The hidden side of politics

LeBron can hit free agency again, and anything is possible

Reported by ESPN:

This LeBron James free-agency decision is going to be his most personal.

When he went to Miami in 2010, it was about business; he badly needed to become a champion. When he returned to Cleveland in 2014, in what he hoped was his last move, it was about legacy.

James has his championships now. No matter what anyone says on the matter, he also believes his legacy is secure. With the Cleveland Cavaliers losing in the Finals for the second straight year, the choices and options in front of him are complex. Put more simply, James might not see any option he truly likes at this point.

Despite whatever assumptions exist, for months James and those closest to him have made it clear that no decision about the future has been made or the choices even fully vetted. There’s no well-formulated plan ready to be executed.

There are a few issues James will have to work through and probably prioritize. And perhaps he’ll have to make some tough compromises.

But something that should be understood when it comes to James this summer: Anything is possible. Repeat: anything. Making assumptions on things he’s said in the past, feelings he’s had in the past, bad blood, rivalries, weather, anything from the past could be a mistake. James believes he’s got a blank check to do what he wants, and perhaps the only thing that’s clear about this free agency is that he’s not afraid to use it.

Family considerations

James’ oldest son, Bronny, is 13. His younger son, Bryce, will turn 11 next week. They will be able to voice their feelings on the decision this time. They have spent time in Miami and Akron and even Los Angeles in the summers. Bronny is a standout basketball player who has a chance at an NBA future, and his development and comfort through his teen years, of course, is important.

James’ wife, Savannah, was already a driving force in 2014 when James came home to Akron. James loves watching his sons play basketball.

It’s hard to see him being apart from his family, which includes 3-year-old daughter Zhuri, at this stage of his life. In 2010, he left Savannah and his young sons in Ohio when he first moved to Miami. Now, where they want to live is a deeper factor.

The case for Cleveland

James has been on the record many times — including in his coming home letter four years ago — that he wants to finish his career in Cleveland. That is still the case. But a difficult year for the Cavs has made this a challenging time for James to consider how he wants to spend his final act.

The departure of general manager David Griffin, Kyrie Irving‘s trade demand and a high-stress season may have shaken James’ outlook. A series of mental mistakes during the Finals, namely JR Smith’s blunder in Game 1, led James to muse “how do you put together a group of talent but also a group of minds to be able to compete” with the Warriors this week.

The Cavs are capped out and have limited trade assets, and it’s unclear how much immediate help their No. 8 pick in the draft can provide. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers established themselves this season as the teams of the future in the Eastern Conference, and the Cavs lack a clear path to make up ground.

It’s the result of competing all out for the past four years, where the team traded picks and signed players to huge deals in the name of surrounding James with talent in the moment. But there remains little to no trust between James and owner Dan Gilbert, and a limited relationship with general manager Koby Altman, who is less than two years older than James.

If there was a foundation there, perhaps James and Gilbert could get together and forge a plan going forward, such as roster moves, what to do with the draft pick or maybe style of play. That has never been how James has operated, however, and that doesn’t seem likely to change.

The Cavs can offer James more money and years than anyone else, up to a five-year deal for more than $200 million. But James has signed four contracts with Gilbert in his career and none has been longer than three years. Since coming back four years ago, he has never given more than two. Little trust there.

Last summer, Gilbert requested that James commit long term to the franchise. James did not. Gilbert made an incoming draft pick the centerpiece of the Irving trade, establishing the point that he’d plan for a time after James and not be caught flat-footed the way he was in 2010 when James left. Little trust there.

James’ roots in Ohio and his love of playing in front of its fans — his joyful trots after game-winners this postseason being a strong latest example — leave all options open.

During the Finals, the Cavs felt like they were close to the Warriors, especially in narrow losses in Games 1 and 3 that left them frustrated and feeling like the gap wasn’t as wide as the results indicated. It led them to wonder if they could find a way to acquire an Irving replacement, that they may not be far away. But James believes in results, not near misses, and when the Cavs get their chance to pitch James, they will need to have an actionable plan.

Still, for James to go to another franchise at this point creates certain risks, and he’d probably have to be convinced the opportunity was worth any lingering fallout were he to depart Cleveland again. Maybe there will be one he likes, maybe there won’t, and James will remain with the franchise under terms of his choosing.

Opt in, arrange a trade

If James does choose to move on, he and Gilbert could still do business. James has a player option for next season in his contract for $36 million that he has until June 29 to execute. Because the salary cap has stayed mostly flat since he signed this current deal in 2016, that $36 million number is close to the max salary available to him if he became a free agent.

Never becoming a free agent and instead getting traded would be beneficial to James because the no-trade clause in his contract would carry over to his new team, which would also inherit his full rights. Then he could sign an extension of up to four years with his new team six months after a trade, creating a five-year commitment for more than $200 million if he wanted it.

For the Cavs, this would open the door to getting a return for James and helping them start a rebuild instead of losing him for nothing. For James, though, this would mean he’d have to vocalize that he wanted to be traded away from Cleveland.

This route is what James’ close friend Chris Paul did with the LA Clippers last summer. Like Paul, James would choose the team he’d get traded to and be able to approve of the players changing hands. It’s not unlike a sign-and-trade concept that the Cavs used to trade James to Miami in 2010, but it has fewer restrictions. In short, it’s a complicated but legitimate path, especially because it opens the door for James to go to a team that doesn’t have the needed $30 million-plus in cap space to sign him outright.

For example, the 76ers have significant cap space this summer but not enough to sign James outright to the max. It’s possible that if James wanted it and the Cavs found a deal, the 76ers could trade for James and still retain the ability to sign their own free agents like JJ Redick and Amir Johnson, plus have exceptions available to add more talent.

The rules don’t allow teams to talk to James before July 1, after his option pickup date. So to execute this type of deal, they’d need a player to recruit him — which isn’t against the rules. James Harden helped lead the Houston Rockets’ effort to land Paul last year.

James could also pick up the option and stay with the Cavs for another season and push back locking in his future for a year. At age 33, with the chance for the biggest contract of his career, that would not seem probable. But like these other options, it remains a possibility. It’s James’ option; the Cavs wouldn’t have a say in the matter.

The unrestricted route

Then there’s the conventional path, which would be to enter unrestricted free agency and change teams for a third time for a final act. This is the area where much time and effort has been devoted in recent months, namely with the Los Angeles Lakers clearing out salary-cap space over the past year to prepare to pitch James after July 1.

James has made it clear that he only wants to take a max salary of around $36 million and isn’t willing to take a pay cut — like Kevin Durant did with the Golden State Warriors last summer — to fit on a roster. It’s possible those demands could soften, but currently taking that position leaves the pool of suitors for him shallow.

The Lakers can create more than $70 million in space, it is well known, to sign James and another max-level free agent. No other team is in that position. In his past two free agencies, James joined a team with another superstar in residence, and another star came with him. Chris Bosh joined James in coming to Miami with Dwyane Wade in 2010. James joined Irving, and Kevin Love came along via trade in the 2014 offseason.

If James prioritizes competing for championships as he has in the past, bringing a star with him or having one in residence seems to be rather important. But that is a short list. Other teams that can create max space this summer include the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks. There isn’t an ideal option for James there when it comes to the creation of another superteam.

Things change rapidly in the NBA, though. Teams that don’t have cap room today could create some if they needed it or felt they could get James. The books are tighter this summer; there isn’t as much overall space as there has been in the past three offseasons. That means the cost of offloading contracts will be more expensive and harder than in seasons past.

There are still doors, and that brings other teams into play that might have elaborate plans to acquire James. The Rockets are at the head of this list. It would be a challenge for them to re-sign free agents Paul and Clint Capela and find a way to add James. But it’s not impossible, and general manager Daryl Morey is known for his scheming.

Pile it all together, and what James has is a lot of scenarios, many of them messy. Right now, there’s not a sure bet in the bunch. There’s a lot on the line; much of the league will revolve around what he does. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take thought and it might be unpleasant.

Welcome to another LeBron James free agency.