LeBron James, Free Agency and the Biggest NBA Offseason Questions

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At this very moment—before draft picks are fulfilled and wink-wink agreements are made real—the NBA bursts with possibility. Tracking possible trades and free-agent moves has become a full-season sport in itself, and yet every summer we’re blindsided. Chris Paul, without warning, skipped out on free agency and engineered a trade to the Rockets. Kevin Durant did the unthinkable and signed with a 73-win juggernaut. LeBron James went home, reconciling the most powerful divorce in NBA history. We live in an age of player agency and team ingenuity, in which the preposterous, the transformative, and the narratively contrived routinely come to pass.

Welcome to the NBA’s silly season. Since there’s no way of knowing just what’s in store over the next few months, it only makes sense to first pose the biggest questions we know to ask. Starting with…

How—and when—will LeBron James make his decision?

Free agency officially begins on July 1, though it doesn’t open in earnest until LeBron gives the signal. A vast majority of the league’s off-season business is interconnected. Some team vying for LeBron’s services might also have eyes for other prominent free agents or have discussions in the works on a blockbuster trade. The freeze fans out from there: the want of a few teams to hear from LeBron puts a pause on most of their other dealings, which affects their own free agents, potential trade partners, and other players of interest. The better part of an entire league waits for LeBron, who tends to operate on his own time.

There’s a lot for him to consider. James is a deliberate man with most every option available to him. Either returning to the Cavs or joining the Sixers, Rockets, or Lakers seem like the most obvious ways forward, but others possibilities would materialize with his interest. If LeBron wants to join a team, most will do whatever necessary to accommodate him. Thinking on that scope and on those terms doesn’t typically lend itself to quick decisions.

Yet if James drags out his free agent process, that’s where things could get interesting. Teams, agents, and players alike get antsy; there’s a lot on the line in free agency for all parties involved, and some well outside the LeBron sweepstakes might look to capitalize on the wait with early, aggressive offers to other players. Those deals then become anchors for the market from which agents often negotiate—not unlike how Timofey Mozgov’s four-year, $64 million deal with the Lakers set the tone for free agency in 2016. All it takes is a few agreements and the market itself could tilt.

Who benefits from the league’s cap-space crunch?

When James hit the first scheduled free agency of his career in 2010, he found a wide market of teams that had spent years clearing their books to court him. LeBron took meetings with the Cavs, Heat, Clippers, Bulls, Nets, and Knicks, but others (like the Mavs and Rockets) had made themselves financially available just in case. That flexibility didn’t just benefit LeBron—it helped B- and C-level free agents sign massive, consolation-prize deals of their own. Amar’e Stoudemire and Carlos Boozer owe LeBron a certain debt. 

This summer could hardly be more different. Only a handful of teams will have room under the cap to accommodate a max contract, and more than half the league is set to enter into free agency with no cap space whatsoever. In theory, that could result in a quiet summer of modest spending. More likely, teams will get even weirder in vying for all sorts of available talent. Some of the best players to change teams this summer may not be free agents at all, though by taking certain teams off the board and moving money around, they come to influence the marketplace as if they were.

How will players read the market?

Given all that, the choice for a player to pick up an option (or decline their early termination option) for the 2018–19 season has turned out to be a complicated one. Here’s a list of all the players with options outstanding:

LeBron James ($35.6 million, Cleveland)
Carmelo Anthony ($27.9 million, Oklahoma City)
DeAndre Jordan ($24.1 million, L.A. Clippers)
Paul George ($20.7 million, Oklahoma City
Enes Kanter ($18.6 million, L.A. Clippers)
Thaddeus Young ($13.8 million, Indiana)
Wilson Chandler ($12.8 million, Denver)
Austin Rivers ($12.7 million, L.A. Clippers)
Danny Green ($10 million, San Antonio)
Rudy Gay ($8.8 million, San Antonio)
Garrett Temple ($8 million, Sacramento)
Darrel Arthur ($7.5 million, Denver)
Milos Teodosic ($6.3 million, L.A. Clippers)
Dewayne Dedmon ($6.3 million, Atlanta)
Jason Smith ($5.5 million, Washington)
Mike Muscala ($5 million, Atlanta)
Jodie Meeks ($3.5 million, Washington)
Joffrey Lauvergne ($1.7 million, San Antonio)

A player like Jordan, for example, won’t likely make $24.1 million in the first year of a new deal. But does he value the freedom to change teams to a point that some concession makes sense? It’s never wise to bet against players taking the most lucrative offer on the table, though for some the choice to pick up their option might be a bit more nuanced.

What does Paul George want?

That George wants to play in Los Angeles isn’t so much an open secret as an acknowledged fact. But there’s a material difference between playing in L.A. and playing in L.A. alongside other stars. Would George really be willing to sign with the Lakers, for example, if no other high-end player will join him? When other stars come calling—and they will—could a player as competitive as George pass up their better basketball offers? What even happens if Playoff P joins a team that fails to make the playoffs?

Free agency is fascinating because it is revelatory. This summer, we’re going to learn something about George and the priorities he lives by, just as we’ll learn something about James, Jordan, Isaiah Thomas, and dozens of others.

Does Chris Paul get the max from Houston?

The Rockets have gone out of their way to accommodate James Harden whenever possible, including by giving Harden an unexpected four-year, $170 million contract extension—the largest to date—last summer. The team’s philosophy concerning superstars is all-encompassing. They are the most important players on any team, and in Houston they are routinely treated as such.

Paul is in a slightly different class. When healthy last season, he was one of the NBA’s most effective players—a superstar in function, even as he worked as Harden’s clear second. But contracts, while paying certain respects to a player’s past, are intended to be an expression of his future. This is often a source of tension. The Rockets—and any team that pursues Paul— must consider him as a 33-year-old point guard with a long injury history. Paul, on the other hand, might rightly regard himself as an elite talent and expect to be compensated as such. 

If that expectation is a max contract (which for a player of Paul’s experience would start around $35 million and total more than $200 million over five years), Paul and the Rockets would likely start their negotiations at a distance. Houston needs Paul; had he been in the lineup for Games 6 or 7 of the Western Conference finals, the Rockets might now be basking in the afterglow of a title. How both parties process and reflect that information in their contract talks will go a long way in setting the particulars of Houston’s course. Golden State’s most compelling challenger has the potential to improve this summer, but not without first minding its own free agents.

What’s next for the 76ers?

It’s a big question for a team without a general manager. This is a summer of incredible consequence for Philadelphia, which is partly why the writing was on the wall for Bryan Colangelo. The Sixers can’t afford to have a GM in scandal when they’re trying to project an air of stability to LeBron. They can’t be implicated in the release of sensitive information and also try to pitch Kawhi Leonard’s representatives on a potential trade. 

The tradeoff is that the Sixers won’t likely have a new general manager in place for the upcoming NBA Draft, and may not have one in place by the official start of free agency. The team announced that Brett Brown will work as acting general manager in the interim, though this summer is the type of inflection point that deserves a true joint vision. What the Sixers will become may hinge on their next 30 days. 

LeBron storms to the forefront of that conversation, though Philadelphia also faces questions of retention. J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Amir Johnson will all be unrestricted free agents this summer. Those four veterans accounted for almost 40% of the team’s postseason minutes. Redick and Belinelli, in particular, gave shape to the Sixers’ offense with their curls and dribble hand-offs. Ilyasova turned out to be a vital piece of the rotation. The Sixers can move on from all four players, if it comes to that, but in doing so would likely be committing to substantive changes.

This could be the summer to make them. Rarely are teams this young also this flexible and this good. That gives Philly a unique angle (or a new slant?) in their conversations with LeBron. Should he sign elsewhere, that same appeal could be brought to any number of other stars, be they free agents or otherwise. 

Which teams can successfully move money off their books?

The gap between trade machine pipe dream and practical reality may come down to which teams can successfully move some of their most inconvenient contracts. Luol Deng is owed enough money ($36.8 million) over the next two years to stand in the way of the Lakers’ best-case scenario. Enough is owed to Ryan Anderson ($41.7 million over two years) that the Rockets could have difficulty moving him. The cost of doing business with these sorts of transactions is always changing and highly variable within the league; the $20.4 million Anderson is owed in 2018–19, for example, would mean something slightly different to every team based on its cap situation, which could result in a wide range in negotiation.

How does one even begin to value DeMarcus Cousins?

One of the most dominant bigs in the league is 27 years old, full of unrealized potential, and recovering from one of basketball’s most devastating injuries. There was already an incredible diversity of opinion on Cousins around the league, borne of the dysfunction he’s caused and the dysfunction he’s endured. Now he’s set to undertake a massive, multi-year rehabilitation for his left achilles tendon on some team’s time and dime. There is the potential for a franchise-changing bargain if all turns out perfectly and a devastating turn if Cousins is never the same player again.

If LeBron goes, who stays in Cleveland?

So profound are James’s talents that in the event of his absence, a roster that won the Eastern Conference ceases to make sense. That’s not something the Cavs had to reckon with in-season (LeBron famously appeared in all 104 games between the regular season and playoffs), though it may be soon be in their future.

Should that happen, Cleveland would have no reason whatsoever to improve its remaining roster, just as one wouldn’t bring in a new rug to spruce up a collapsed house. Kevin Love would do more good to a team in a position to win some games. Kyle Korver could be traded for value. George Hill—and possibly J.R. Smith—might be bought out. There would be no use in re-signing Jeff Green or Jose Calderon, though Cleveland might consider investing in Rodney Hood. It’s not uncommon for teams to undergo dramatic changes once they’re forced out of title contention, but it’s not out of the question for the Cavs to have turned over 80–90% of their roster by the start of next season.

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