was opting out of the final year of his contract, making him an unrestricted free agent and altering the potential number of teams he could join this summer.
James’s decision, which came two days before the start of free agency, signals he is likely to play for one of three teams next season: Cleveland, where he can still re-sign, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Philadelphia 76ers. There had been speculation James would consider opting into the final year of his current contract — which he had until 11:59 p.m. Friday to do. That would have opened up the possibility of him being traded to whichever team he wanted to play for.
That was the path his friend Chris Paul took last summer when he opted into his contract with the Los Angeles Clippers and was then traded to the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were hoping James would make a similar decision, allowing them to construct another trade to add James to a roster that won an NBA-leading 65 games last season. The Rockets pushed the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors to seven games in the Western Conference finals last month.
By opting out, though, James has left himself with Cleveland, Los Angeles and Philadelphia as the three places he is most likely to wind up playing his 16th NBA season.
Among those choices, Philadelphia feels like a distant third. While there was plenty of talk throughout the season about the prospect of James joining young stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, that talk has cooled in recent weeks. Still, after accepting the league’s Rookie of the Year award Monday in Los Angeles, Simmons made the case for why a player like James should want to join the up-and-coming Sixers.
“We don’t have that much experience with Joel and I and some of the younger people on our team and guys like that. So I think experience plays a big role,” in winning, Simmons said. “Maybe that is a free agent, a big free agent who we can lean on and learn from … we don’t really have that older, veteran guy who is a star like that.”
James would certainly be that star. But his fit with Simmons, whose lack of a jump shot makes it very difficult for him to play off the ball, would be an awkward one, and it’s unclear if James would want to go to a team with such a young supporting cast at this advanced stage of his career.
Thus, remaining in Cleveland or going to Los Angeles — where he owns a home — remain the two most likely options for James to pursue.
The Cavaliers can offer the ability to continue playing in his home city and for a team that has made it to four straight NBA Finals since James returned, including winning the 2016 NBA title. But Cleveland’s roster is in need of an overhaul, and the Cavaliers are in the difficult situation of having to convince James they will continue to improve without knowing if he will be back. It will be tough for Cleveland to make any significant changes to its roster until it gets an answer from him.
The Lakers, on the other hand, know exactly what they need to do: find another star to pair with James. It seems unlikely that James would want to go to Los Angeles to play for a mediocre team with some promising young players like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart — all of whom look like they’ll be longtime NBA players but none of whom look like they’ll be franchise centerpieces.
It was thought that Paul George would be the star who would join up with James in Los Angeles. That still is a possibility, but the speculation around the NBA has been that George — who also opted out of his contract and became an unrestricted free agent this week — is leaning toward remaining with the Oklahoma City Thunder rather than going to play for his hometown Lakers.
Not being able to get George means the Lakers have to look elsewhere for a possible star to play with James — which, in turn, has led to talks with the San Antonio Spurs this week about the possibility of a trade for Kawhi Leonard. The star forward is another Southern California native who has said he wants out of San Antonio for the final year of his contract and that the Lakers are at the top of his list of destinations.
There is a healthy amount of skepticism around the NBA that the Spurs will be willing to trade Leonard to Los Angeles, though. And in remarks to the media earlier this week, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson attempted to publicly show he wasn’t feeling any pressure to give up too much to land Leonard — and by extension James.
“It’s going to be a two-summer thing for the Lakers,” he told reporters Tuesday, referring to several all-star free agents being available next summer.
It is unlikely, though, that telling James to leave Cleveland — only to wait a year to have championship-level talent around him — will be a winning sales pitch.
James, who is on vacation in Anguilla this week, has stressed he’d like to wrap up his decision quickly. He also is unlikely to hold any meetings with teams, which is different than 2010 and 2014 — the last two times he was in the position of contemplating where to play next — when his decision stretched into mid-July. In each those two cases, James or his representatives met with several teams.
The rest of the NBA will be hoping for a quick decision, as well, as much of the league’s free agency business will be held up until he decides what he wants to do.