In case you haven’t heard, LeBron James is set to become a free agent this summer, and much like in 2011 and 2014, his decision will dominate news cycles and headlines for weeks to come. While the King has managed to reach his eighth straight Finals this season, it’s become clear through two games that the 33-year-old can no longer slay the Warriors by himself.
So where will LeBron go? For starters, he could elect to stay in Cleveland. While there’s myriad of options around the league that offer promise and upside, there isn’t an obvious choice that has Cavs fans sweating about his potential departure. LeBron could decide to stay home, try and influence roster change, and continue his dominance of the Eastern Conference in his backyard.
Or… he could bolt. With Golden State just two wins away from its third title in four years, the desire to join a superteam could overwhelm LeBron’s decision-making. He could join James Harden in Houston, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in Philadelphia or possibly even the Lakers’ young core in L.A. And that’s just the beginning of LeBron’s potential summer destinations.
With the offseason rapidly approaching, and LeBron’s third free-agent decision on the way, The Crossover paneled its writers to examine which team presents James’s best option this summer. (Warning: Several of these blurbs were written by staff burner accounts).
San Antonio Spurs: The Tempting Option
LeBron James has been fond of saying recently that he “lives in the present,” deploying the phrase as a catch-all method for side-stepping questions about his past heroics and attempts to pry into his free-agency thought process. In the next week or two, though, James’s present will suddenly be consumed by his plans for his next home. Once he does reflect on the last 12 months, he should reach two conclusions: 1) He remains the best player in the game, and 2) He needs to improve the infrastructure around him if he wants to continue competing for titles for the next 3-5 years.
A short list of the NBA’s best organizations—based on savvy ownership, proven front offices, excellent coaching, and a demonstrated history of success—includes the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Celtics. For obvious reasons, James can’t exactly latch onto Golden State or Boston, lest he be labeled a bandwagoner. While Houston is an intriguing fit, teaming up with James Harden and Chris Paul would require James sacrifice some of his offensive role at a time when he seems to enjoy serving as the league’s best one-man operation. That leaves San Antonio, whose pitch starts with five rings, roughly two decades of winning seasons, and Gregg Popovich, arguably the greatest coach in NBA history. The Cavaliers’ turbulent season revealed that they don’t belong in this conversation, not after David Griffin’s abrupt exit and the unexpected dissolution of the James/Kyrie Irving marriage.
The Spurs’ pitch to James should go something like this: “We nearly won as many games this season without Kawhi Leonard as Cleveland won with you. We’ll be an elite defense next year because we always are, allowing you to focus all your energy on the offensive end. You can have the ball in your hands as much as you want and you can play as often as you want, but you certainly don’t need to lead the league in minutes or play all 82 games again. After all, we’re the team that invented ‘managing an 82-game season.’ Off the court, you won’t need to worry about sharing the limelight. This will be your show, you’ll be backed up by the best coach you’ve ever played for, and you’ll have Leonard and All-Defensive First Teamer Dejounte Murray to match up with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry in the playoffs.
“If you don’t want to play with Leonard and/or LaMarcus Aldridge, have no fear: they can be liquidated in trades. We’ve got a few shooters we can bring back in Danny Green and Patty Mills, and we’ll gladly welcome any additional veteran shooters you want to bring aboard. Rudy Gay has agreed to let you refer to him as ‘Jeff Green’ if you like. We’ve already shown we can scare Golden State in the playoffs, and we’re your most reliable bet for winning a ring with a third franchise, which would be a crowning accomplishment for your legacy. And, of course, to seal the deal: Remember that Pop has a cellar full of rare wine with your name on it.” — Ben Golliver
Cleveland Cavaliers: The Easy Option
Moving is not fun. A couple years ago, the wife, kids and I moved from Brooklyn to the suburbs. We somehow had so much stuff—in an apartment, mind you—that it almost didn’t fit onto the full-size truck the movers brought. It was nerve-wracking, it was expensive and I lost two pullovers. We still haven’t unpacked everything five years later, and I don’t have nearly as much stuff as LeBron. (I’m guessing that were he to pack his stuff up, he’d have at least two big boxes labeled “Suit shorts, grey.”) The whole experience took a year off my life. What would carting all those clothes and headphones and shoes—not just his, but his wife’s and kids’, too—off to Philly do to him? I wouldn’t want to think about it.
Is this the only reason for LeBron to stay where he is? No. There’s no ideal landing spot. Wherever he goes, Skip Bayless will easily find fault. (Michael Jordan didn’t chase titles; Michael Jordan never went Hollywood; Michael Jordan only ate real cheese, none of that cheez crapola.) He’ll have to break in a whole new set of teammates, learn their on-court tendencies—and their jacket sizes—and choreograph and memorize a whole new set of pregame handshakes. At the end of the day, it’s just not worth the headache to leave a place where he’s beloved so soon after his legacy has been fully repaired. For the sake of his sanity—and, potentially, his pullovers—LeBron should just stay at home. — Mark Bechtel
Philadelphia 76ers: The Long-Term Option
I want you to close your eyes and imagine a world where Joel Embiid was never injured. No, I’m not talking about the second foot fracture that lost the All-Star center his second rookie season in 2015-16. I’m talking about the back injury that derailed his freshman season at Kansas and the June 2014 foot injury he also suffered. Those injuries sent Embiid sliding down from the presumptive No. 1 pick in that year’s draft, slipping to the eagerly awaiting Sixers at No. 3. If, and this is admittedly a huge “if,” Embiid remains healthy, Cleveland is undoubtedly selecting the big man No. 1 instead of Andrew Wiggins and LeBron James is returning home to Northeast Ohio to form a Big 3 alongside Embiid and Kyrie Irving. That Cavs team probably isn’t experienced enough to slay the Warriors in 2015, especially if Irving suffers the same knee troubles. But a second-year Embiid—which we were all privileged to witness this season—with James and Irving is probably still claiming the 2016 title and putting up one hell of a fight against these Kevin Durant-era Warriors.
A James-Embiid pairing is now plausible once again. And it’s unbelievably tantalizing. James and Embiid would probably be the greatest physical pairing we’ve seen since David Robinson and Tim Duncan tortured the league. Mix in Ben Simmons’s unprecedented size at point guard and the 2018-19 Sixers are steamrolling every mortal team in their path. For James to continue his legendary Finals streak, Philadelphia is the obvious best option for his own self interests. Even with Boston’s rise, the Eastern Conference presents the path of least resistance to the championship round. Add in Philadelphia’s cap room and an eager-to-return J.J. Redick, the Sixers boast optimal financial flexibility to flush out a supporting roster of shooters to complement their triumvirate.
Embiid and Simmons are obviously just beginning their superstar career arcs. As LeBron’s powers ultimately deteriorate—they have to wane at some point, right?—his younger co-stars will be fully blossoming at the opportune time to help transition James into a more-complementary role. It’s the best logical answer to this question. I don’t even know how this is a 10–team discussion. — Jake Fischer
Miami Heat: The Familiar Option
I’m only half-joking. Look, there are legitimate reasons for LeBron to sign in Miami. He will get to play with a top-five coach, one who he seemingly respects though not necessarily loves. (Spo did a great job putting James in positions to succeed.) He can play for an organization that has proven it can put a championship cast around him. (James has won twice as many titles in Miami than Cleveland in about a third of the time.) And he can somewhat protect his legacy, keeping his career arc within two franchises as opposed to hopping around the country for titles. (Do you have fond memories of Shaq in a Suns jersey?)
There are, of course, issues. The Heat don’t have the cap space to sign LeBron outright let alone bring in another star. The roster has some useful role players (Kelly Olynyk, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow), but also some onerous contracts (Tyler Johnson, and as much as it hurts me to say, Dion Waiters.) James could make any team in the East a Finals team, but the Heat would have to make some major moves to be a contender against the Warriors any time soon.
And yet…it still seems plausible to me. Can you really imagine LeBron in a Rockets jersey? Joining a fully-formed machine to chase a ring? That’s not LeBron’s style. He builds teams, he doesn’t join them. You may think that should send James to L.A. But does he really want to trust the twilight of his career to Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka over Pat Riley? The man who threw the f—ing rings on the table? Why play in a glorified Kobe shrine when you can return to the city in which you first tasted champagne?
It’s time for James to take his talents back to South Beach (but really Downtown Miami.) It’s time for the King to party in the city where the heat is on, all night on the beach till the break of dawn.
Bienvenidos, LeBron. It’s like you never left. — Rohan Nadkarni
Los Angeles Lakers: The Magic Option
Much has been made of LeBron’s new $23 million Brentwood home. And his alleged desire to be a Magic Johnson-level off-court mogul and/or Hollywood leading man. And the Lakers’ ability to create cap space the size of Cleveland’s entire economy (I guess you could say LeBron is Cleveland’s entire economy).
Much has been made about all of that because the City of Angels is indeed the best home for the King. LeBron is clearly fed up with Cleveland’s burning river of an organization and the monumental load he has to bear. Next year, the Lakers could realistically (just play along) start a lineup of Lonzo Ball, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, James, and (fill-in-the-blank… Kyle Kuzma?), which would give him as good a title shot as either Houston or Philly. Concerning legacy, there’s only incremental benefit to dragging dreadful teammates to the Finals for the next five years, and critics of superteams will chirp no matter where LeBron goes.
Plus, if LaVar said so, it must be true. Right? — Ben Teitelbaum
Milwaukee Bucks: The Scary Option
Look, look, I know the last thing the Bucks need is another frontcourt player but can we just think for a minute about the combination of LeBron and Giannis?
Imagine that pair running a two-on-one. Imagine what a LeBron-Giannis-Khris Middleton-Eric Bledsoe-Tony Snell lineup would look like on defense. Imagine those LeBron and Giannis competing over the course of 82 games to see who could throw down the biggest in-game dunks.
One of the great shames in the NBA right now is that it seems unlikely the Bucks will ever be as good as Giannis himself. As long as Giannis is around, the Bucks will never have a lottery pick to land a top young star and it’s difficult to foresee a top free agent choosing Milwaukee. But LeBron might not care about playing in the coolest city with the best nightlife at this point in his career. He’s a dad in his mid-30s who likes drinking wine while watching hoops at home. But he’s also in the somewhat unique position of wanting to win more championships while also seeking a challenge that will allow him to showcase his greatness. Milwaukee is that kind of place. — Dan Gartland
New York Knicks: The Revenge Option
Things are going too well in New York right now. The Yankees are probably going to win the World Series very soon. The Jets and Giants both instilled hope in their fan bases with top picks in the year’s NFL draft. What the city desperately needs now is the monumental implosion and mass outbreak of sadness that will come as a result of failing to sign LeBron James in free agency.
Now, aside from the chance to once again agitate thousands of citygoers there are plenty of reasons LeBron should consider New York—and perhaps even sign there! Well, actually there aren’t that many reasons, there are just two reasons that come to mind. The first, and biggest, is Kristaps Porzingis. LeBron can kick back with some red wine and Sbarro pizza and age comfortably as the Knicks’ basketball unicorn—still just 22—shoulders a lot of the load on offense. Think of the freaking alley-oops these two would connect on! And, aside from having two guys to create offense, the duo would surely be able to attract a star or a couple of fringe stars to fill in some of that sweet, sweet cap space New York has. LeBron, Kawhi and Godzingis doesn’t sound too bad. The other reason LeBron should definitely choose New York is to get back at Phil Jackson. Could you imagine LeBron not only leading the Knicks to their first title since 1973, but leading them to multiple championships? That’d be the absolute best revenge on Phil. Maybe he can bring back Melo, too, to add insult to injury. No one would even remember Phil, to be honest. — Kenny Ducey
Houston Rockets: The Logical Option
There’s no better basketball option for LeBron than the team that already pushed the Warriors to their limit. Houston has the shooting, the playmaking, and the defensive versatility to give James his best team in years—maybe ever. Imagine a staggered rotation with two of LeBron, James Harden, and Chris Paul on the floor at all times. All three would have to sacrifice some measure of control, but in doing so could go full bore more often. James wouldn’t have to conserve energy out of worry for being his team’s only creator. Concerns over Harden wearing down over the course of a postseason would be alleviated. Paul’s minutes and workload could be managed even more carefully, hopefully leading to healthier ends. Houston wouldn’t even have to change its style, though it could; with LeBron comes the flexibility not only to play in a wide variety fo ways, but to dominate through them. As it stands, James is a terrifying isolation scorer, a pinpoint passer, and a certified switch-buster—a player so strong and so dynamic as to invalidate the defense of choice against the Rockets. The freedom to use any of three stars on either side of the pick-and-roll—and that’s without even considering the ascendant Clint Capela—would put every opponent into an impossible bind. Creating enough room for James would demand some creative problem solving on Houston’s part, but the result would be well worth the trouble. — Rob Mahoney
Boston Celtics: The Homer Option
If you ask me where LeBron James should hypothetically play basketball next year, why wouldn’t I say the team I root for? In the case of the Celtics, though, there’s actually a case to be made, although it is far-fetched to think he’d go to a city like Boston after getting out of a city like Cleveland. But hear me out: The C’s are one of the few teams in the league that actually have a chance of dethroning the Warriors. We saw what they could do this year without their best players Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, and that was almost enough to beat King James (even though it was basically five-on-one, since LeBron was playing with a JV squad).
I’d love to see how Brad Stevens and LeBron would work together, and it would also be kind of funny to watch the first press conference when Kyrie is asked, “So you requested a trade because you didn’t want to play with LeBron, and now LeBron has come to you. Thoughts?” He’d be like, “All I can say is that you don’t expect what comes around to go around when you believe the earth is flat. Life comes at you fast.” — Charlotte Wilder
Golden State Warriors: The Unfair Option
In February, ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported LeBron would consider meeting with the Warriors during free agency. Just a meeting with Golden State would set the sporting world on fire—now imagine if he actually joined Steph and KD in the Bay. Sure, people are going to say this move would ruin the NBA (it definitely would), but in terms of just playing the game of basketball, there might not be a better match in the history of the game.
LeBron surrounded by elite shooters should be illegal in all 50 states. Having the greatest shooter ever in Stephen Curry on one wing and one of the greatest scorers in history in Kevin Durant on the other would be unstoppable. For this to happen the Warriors would sadly have to part ways with Klay Thompson, but we are talking about LeBron James. LeBron would be granted the luxury of having his workload cut down tremendously and could play on autopilot throughout the rest of his career—winning title after title. He has nothing to prove to anyone especially after carrying this years’ Cavaliers team.
Lastly, LeBron has ties in the Bay Area. He would feel right at home in Silicon Valley within the billionaire community and he played AAU basketball with the Oakland Soldiers program. To quote Michael Caine in The Dark Knight, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” — Jarrel Harris
Take a Year Off: The Radical Option
It may seem like LeBron has 30 options in free agency, but he actually has 31. While this would never, ever (ever) happen, he could consider the 31st and most drastic one: Taking the year off.
LeBron is tired. Physically and mentally. From 15 seasons, 40,000 minutes, eight straight Finals appearances and constantly carrying both expectations and teammates. Jordan famously took a sabbatical to play baseball and came back for a second three–peat. Other star players have gotten time off, either because of injuries or because of early playoff exits. Consider that Kobe’s Lakers, Wade’s Heat and Duncan’s Spurs all had multiple first-round losses, which offered an extra six weeks that LeBron’s never been afforded thanks to his unprecedented run.
At this point in LeBron’s career, his ring count seems to be the only thing that matters. So you would think he should take as many shots at winning another title as possible. As they say, you can’t win the pot if you don’t play the hand. But taking one year off might problem him for another run.
LeBron’s legacy should be determined by more than just championships, so it would be a shame to see him voluntarily end his streak of 14 straight All-Star appearances, 12 straight First Team All–NBA selections and other signifiers of his greatness. If there’s no perfect landing spot this offseason, maybe the best option is to position himself for two offseasons from now.
So it’s something for LeBron to consider: Take a LeBratical, shoot a movie, expand his business portfolio, and come back rejuvenated in 2019 for another five-year run. — Mitch Goldich