This summer, just like 2010 and 2014, much of the NBA’s major free agent movement hinges on where LeBron James decides to take his talents.
The Lakers and Cavaliers have sufficient salary-cap space to sign James as a free agent. Those are probably the most attractive landing spots for James, who has been spotted checking out schools for his children in Southern California and calls Northeast Ohio home.
The Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and San Antonio Spurs also could sign James if, as expected, he decides to opt out of his contract for next season with the Cavaliers and becomes a free agent. But there are so many moving parts it would seem unlikely their bids could succeed.
Accepting his option for next season opens many more scenarios via sign-and-trade deals.
How’s that for a bottom line?
After so much speculation about his future, after all the chatter, James’ franchise-altering decision is nearly at hand. The first step would be the four-time league MVP, who is vacationing in the Carribean, declining his $35.6-million option with the Cavaliers before Friday’s deadline at 8:59 p.m. PT and becoming an unrestricted free agent Saturday at 9:01 p.m. PT
Questions about his destination could hinge on whether James would go to the Lakers if, and only if, they could add other top-tier free agents such as Paul George of the Oklahoma City Thunder and whether they could acquire Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs in a trade.
Or perhaps James would be content to come to the Lakers and play with a core group of young players that includes Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma. Maybe then the Lakers could also re-sign Julius Randle, who will be a restricted free agent.
Plus, the Lakers have roughly $60 million in cap space, making it easier to sign two players to max deals. They wouldn’t need to alter their roster significantly in order to sign James (about $35 million for next season) and George ($30 million) to max deals.
The Cavaliers have an advantage over the Lakers, Rockets, 76ers and Spurs because they maintain James’ so-called Bird rights and can sign him for a max deal of $207.4 million over five years and they’re allowed to go over the salary cap.
However, if the Cavaliers re-sign James, they’ll be hard-pressed to upgrade their roster through free agency. They have only the standard $5.3-million salary-cap exception plus a $5.8-million trade exception to work with in free agency. Cleveland would have to add players through trades, but the Cavaliers don’t have a lot of young assets.
Houston, Philadelphia and San Antonio would have to clear salary-cap space in order to sign James, and it could get complicated for each team. For the Rockets, it would mean they could not re-sign free agents Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela without asking them to take pay cuts they would be unlikely to accept, for instance.
Here’s more of what we do know as free agency nears:
Friday: Players have until 8:59 p.m. PT to decide to opt in or opt out of next year’s contracts. James, George, the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan, the New York Knicks’ Enes Kanter and others with player options for their 2018-19 contracts must make their decisions known by this deadline.
Saturday: This is the last day for teams to extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents. The Lakers have already made a $5.6-million qualifying offer to Randle, making him a restricted free agent.
The free-agent negotiating period begins at 9:01 p.m. PT Teams and free agents can begin talks officially. Players can announce where they intend to sign or where they have been traded, but contracts cannot be made official until the moratorium ends later next week.
Wednesday: James’ unofficial deadline to have his status resolved.
July 6: Moratorium ends at 9 a.m. PT, with free agents able to sign contracts and trades to be completed. Once a restricted free agent such as Randle signs an offer sheet with another team, the Lakers will have 48 hours to decide whether to match it and retain him.
Aug. 31: This is the last day to waive players and apply the stretch provision to their contracts. For instance, the Lakers could waive Luol Deng and stretch his contract, creating more cap flexibility. Deng is owed $36.8 million over the next two seasons, starting at $18 million in 2018-19. The Lakers can stretch him out to $7.4 million over five years, which would open $9.8 million in additional cap space immediately.
TEAMS WITH SPACE
The Lakers ($60 million-plus) have the most space of all 30 teams, the only one capable of signing James to a max deal without needing to clear additional room. In fact, the Lakers could sign James and George to max deals with only a minimum of movement.
Indiana ($33 million), Philadelphia ($30 million), Chicago ($27 million), Dallas ($26 million) and Utah ($24 million) are the only other teams that can come close to having the same cap space as the Lakers – and they would have to make moves to clear additional room to sign James.
The Clippers don’t have sufficient cap space this summer, but are targeting 2019, when they’re expected to have roughly $50 million available and will use it for a free-agent spending spree on a class that’s projected to be deeper and more talented than this one, with the exception of James, of course.
Staying put has its advantages in terms of more money and more years for players who re-sign with their old clubs. James, George (five years, $176 million) and Leonard (five years, $219 million) can get longer, more lucrative contracts if they re-sign instead of making deals elsewhere.
For example, the Lakers cannot offer George a deal richer than four years and $130 million. If he wants to come home to Southern California, he’d have to leave a lot of guaranteed money on the table. Of course, George could elect to sign a “one-plus one” deal this summer and return to free agency next summer to recoup some of that.
Leonard has one year and $20 million left on his current contract with the Spurs as well as a $21 million player option for the 2019-20 season, one he is unlikely to take no matter where he is playing. Leonard can only get the $219 million “super max” offer from the Spurs, who can offer him that contract any time after July 1. He can’t get that deal with any other team, no matter if he’s traded or decides to sign elsewhere in free agency next summer.
If Leonard is traded this summer and re-signs in 2019, he would be eligible for a five-year, $188 million deal. If he stays in San Antonio this year then leaves next summer, he’d be eligible for a four-year, $139 million contract.
THE BIG THREE SCENARIO
Timing is the biggest challenge to the Lakers ending up with LeBron, Leonard and George this summer. Any trade they make for a high-paid veteran like Leonard needs to be done before they sign free agents because otherwise they’d already have stretched and waived Deng and be unable to include him as matching salary in a trade.
Assuming the cap comes in as projected at $101 million and both James and George sign for the full max, any realistic trade for Leonard (imagine surrendering two of three from Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma plus Deng) would leave the Lakers with just seven players under contract: their new big three, the remaining player from the Ball-Ingram-Kuzma trio, Josh Hart and this year’s draft picks (Moe Wagner and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk).
The Lakers would then have to fill out their roster with only the room mid-level exception (projected at $4.4 million) to offer free agents more than the veterans’ minimum.
In their best-case scenario, the one Lakersland has been dreaming about for weeks, months and years, that Big Three scenario comes to fruition and the Lakers return to their status as an elite team. In the worst-case scenario, the Lakers add no one of significance and they lose Randle, too.
In their best-case scenario, the Clippers’ management team of Jerry West and Lawrence Frank makes magic happen with stunning deals that land them James and Leonard and they return to elite status. In the worst-case scenario, well, there really isn’t one. The Clippers are focused on 2019.
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