Royal Succession

Where Free Agent LeBron James Will Take His Talents Next

Play with Kobe? Return to Cleveland? Redeem the Clippers? Ranking the possibilities for the king of basketball.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE, via Getty

As first reported by ESPN’s Chris Broussard, LeBron James has exercised the early termination option in his contract, and as such is a free agent, though, “opting out does not mean James has decided to leave the Heat.”

Of course, the mere mention of LeBron James has caused the salivary glands of NBA general managers and fans to start working overdrive.

Should he decide that he’s “Taking his Talents to [Insert Team],” there are a number of attractive metropolitan hotspots that would gladly welcome the best basketball player in the world.

Let’s take a look at his options and talk a little bit in order of the likelihood that he’ll be wearing their jersey during the 2014-15 NBA Season.

The New York Knicks

Well if...okay, all they have to do is...I mean...yeah, they’ve got zero chance. As a Knicks fan, I feel obliged to mention them, but...this is getting depressing. Let’s move on to...

The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers

You almost have to consider the former because, well, they’re the Lakers and NBA stars—from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard—inevitably seem to find their way there. They have space under the cap to sign LeBron outright, but the idea of playing in Kobe Byrant’s town for Kobe’s team, one that’s utterly devoid of assets, seems highly unlikely.

The Clippers, on the other hand are loaded. As soon as the courts are through with Donald Sterling, they’ll have an owner in former Microsoft head honcho Steve Ballmer that’s more than ready to spend whatever it takes to win a title. Oh, and a couple of guys named Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are pretty good too. The problem is, they’d have to trade a lot of guys and get nothing back in return as they’re already $10 million over the salary cap. They could certainly try to engage the Heat in a sign and trade, with the aforementioned Griffin being a definite conversation starter, but that’s assuming that Miami would be willing to aid LeBron’s departure. Were he to say something to the effect of, “I want to be a Clipper. Period,” then they become a serious player.

That said, he’d still have to make his way through a brutal Western Conference playoffs and go toe-to-toe with the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, and even lesser contenders like the Warriors, Rockets, Grizzles, and Trail Blazers. That’s a brutal path, even for a player of LeBron’s otherworldly gifts. There’s a much more friendly road to travail out East, which brings us to...

The Chicago Bulls

It would definitely require a bit of maneuvering to whittle away enough room, but the Bulls’ core—a (hopefully) recovering Derrick Rose, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Joakim Noah, a bruising power forward in Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler a talented wing with upside—would become the instant favorites to represent the Eastern Conference should LeBron head to the City of the Big Shoulders. To be clear, if you added LeBron to any team in the watered-down East, Vegas’ odds would go through the roof.

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So how do they get there? Well, they’d first have to amnesty the final year of Carlos Boozer’s $16 million dollar contract. Then they’d have to use the two first round picks in this year’s draft to get rid of Mike Dunleavy and Gibson while taking on zero salary in return. That would leave them with enough space to offer LeBron a contract starting at $22.5 million a year. Alternately, LeBron could keep Gibson, and start at around $17.8 million. Given that LeBron just netted $30 million in Apple’s purchase of Beats by Dre, he can probably afford to take a haircut if it means building a stronger team.

And given the chance to work with a brilliant defensive mind in head coach Tom Thibodeau this has to be an attractive destination. Of course, joining a squad in the Midwest would be and absolute Eff You to...

The Cleveland Cavaliers

They’ve got cap space galore, a star point guard in Kyrie Irving that can alleviate some of LeBron’s ball-handling and distributing responsibilities, the first overall pick in this year’s loaded draft to either land a top prospect like Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins (whichever sends a tingle up LeBron’s spine) or trade for established veterans, and talented players with upside like Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and even Anthony Bennett.

If that wasn’t enough, the allure of returning to his hometown team and righting any wrong or recovering the goodwill he lost back in 2010 during his ill-considered televised divorce is definitely there.

Of course, like any divorce, his ex didn’t exactly send him packing with sunshine and lollipops. Fans burned his uniform in the streets, owner Dan Gilbert fired off a bitter, weird open letter (in Comic Sans, no less) screeching in all-caps, decrying his character, declaring that the Cavs would win a title before LeBron ever did and possibly even “My mother always said you were no good for me. I can do better!” (Sob, sob.)

That’s an ocean of water to put under the bridge. Nostalgic pangs aside, it would also be a semi-admittance by LeBron that he made a mistake way back when.

Sorry Ohioans, but this just feels like so much Charlie Brown, Lucy and that damned football. Get your hopes up if you so desire, but it’ll only be worse when LeBron once again finds himself playing with...

The Miami Heat

Spoiler alert: the move by LeBron to opt out shouldn’t be seen as a serious indicator that he plans on abandoning South Beach.

He’s in the final option year of the five-year contract that he inked back in 2010. Fellow members of Miami’s big three, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, have the same choice. If all three void that final year, the only players still on the ledger would be backup guard Norris Cole, Chris Anderson, and a team option on Justin Hamilton. (Who? Exactly.)

But if they’re willing to once again take a pay cut, this definitely allows Miami to be able to add pieces to what was revealed to be a flawed, shallow roster that’s in need of an upgrade. The San Antonio Spurs pummeled their weaknesses at point guard, with Mario Chalmers in particular having a miserable finals, and exposed Miami’s lack of athleticism on the wings, where Shane Battier’s precipitous decline and the absence of Mike Miller opened up a floodgate of wide open threes and darts to the rim. Adding a rim protector aside from the 36-year-old Birdman would certainly be nice too.

As Yahoo Sports Adrian Wojnarowski said soon after ESPN’s report:

And if they were willing to start at around $14 million a year, there’s even the slim possibility that the dark master, Pat Riley is plotting an even more audacious, reality-warping ploy: adding Carmelo Anthony, who declared for free agency on Monday.

Again, as a Knicks fan, that’s just too frightening a concept to imagine. But for the next few weeks, as we prepare for The Decision II: The Decisioning, all eyes are going to be on LeBron. Where he goes will have a dramatic effect on the team-building strategies of every other team in the league, and will eventually set off a flurry of moves and countermoves that could rewrite the landscape of the NBA for years to come.

It’s nerve wracking and potentially heartbreak- and panic-inducing, especially for the teams listed above, but if nothing else, it’s going to be entertaining as hell.