By opting out of the final year of his contract with the Cavaliers, LeBron James has opened up the free agent market, once again exhibiting total control over the NBA landscape.
Because James decided to opt out, making him an unrestricted free agent as of July 1, that limits the potential number of landing spots. The Cavaliers, because they own his Bird rights, could sign him to a one-year deal with another team option, and we could be waiting for James’s decision all over again next summer.
Or James could agree to a multiyear deal with a team with enough salary-cap space to sign him to a max contract. Only two teams have that much space without renouncing a handful of players — and that’s the 76ers, who have J.J. Redick ($23 million) and Amir Johnson ($11 million), and the Lakers, who have Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Isaiah Thomas, Corey Brewer, and Channing Frye coming off the books.
Of course, the Lakers are the sexy choice. James has a home in Los Angeles and his son, LeBron James Jr., is a budding prospect who will be entering the eighth grade in the fall. James has said he will factor his family’s opinion into his decision, as well as what he believes is the best franchise to make another run at the title.
The Lakers may be James’s best option. The franchise is in desperate need of a superstar since it’s now been two years since Kobe Bryant retired. The Lakers have tried a youth movement but it’s been arduous, and because of the Steve Nash trade six years ago, Los Angeles had to surrender its lottery pick in this year’s draft to the 76ers.
Lakers president Magic Johnson told reporters in Los Angeles that if the team doesn’t sign a premium free agent this summer or next, he will step down. The lure of playing in LA is considerable, and Johnson will also tell James about the prestige that would come with being the next great Laker and bringing the franchise back to prosperity.
This won’t be a case similar to that of Kevin Durant, who decided to join a championship-caliber team and form a super squad. James would have to work harder for a title in Los Angeles, even if the Lakers were to acquire Kawhi Leonard.
Would the Lakers trading for Leonard influence James’s decision to pick LA? Yes, it would, and the Lakers are under pressure to acquire Leonard since his group has already made it clear he would like to sign with LA when his contract expires in 2019.
The Lakers have a slew of young players and draft picks to offer San Antonio, which is in no hurry to make a deal. Spurs officials watched how the Kyrie Irving saga played out last year and how neophyte Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman made a questionable deal to move Irving to the Celtics for three players and a first-round pick. Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder didn’t last a season in Cleveland, while big man Ante Zizic remains a project.
So, if you are Spurs GM R.C. Buford, why would you make a hasty trade early in free agency to move Leonard to the Lakers unless it was a sweetheart deal? The quandary for the Lakers is, how much of their young core should they relinquish? And what hurts the Lakers is the lack of trade value for former second overall pick Lonzo Ball, who is coming off a lackluster rookie season and who has a father who hasn’t yet learned to keep quiet about his son. The Spurs want no part of Ball.
But the Lakers also have Brandon Ingram, the apparent centerpiece of any Leonard deal, along with All-Rookie swingman Kyle Kuzma, steady rookie Josh Hart, and restricted free agent and Texas native Julius Randle. The Lakers have enough assets to nab Leonard, but the Spurs may not be eager to deal Leonard to a Western Conference rival, especially if that means it could lead to the Lakers signing James.
The Cavaliers made the error of feeling helpless when Irving made his trade demand last year, and then got swindled by Danny Ainge, who had the assets and the expiring contract of Thomas to offer. The Spurs have to make sure they get the best return for Leonard, but the fact he played just nine games this past season and is only now approaching 100 percent could make teams apprehensive about making him a one-year rental.
That’s why the Lakers may be the Spurs’ best trade partner, because Leonard wants to be in Los Angeles long term. The Clippers want to get in on the Leonard sweepstakes but they don’t have enough salary-cap space, even if DeAndre Jordan opts out of his contract and becomes a free agent, as has been reported.
James apparently does not want to wait until mid-July to make his decision. He wants to make it less excruciating than he has in the past. But he does realize that if he signs with the Lakers and they don’t make any other major moves, they won’t even finish first in a division that also includes the Warriors.
For the first time with James as a free agent, there is no clear-cut destination. All of the potential landing spots have minuses. He could stay in Cleveland, but the Cavaliers are old and tired of each other. He could sign in Philadelphia, but the 76ers lack shooters and Ben Simmons can’t spread the floor. He could sign with the Lakers, but if Johnson can’t nab Leonard or Paul George, it will be LeBron and little else.
It should be a fascinating summer in the NBA, and it all will start with James’s decision. His influence on the league is unquestioned, and his decision will affect every contending team.
HE’S COME A LONG WAY
Rockets’ Harden showed his value
James Harden finally won his long-awaited MVP award, as the Rockets reached the Western Conference finals and were perhaps only a Chris Paul injury away from winning a championship.
Harden’s reputation was damaged by his disappointing performance in the 2012 NBA Finals against the Heat, but he has turned himself into one of the most unstoppable players of this generation.
“Every single year I try to get better,” said Harden, who averaged 30.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 8.8 assists this past season. “You figure different things out that didn’t work the year before and add more to your game every single summer. So being traded to having my own franchise, you have to figure out how to be a leader as a whole. So it took time, year by year by year. Just these last two years it’s probably the most comfortable that I’ve been playing the game of basketball, and I’m sure you can tell that on the court. So, we came up short a little bit this year. In the summer we train and get ready for next year and try to win it.”
Harden was criticized heavily for enjoying the South Beach nightlife too much during the 2012 Finals. Harden was known as much for his snazzy attire and bushy beard as for his game, until the last two seasons, when he showed the ability to not only score but distribute the ball and become more a team player.
That was especially apparent this season when he blended well with Paul, leading Houston to the best record in the regular season.
“My work ethic has always been there, but you know, a lot of players are in the gym just working on a lot of nothing,” Harden said. “As time goes on I’m put in certain situations throughout the course of the season. Last summer I go in the gym and I work on what needs to be worked on. I don’t just go in there to waste time. So that’s kind of been my mind-set in the summer while I’m training and carrying it over to the season. It’s every single year, it doesn’t stop. As we all know, talent gets younger and they get better, so you’ve got to be able to make sure that you’re prepared.”
The Rockets are highly unlikely to sign LeBron James unless he has a change of heart. With salary-cap limitations because of the contracts of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, the Rockets will enter next season with essentially the same team, with hopefully a healthy Paul.
“We were a half away from the Finals, so I don’t think there is a piece that we need to bring in or take away,” Harden said. “We’re great with what we have, from top to bottom, from the front office to coaching staff to players, personnel. Our main focus is just getting better, getting healthier, and doing what we do. You’ve got to realize like it’s Chris and P.J. [Tucker] and Luc [Mbah a Moute] and all those new guys, it’s their first year. Look where we got to. Imagine a little bit more time together, it can get pretty scary.”
Simmons sees big things ahead
During the season, Ben Simmons said he didn’t think he had any competition for Rookie of the Year. But he showed a bit more humility after winning the award, complimenting fellow finalists Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz and Jayson Tatum of the Celtics.
“I think it was amazing the level that Tatum and Donovan played at,” Simmons said. “I love playing against the best players, so seeing guys like that and knowing I’m going to be in competition with those guys throughout my career is, to me, really amazing. I enjoy every bit of competing against those guys and look forward to seeing them again on the court.”
The 76ers team that lost to the Celtics in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinals could be dramatically different next season if the Sixers use their cap space on a max free agent. They have enough money to sign LeBron James outright but could also acquire a couple of veterans to supplement their bench.
Philadelphia showed this past season that it is loaded with talent in Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Dario Saric. And they added Zhaire Smith and Landry Shamet on draft night. Simmons, who struggled offensively in the series against the Celtics, said patience is needed before the 76ers emerge as championship contenders.
“What pieces do we need? I think time. I think a little bit of time,” Simmons said. “We don’t have that much experience with Joel and I and some of the younger people on our team. So I think experience plays a big role. Obviously, some key pieces. Maybe that is a free agent, a big free agent who we can lean on and learn from, so we don’t really have that older, veteran guy who is a star like that.”
Challenge from the Big O
Oscar Robertson has been known to be surly, and he has every right to be. After he paved the way for free agency in the 1970s, Robertson felt ostracized by the NBA, unable to get a coaching or managerial position.
Finally, last month he received the league’s Lifetime Achievement Award, as much for fighting for the rights of players as for his accomplishments on the court.
After accepting the award, Robertson challenged a segment of athletes who have been mostly quiet on social issues. Which begged the question: What is the white athlete’s role in activism?
“I think that as people evolve and things are changing so much in the world with social media and whatnot, these people are young people who have families,” Robertson said. “They’ve seen some injustice in the streets or wherever it might be, it might be almost anywhere, and they’re stepping up. But the only thing that really bothers me is where are the white athletes when this is happening? This is not a black athlete problem. You see injustice in the world. It’s all around you. Just because LeBron steps out, I’m glad he does.”
Robertson has been critical of NBA players over the years, but he said he appreciated the political awareness of some of the league’s stars.
“I mean, what do you want players to do? Shut up and dribble?” he said. “I think it’s time for them to say what they want to say about life and about politics and things about the street. And about education. They’re a lot of players donating money back into different colleges. But it seems that what we have today is a system where you don’t want players to say anything at all. Because years ago they didn’t say anything because they couldn’t say anything. But now I hope they all, the whites and the blacks get together. Even with football. What do you think is going to happen when the union gets involved with the owners? You think it’s going to be settled really easily? No, it’s not. It’s going to be nothing but a total mess.”
As expected, the Celtics extended a qualifying offer to guard Jabari Bird, who becomes a restricted free agent and who will play for the Celtics’ summer league entry in Las Vegas. Bird can accept offer sheets from other clubs, and the Celtics have the right to match. If Bird signs the qualifying offer, he’ll return for the second year of his two-way contract and become an unrestricted free agent next summer . . . The Celtics’ addition of Brad Wanamaker, a guard from Fenerbahce of Turkey, means the end in Boston for Shane Larkin, who proved to be a reliable third guard this past season. Larkin could garner a multiyear contract on the open market as a backup. His season ended prematurely when he badly injured his left shoulder during the conference semifinal series against the 76ers, robbing the Celtics of another ballhandler against the Cavaliers . . . If there needed to be any more indication that Doc Rivers is not in charge of basketball operations for the Clippers, it was the team’s trade of his son, Austin Rivers, to the Wizards for center Marcin Gortat, who requested a trade months ago. Lawrence Frank is now calling the shots in Los Angeles and he dealt the younger Rivers, who is entering the final year of his contract, for big man relief in Gortat, who is also entering the final year of his deal. Gortat had been unhappy in Washington for the past few years and didn’t disguise it in his remarks, which included ripping the team’s bench early in the 2016-17 season and then getting into an exchange with point guard John Wall about how well the team was playing in Wall’s injury absence. Gortat is not a starter on a good team but is good enough to serve as a patchwork center in case the Clippers lose DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Austin Rivers will serve as a capable backup guard for the Wizards with the ability to score and defend. He will be playing for his third NBA team and for a chance at a long-term contract in free agency next summer. As for Doc Rivers, he signed a contract extension to continue coaching and seems as determined as ever to lead the Clippers to prosperity. Rivers did a commendable job in nearly leading the Clippers to the playoffs this past season despite all their injuries, and he may be energized by two first-round picks, including former Boston College standout Jerome Robinson.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.