It’s not very often that the most well-known player in a particular sport becomes a free agent during his career. It’s even more rare when it happens to the same player three times. That’s where we seem to be heading in the summer of 2018 though, as LeBron James is scheduled to hit the open market. After leaving Cleveland in 2010 to join the Miami Heat (and winning two titles), James left once again in 2014, announcing that he’d be returning to Cleveland where he won the franchise their first NBA title.
James won’t exactly be a spring chicken when the major free agent class of 2018 hits the market, as he’ll be 33 years old. But with his tremendous health, he’s still a hot commodity for years to come that will get a massive contract. Where will it be, though? Most signs point to James leaving Cleveland a second time, but where he’ll end up next seems to be a bit hazy at the moment. One thing is very clear, if Cleveland doesn't do enough to make King James want to stay, then he may again take his talents elsewhere.
All 30 teams at this point are considered potential suitors, but what places make the most sense, and which are just not going to happen? Here are eight teams that LeBron James would play for, and seven that he wouldn’t.
15 Would Leave For: Philadelphia 76ers
LeBron James probably wouldn’t want to go to a team that’s in full rebuild mode, but he might be persuaded to sign with a team that’s on the verge and needs one major piece to complete “the process.” Rumours are already swirling about James headed to the 76ers, partly because they’re a team that’s one big piece away from being able to take over the Eastern Conference. LeBron James could be that piece.
Philadelphia has plenty of money to spend on James, too, with more than $41 million in practical cap space for the 2018-19 season. That’s the second highest amount in the league, and signing James still wouldn’t put them close to the luxury tax cap ceiling. Plus, the young players would grow up quick with a legend like James around them.
14 Would Never: Brooklyn Nets
While the 76ers show a lot of promise with a window that appears to be opening, there’s one team in the Eastern Conference that’s still years away and is in total rebuild mode. The allure of playing in a city like Brooklyn would be the only positive factor for James to head to the Nets, but there’s no way that it would be enough. Ownership is being changed slowly over the next few years, leaving the team’s on-court decisions in limbo.
With that said, they probably won’t be big spenders for several seasons, and they won’t have a 2018 first round pick (that could probably be the first overall) to entice James. Even if they did get James, the Nets still wouldn’t be a contender in the Eastern Conference.
13 Would leave For: Miami Heat
When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat, not many thought there would be a chance that he’d go back to Cleveland. Now that most of us have been proven wrong, we certainly can’t rule out yet another return, this time to Miami. James has already sold his mansion in Miami (for more than $13 million), but there’s no doubt that he could buy another one just as easily.
Miami is obviously a tax-friendly destination for athletes, and James certainly still likes the area as he visits quite often. Heat fans have already said that they’d welcome James back, as his departure wasn’t quite as ugly as his initial Cleveland departure. Miami would need to move some money around to get James back, but it could be done.
12 Would Never: Chicago Bulls
The only way that LeBron James would have ended up with the Chicago Bulls is if Dwyane Wade were still with the team. Unfortunately for Bulls fans, Wade left Chicago to join James for a second stint, this time with Cleveland. There were rumours back in 2010 that both of them would end up on the Bulls, but they instead decided to join forces in Miami.
Other than the fact that it’s a big city with a lot of exposure, the Bulls don’t have much to offer James right now. The team is looking at a massive overhaul right now with young players, but they don’t have the potential that teams like the 76ers or Timberwolves can offer. Plus, the front office in Chicago wouldn’t be a good fit, and it’s unlikely that members of said front office will be around long.
11 Would Leave For: Phoenix Suns
We’ve already heard the rumours of the Phoenix Suns hoping to land LeBron James because of an acquisition that they made off the court in the past offseason. The Suns named James Jones the Vice President of Basketball Operations, and Jones just happens to be one of LeBron’s closest friends. It might seem like a hail mary move to try to get LeBron into the Valley of the Sun, but it’s worth a shot.
James would also get the opportunity to play with a young star in the form of Devin Booker, as the 21 year old looks to improve on his numbers, and should average over 22 points, four assists and five rebounds per game. Going to a team that’s not among the top contenders in the Western Conference is a hard sell, but there’s a chance.
10 Would Never: Atlanta Hawks
A few years ago, Atlanta could have been a potential landing spot for LeBron James, but times have now changed. The Hawks are toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference early on in the 2017-18 season, and it doesn’t look like things are going to be getting better. Atlanta isn’t in the worst financial situation for 2018-19 with plenty of practical cap space left, but it’s hard to imagine them coughing up the money for James.
James likes spending time in Atlanta, but the prospect of playing for the Hawks isn’t intriguing enough for a player of his caliber. The Hawks would have to spend money elsewhere to get enough talent around James to make them a contender, meaning there would be a lot of convincing to do, which is highly unlikely.
9 Where He’d Go: New York Knicks
Brooklyn presents a large market opportunity with a bad team, but they aren’t a potential destination for LeBron James. So why are the Knicks more alluring with their lack of talent and functional ownership? The pure attention that he’d get from playing for one of the most popular teams in the league might be enough. Even Blake Griffin said he could see James joining the Knicks above all of the other potential suitors.
Obviously, the Knicks would have a better chance of landing James if they still had Carmelo Anthony. It’s unlikely that Anthony would also head back to New York himself, so the Knicks would have to lure in another bigtime free agent to pair with James. Assuming Kristaps Porzingis is still on the team, that might help things for the Knicks.
8 Would Never: Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets seem to be a team that could use just one or two big pieces to make them contenders in the Eastern Conference, but LeBron James won’t be one of them. Sure, the fact that the Hornets don’t have a lot of money to offer in the 2018 offseason should be enough to keep James away, there’s still one even larger factor. Of course, that factor is team owner Michael Jordan.
James has already spent his entire career in the proverbial shadow of Jordan, but this time it would be a literal shadow. James hears the comparisons between his career and Jordan’s as it is, and being in Charlotte would only add more pressure. Plus, the potential isn’t as high for the Hornets as it would be for other Eastern Conference teams.
7 Would Leave For: Los Angeles Clippers
Many rumours have said that LeBron James is likely to head to Los Angeles in the 2018 offseason. Part of it has to do with the exposure that he’d get in America’s second largest city, and part because he already owns a home there. While the favourites in the city to land James are the Lakers (more on that later), the Clippers also present an opportunity for James to play in the City of Angels.
One things that’s holding the team back, however, was a rumour from June 2017 from a source that said “I got from a very good authority...that LeBron James will never be a Clipper.” The source added “I can’t tell you who, but I’m going to tell you it’s somebody that knows.” However, the specific reasons weren’t given, so a lot of it is based purely on speculation.
6 Would Never: Oklahoma City Thunder
What would be the ultimate revenge at getting back at Kevin Durant for forming a super team with Golden State? Signing with his former team to join forces with Russell Westbrook, of course. So what could possibly prevent James from going head-to-head with Durant for the Western Conference title on a yearly basis? For starters, it just wouldn’t make financial sense, as the Thunder are already in the worst cap situation for 2018-19.
Oklahoma City is also among the least intriguing markets to play in with a very regional fan base, even if the team does draw some national attention thanks to Westbrook. Thunder fans are hopeful that they could form a big three that includes Westbrook, James and Paul George, but it simply wouldn’t make sense. It’s wishful thinking, though.
5 Would Leave For: Houston Rockets
The Oklahoma City don’t really have the finances in place to put together a super-team, so how could the Houston Rockets possibly pull it off? The Rockets after all are paying James Harden more than $30 million in the 2018-19 season, and even have Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon signed for a combined $33 million. After that, though, the Rockets have quite a bit of space to work with and will be $42.5 million under the luxury tax heading into the offseason.
The Rockets would still be able to work some moves that would get rid of Anderson and Gordon, while also slashing payroll on their bench. It would mean some very minor supporting cast members, but the starting lineup would likely include Harden, LeBron James and Chris Paul. They wouldn’t have to tap deep into the bench very often.
4 Would Never: Golden State Warriors
The old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” That’s what Kevin Durant did when he joined the Golden State Warriors, but simply put, LeBron James won’t do the same. There are some NBA fans with a pipe-dream of James joining forces with Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to form a lineup that could potentially win 80 games during a regular season, but it’s not happening.
Not only would there be way too much backlash, but the Warriors wouldn’t be able to pay James’s salary. The team is already $36.5 million over the cap and $14.5 million over the luxury tax mark for the 2018-19 season. At the very least, James can only take a minimum salary of $2.33 million, and there’s no way the league would allow it to happen.
3 Would Leave For: San Antonio Spurs
There aren’t a lot of players in the NBA that wouldn’t want to take the opportunity to play for the San Antonio Spurs. For the past two decades, the franchise has had more stability than just about any other in sports, and players gravitate toward a coach like Gregg Popovich. Popovich was even named the US Men’s National Team coach, and he’s had some very good things to say about James, and vice versa.
The two would work tremendously well together, and the only issue is getting the money to be able to sign James. Pau Gasol could be let go from his contract, which would clear up significant room, and they’d have to cut some mid-level guys in favor of lower-paid players. While it’s not the most likely destination, it would be an interesting fit that could torment the Warriors for years with Kawhi Leonard in the mix.
2 Would Never: Boston Celtics
As you probably heard this past offseason, there was a rift between Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and rumors were that Irving didn’t want to play second fiddle to LeBron James anymore. With that said, the Cavaliers shipped Irving off to Boston, teaming him up with the now-injured Gordon Hayward as the Celtics looked to compete for the Eastern Conference Championship.
That alone should tell you that James would never sign with the Celtics, as it’s highly unlikely that we’ll see him teaming up with Irving again. Even if they were to somehow patch things up, the Celtics are already spending nearly 75 percent of their 2018-19 salary on the trio of Hayward, Al Horford and Irving. We have to admit, though, it would be funny to see James take a minimum salary to team up with Irving once again to get under his skin a bit.
1 Would Leave For: Los Angeles Lakers
We alluded to it earlier, but it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the most likely destination for LeBron James is with the Los Angeles Lakers. The rumors have been running rampant for an extended period now, and it just seems to make sense. The spotlight will be there, James already has a home there, the Lakers have some young talent to surround James with, and they have the money to pull off the move.
While in their rebuild mode, the Lakers have been able to amount more than $47 million in practical cap space and $69 million in luxury tax space, both good enough for tops in the league. With rumors that the Lakers will also add other superstars to team up with James that include DeMarcus Cousins and Paul George, and it seems to be a perfect fit.