We aren't even half-way through the NBA playoffs yet, and one of the biggest stories is already what the future holds for Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James. In case you didn't know, the three-time NBA Champion can opt out of his contract this summer, and will essentially get to pick his next team. Free Agency and LeBron James can only mean one thing: rampant media coverage, televised interviews, and speculation as to where he will hang his hat.
Now, we know it's extremely unlikely LeBron will join any of the bottom feeders, and it's tough to envision him joining the Golden State Warriors - who have almost no cap space. The Houston Rockets are also an option, but the cap situation will be tricky - especially if they re-sign star point guard Chris Paul. Since the true contenders can't really fit LeBron into their plans as it currently stands, perhaps LeBron could join a bubble team that could use his game-changing skill to become contenders for an NBA championship.
There are eight other NBA teams that would be legitimate championship contenders if James came aboard. There are also at least eight teams that would still come nowhere close to contending if James joined them. Let's take a look at all of those teams.
16 Contenders: Boston Celtics
Let me make this clear: The Boston Celtics are probably the last team LeBron James wants to go to, and there are many reasons why. For starters, he and Kyrie Irving certainly won't reunite; not when the latter requested a trade so that he could stop living in LeBron's shadow. That being said, LeBron going to the Celtics would instantly make Boston the top team in the NBA.
Despite injuries to key players like Irving, Marcus Smart and Gordon Hayward, coach Brad Stevens got this unit to win 55 games - the second most in the Eastern Conference.
But Boston isn't on the level of the Raptors, and they're barely above LeBron's Cavaliers and the 76ers at this time. What if James decided to make amends with Kyrie and form a big three there with Hayward? It'd be a very nice, clean path to winning at least a couple more championships, right?
15 Won't Contend: New York Knicks
For many athletes, the opportunity of playing in the Big Apple is more than enough. That's why New York sports teams always land the major superstars, but LeBron James would be foolish to even think about joining a dysfunctional Knicks team.
You would need more than two hands to count how many coaches and front office men have lost their jobs over the past five years. You only need to look at Carmelo Anthony's tenure in New York to see how much drama goes on in the organization. In short, the Knicks are a mess that will only be getting messier over time. Kristaps Porzingis is a top rising star, but he and LeBron would never be enough to make the Knicks a contender. The bench is weak, and there aren't any other young stars on the way.
14 Contenders: Toronto Raptors
The Raptors told fans that there would be a cultural reset for 2017-18, and boy did that work out just fine. Head coach Dwane Casey cut the minutes of superstars Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan. The result? Toronto had the league's best bench unit (by miles), throughout the regular season, and their 59-23 record was tops in the East. Toronto has so much to offer LeBron James, and he should seriously think about coming to the Great White North.
He's mentioned how much he loves playing here and how great the fans are, so why not join the Raptors?
Lowry and DeRozan give him two major superstars to work with, while Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas form a dangerous tandem in the front court. And with the best bench in basketball, LeBron would get to play lesser minutes and stay fresh for longer periods of time. Going to Toronto would make the Raptors an annual lock to win the Eastern Conference. It's just a matter of whether or not LeBron would really leave the country where he's become such a major icon.
13 Won't Contend: Utah Jazz
The Jazz deserve plenty of credit for being able to squeeze out 48 wins and make the playoffs, considering they lost superstar Gordon Hayward (he signed with the Boston Celtics), and point guard George Hill (now with the Cleveland Cavaliers), in free agency.
But NBA superstars never sign with the Jazz, even though Salt Lake City is quite beautiful. Perhaps it has something to do with the franchise not being a championship contender since the Karl Malone-John Stockton days. Utah has a couple of studs in Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio, but they don't quite stack up to the talent level of past LeBron sidekicks, including Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving and Chris Bosh. This also comes down to the Jazz being in the West. LeBron can't sign with a team that's good, but not great. Unless the Jazz can somehow recruit another superstar (they won't), there's no hope of landing LeBron.
12 Contenders: New Orleans Pelicans
Despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to injury for the season, Anthony Davis went on a tear and guided the Pelicans to the postseason with a 48-34 record. With Cousins set to enter free agency, New Orleans will have the cap space to make a serious push for LeBron, and why not go for it? Davis is a world class star in his own, but Jrue Holliday is also a very serviceable point guard who can give LeBron the ball. James would be joining a team with so much youthful talent, which gives him plenty of time to win a championship.
Davis is one of the most dominant big men in basketball, whereas LeBron is still the NBA's best player. These two would form an unstoppable front court pairing, and the Pelicans would instantly be as good as the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets. They'd arguably be the team to beat if LeBron headed to New Orleans.
11 Won't Contend: Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls were one of the early favourites to land LeBron during 2010 free agency, before he opted to join the Miami Heat. Perhaps the idea of following Michael Jordan's footsteps to form a new dynasty in Chicago may be intriguing to LeBron, but he has to stay as far away as possible. Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn round a nice young trio, and it's possible that entices LeBron to join the Windy City - a long-time rival to his Cleveland Cavaliers. But if LeBron were smart, he would hang up any phone call he gets from the Bulls.
This team has so many flaws all over the roster. The bench doesn't have any significant contributors, the star power is lacking and there aren't any superstars who can help LeBron win another championship. Even though Chicago is always an intriguing city for athletes, it'd be best for King James to look elsewhere.
10 Contenders: Washington Wizards
Because of an injury to John Wall, the Wizards underperformed and locked up the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference this season. But when Wall is healthy, the Wizards are a top-flight team, led also by Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. There's a trio of talented players there, and Washington can entice LeBron without a doubt.
The Wizards were the fourth-best team in the East last season, and there's no reason to think they can't challenge for the top seed next year if Wall, Beal and Porter stay healthy. Washington has two dynamic scorers and a good role player, and it's the type of roster LeBron needs to win a championship. Washington has never been mentioned as a realistic contender for LeBron, but they really have the All-Star roster in which he should consider joining.
9 Won't Contend: Charlotte Hornets
The Hornets have a star point guard in Kemba Walker, but this team has missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons. How in the world would they be able to recruit LeBron to their team? The only hope is if owner Michael Jordan (the GOAT of basketball), can find a way to recruit King James to his team. But the Hornets have never been an attractive destination for start players (see Kobe Bryant at 1996 NBA Draft), and you can't possibly think LeBron will be enticed to come to North Carolina.
Charlotte will have to continue in trying to rebuild their team through the draft, because LeBron isn't coming here. Unless MJ goes in a time machine, transfers his 1998 version of himself to present time and recruits LeBron, there's no reason for James to play for the Hornets.
8 Contenders: Oklahoma City Thunder
Looking to get reigning MVP Russell Westbrook some support, the Thunder acquired two-way star Paul George and future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony in separate trades. Problem is, PG13 could very well wind up with the Lakers, and Melo hasn't exactly cut it in OKC. But the Thunder are an annual playoff team, and there may be no finer match (on paper, at least), in basketball than LeBron and Westbrook.
Put the NBA's best player with one of the league's most electrifying players in Westbrook, and you have a true NBA Championship contender.
Oh, and if LeBron opts to join the Thunder, you think George will want to leave? Didn't think so. And that Steven Adams guy is quite a role player. Oh, how LeBron should totally come to the Thunder and make some noise.
7 Won't Contend: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets lost a win-or-go-home game on the final day of the season against the Minnesota Timberwolves, and thus failed to make the playoffs. But with 46 wins and a talented core consisting of Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap, the Nuggets are bringing plenty of long-term optimism to the Mile High City. But don't think for a moment that they'll become a contender if LeBron chooses to come aboard. Bringing in James means the offence relies less on Jokic, who had 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game.
Millsap, Harris and Jamal Murray are key role players, but not exactly superstars that will help LeBron win another championship. We all know James would take a risk in coming to the stacked Western Conference, but why make a bad decision and join a middle-of-the-pack Denver team? There are better options.
6 Contenders: Los Angeles Lakers
There have been widespread rumours about LeBron going to the Lakers, and for good reason. For one, he did just buy a $23 million mansion in Brentwood, and The King has plenty of business expenditures there. Throw in the young talent that consists of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Julius Randle, and it's hard not to be excited about what's brewing in Laker Land.
Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George also seems destined to join the Lakers when he's a free agent this summer, so LeBron would already have one major superstar to work with. With Ball and Randle also young and just entering their primes, James wouldn't have such a heavy workload as he approaches age 34. The Lakers are building up a team that will be contending for championships over the next five-to-10 years. Why wouldn't LeBron want to go join them?
5 Won't Contend: Miami Heat
If Dwyane Wade decides to delay father time and play another season for the Miami Heat, some may start to think King James should go back to South Beach for a second stint. That would be quite the Hollywood drama story, but there's also no realistic chance of it happening.
Yes, Miami was able to win 44 games and finish sixth in the Eastern Conference. No, they do not present LeBron a chance to win more rings. Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia are simply better teams. Why would LeBron want to join Miami when he has three powerhouses to get through in the East? Goran Dragic is a superstar, but the Heat otherwise rely on other role players to carry the offence. This includes Dion Waiters and Josh Richardson, and rebound wiz Hassan Whiteside looks destined to get trades this summer. Miami is probably the fourth best team in the East if LeBron joins them, and they certainly don't stack up well against the Rockets or Warriors. That's why Miami fans can only dream on about having The King return to their beautiful city.
4 Contenders: San Antonio Spurs
Assuming the San Antonio Spurs can resolve the apparent drama surrounding Kawhi Leonard, they'll return to championship contender status in 2018-19. And why wouldn't LeBron James want to join the Spurs? They're the model of consistency, having won five NBA Championships since 1999, and they just made the playoffs for the 21st consecutive season. The Spurs managed to win 47 games and qualify for the playoffs in a very stacked Western Conference, and that was without Leonard for almost the whole season. Consider it the magic of head coach, Gregg Popovich.
LeBron and Popovich have mutual admiration and respect for each other, and we're sure the Spurs legendary coach can offer quite the pitch for The King to come aboard. He, Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge would form one scary big three. Patty Mills and Pau Gasol also provide sufficient roster depth. If LeBron goes to the Spurs, they arguably outshine the Rockets and Warriors. But again, the challenge is if The King decides to move over to a stacked Western Conference.
3 Won't Contend: Los Angeles Clippers
Rumours have been floating for a while that LeBron James would love to go to Los Angeles, and the Clippers (not just the Lakers), could be an option. But even if James makes a shocking decision to join the Clippers in L.A., he is not making them a championship contender.
The Clippers stand to lose defensive stalwart DeAndre Jordan this offseason.
He could either sign elsewhere as a free agent or he could be part of a major sign-and-trade move. L.A. looks ready for a rebuild, as evidenced by the Chris Paul and Blake Griffin trades over the past calendar year. Head coach Doc Rivers could also leave the team, and that would immediately give LeBron zero reason to be attracted to the Clippers. Lou Williams is a major stud, but the team doesn't have much more to offer. No way LeBron should go to the Clippers, unless he wants to stop winning championships for whatever reason.
2 Contenders: Philadelphia 76ers
Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer reported in March that the 76ers, Rockets, Lakers and Cavaliers are the four teams on LeBron's short list of preferred destinations. And for many reasons, the 76ers are LeBron's best option. Though joining James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston sounds intriguing and all, LeBron should prefer to stay in the East - where he'll avoid annual threats like the Warriors, Spurs, Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers and others.
The 76ers were the NBA's third-best team in the regular season, thanks to the talents of young stars Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Markelle Fultz. This team is built to be the NBA's best over the next five-to-seven years, and it's not even close. LeBron would join a team that would already contend without him anyway. The 76ers would give him a nice championship window of at least five years, and he'd also have much less of a workload to shoulder. And did we mention joining the 76ers will give him an easy path to the Finals every year? Really, what's stopping LeBron from joining Philadelphia? He has to trust the process of going to the City of Brotherly Love, where he can easily win at least two more championships. There's no question that Philadelphia is his best option.
1 Won't Contend: Detroit Pistons
The Pistons own one of the NBA's top front courts in Blake Griffin and perennial rebounding leader, Andre Drummond. The idea of LeBron James joining those two is quite a fantasy for the Motor City, but the Pistons gutted their roster depth to land Griffin from the Clippers in their blockbuster trade. And what's why LeBron should avoid going to Detroit. They don't offer much outside of Griffin and Drummond, and the latter is used more as a defensive player/rebounder than a scorer. James simply needs a couple of dynamic scorers if he wants to win another championship.
Detroit is far from ready to contend for championships, and they don't have many assets to trade for another star. LeBron has limited options when it comes to a good landing spot, and the Pistons aren't one of them. If he goes there, he can say good-bye to the chances of winning more titles.