- Jason Miller/Getty
LeBron James has the potential to turn the NBA upside down this summer when he becomes a free agent.
Not since 2014 has there been any buzz that James would seriously consider leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers, despite frequently opting out to sign new contracts.
But this year is different. At the end of last season, rumors began circulating that James would seriously consider leaving the Cavs for a different team. Since then, the buzz has only grown, though James has given zero indication of what he may want to do.
While James can realistically force a trade to any team in the league, we tried our best to rank the teams that might best fit his needs and desires: a big market, existing talent, cap space, and a winning culture or the potential to become a winning team. On top of that are all the rumors about his interests.
Take a look at which teams might be best suited to land King James this summer.
1. Houston Rockets
Pros: The Rockets have two stars in James Harden and Chris Paul, the type of talent James has been missing in recent years in Cleveland. Paul has already been reaching out to James, according to The New York Times’ Marc Stein.
James is reportedly interested in transitioning into an off-ball role as he gets older. Harden and Paul (they would have to re-sign Paul this summer) would allow him to do that. And similarly, James’ ball-handling would make life easier for them.
Rockets GM Daryl Morey has always been aggressive in targeting star players, and it’s not hard to imagine him wanting to land the biggest fish of all. With the Rockets already coming within one half of knocking off the Warriors this year, they may believe James could put them over the top.
Cons: The Rockets’ roster is in transition. Rising star center Clint Capela is a free agent, as are Trevor Ariza and Paul. They can’t reasonably bring in James while returning last year’s team, meaning if they land James, it would likely be James, Paul, Harden, and a handful of veteran role players.
Paul and Harden successfully split ball-handling duties last season – would adding a third ball-dominant player to the mix help all that much?
Again, the Rockets were this close to knocking off the Warriors. Maybe it’s in their best interest not to break up this team.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Pros: If James wants to latch onto a team that can carry him into his twilight, Philadelphia might be the place.
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid look like the next great duo in the NBA, two massive athletes with unique skills and talent so early in their careers. And they still have unknowns in last year’s No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz and draft picks still to come.
James could join the 76ers via free agency this year (they have the cap space) and become the instant talent and veteran presence needed to catapult this team into championship contention. As he gets older, he could hand the reins over to Simmons and Embiid.
Simmons also shares an agent with James in Rich Paul, James’ childhood friend.
Cons: The cons come more on the Sixers’ end. Why mess with a young core that looks ready to grow into a dominant force on its own? Why take the ball out of Simmons’ hand and put it in the hands of the older, more complete version of what he may become? Adding James only accelerates the team’s timeline, and his skills take away from what makes Simmons and Embiid great.
While Embiid and Simmons are two dominant young talents, James may not view them as the horses he needs to win another championship right away. After all, James trusts veterans more than anything.
Likewise, James is at his best with shooters around him. If there’s any flaw in the Sixers’ two young stars, it’s that floor space is minimal because neither is a reliable shooter.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
- Jason Miller/Getty
Pros: The Lakers have an intriguing young core in Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and the free agent big man Julius Randle. Like Philadelphia, they represent the young talent that could eventually take the burden off of James. They also have the cap space to attract surrounding talent.
Los Angeles offers what James desires off the court – a big market, exposure, and access to off-court opportunities. James is interested in Hollywood and owns a production company. He has two houses in LA. And Los Angeles winters are a little nicer than Cleveland winters.
Some in the NBA world have theorized that James might ultimately look for the best lifestyle situation for him and his family, rather than only pursuing winning opportunities. The Lakers have that, plus the chance to grow.
Cons: There’s no indication that James is ready to stop competing for titles. With the Lakers, even if James can attract another star like Paul George, there would be a learning curve for that team.
James is as good as he’s ever been at 33 years old, but his window will eventually close. Would he want to lose perhaps two of his best years as his team grows talented enough to take on the Warriors and Rockets?
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
Pros: There are benefits to familiarity. James has known Ohio to be home for nearly all of his life. His family is there. He knows the organization in and out.
The Cavs look inferior to the Warriors, but are they that far off? This is their fourth straight Finals; they almost won Game 1. James and a band of misfits are good enough to compete for a title. Though they have few paths to improving this summer, James has ownership and management’s ears. With the eighth pick in the draft this year, perhaps the Cavs could draft a good young player, then make some offseason move to get James more help.
And perhaps most importantly: money. Since returning to Cleveland, James has taken every step to ensure he gets the most money possible. He could become the highest-paid player in NBA history in Cleveland. That’s worth something.
Cons: We’ve all watched the playoffs this year. It’s taken perhaps the greatest postseason ever from James to get the Cavs to the Finals. How much more of that does he have left in him? And to argue the point above, the Cavs don’t have easy avenues to getting better, so barring some clever wheeling-and-dealing, it’s hard to see the Cavs improving this offseason dramatically.
James has already brought Cleveland a championship. Things don’t seem rosy between him and the owner Dan Gilbert. James may have had his fill of Cleveland, and the backlash to leaving would be far less than what it was in 2010.
5. San Antonio Spurs
- Ronald Cortes/Getty
Pros: San Antonio would be strictly about the basketball for James.
James is a longtime admirer of Gregg Popovich and takes every chance he can to praise the Spurs coach. Both men love good food and wine. Popovich seems like the type of coach that James would form an off-court relationship with to discuss topics greater than basketball.
They already have a star in tow in LaMarcus Aldridge, and the Spurs’ system would take pressure off James as a creator.
Cons: It all revolves around Kawhi Leonard. Is he healthy? Does he want to stay in San Antonio? If the answer to both questions is “yes,” he’s the ideal running mate for James. The two of them would form one of the scariest duos in the NBA. If the answer is “no,” San Antonio is much less appealing.
If Leonard does stick around, the Spurs would have to open up cap space for James. It wouldn’t be impossible, but it may not be easy, either, as they have several big, long-term contracts that teams wouldn’t be eager to take off their hands.
San Antonio is probably one of the least desirable markets for James and wouldn’t accomplish much of what he wants off the court.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of questions that need answering in San Antonio, thus keeping them lower than other contenders.
7. Miami Heat
Pros: LeBron James is obviously familiar with the Heat, and Miami offers some of the off-court appeals for James.
While James and team president Pat Riley didn’t seem to leave on good terms, by all accounts, when James returned to Cleveland, he tried to instill the Heat culture in the Cavs. He respects the way the team operates.
The Heat don’t offer cap space or much in the way of young upside, but they have role players that could thrive alongside James and potential trade assets the Cavs would accept. James could also play alongside his buddy Dwyane Wade again, if Wade chooses to return.
Cons: The Heat are far away from championship contention and don’t offer much in the way of internal upside. In a conference with the rising 76ers and Boston Celtics, the current cast of players, even with James, may not be good enough.
8. New York Knicks
Pros: Stop laughing.
The Knicks, by all accounts, are not at the top of James’ list, but there are enough intriguing factors to make it worth considering.
First is New York. James loves to put on a show at Madison Square Garden and has spoken with reverence for the historic building. He would arguably become the biggest athlete in the world playing in New York. It fits many of his off-court desires, coming second only to LA because of LA’s access to Hollywood (and the weather).
While he’s lashed out at the Knicks franchise before, they have since gotten rid of Phil Jackson, James’ least favorite NBA executive. They offer a young star in Kristaps Porzingis, who would thrive next to James, a young guard in Frank Ntilikina, who’s proven he’s not afraid of James, and the 9th pick in the draft this year. The Knicks would become the ultimate free agent destination if James joined them.
They also hired David Fizdale this summer, one of James’ favorite coaches.
Cons: Like the Heat, the Knicks aren’t near championship contention. While they do boast better young players, James would lose a few years of his prime trying to pull the Knicks to the championship.
And perhaps James’ buddy Dwyane Wade said it all this past spring when asked about a New York City billboard challenging James to come to the Knicks.
“Good luck,” Wade laughed.
9. Los Angeles Clippers
- Harry How/Getty
Pros: The Clippers, of course, offer the same LA market as the Lakers. That’s the top appeal.
While the Clippers narrowly missed the playoffs and appeared ready to blow it up after trading Blake Griffin, they’re in a position to make moves that could push them toward contention. They have some players James would enjoy playing with – DeAndre Jordan, a rim-running, rim-protecting center James reportedly coveted during the season, and Lou Williams, a high-volume scorer who could ease the burden on James.
They would have to clear cap space to make room for James, but if not, they also have the pieces to make a trade, namely with the 12th and 13th picks in the draft. Alternatively, if they cleared room for James, whoever they draft with those picks could be used in trades to get James some more help.
The situation isn’t as promising as the Lakers’, but the upside of the LA market, plus viable paths to improving, could convince James to come.
Cons: If James made a move to LA, the Lakers would be the more appealing team, both from a personnel and cultural perspective; they’re the historic LA franchise, not the Clippers.
And although the Clippers do have paths to improve, it would take some clever maneuvering. One of the big factors hanging over the Clippers is DeAndre Jordan’s player option. If Jordan opts out, attracting James might become tougher.
10. Golden State Warriors
- Ezra Shaw/Getty
Pros: Hey, he’s reportedly not against it!
If James wants to win a ring (or two or three), the Warriors are the obvious option. There’s already no other team as talented as the Warriors; adding James might make them unbeatable, so long as he was willing to blend his game with the team.
Though the Bay Area isn’t Los Angeles, the Silicon Valley scene might interest James, as it has for several other Warriors players.
Cons: James cares about his legacy. Joining the Warriors would tarnish a lot of the goodwill he’s built with the sports world since returning to Cleveland.
They would also have to move on from some of their core, meaning James would be joining a team that isn’t quite what it’s been over the last several years.
Now, take a look at the diet required to be like LeBron James…
- Maddie Meyer/Getty Images