LeBron James has been bigger than the game, a cultural artifact for discussion, dissection and discernment for six years through triumph, misery, and wait, did he have a cartoon show? In advance of LeBron’s second big decision, we wanted to weigh in with our writers’ thoughts on the different worlds this moment in time touches and how honestly weird this entire process is — because the four most powerful words in the NBA are “LeBron James free agency.” Enjoy. – Ed.
Busy imagining what other NBA supernovas LeBron should team up with?
A triumvirate with Stephen Curry and Kevin Love in Golden State? An nonstop commercial-producing duo with Chris Paul in Los Angeles? Joining forces with Kobe Bryant because NBA free agents are uncontrollably seduced by the legacy vibes that waft out of the purple and gold championship banners? Back with the good ol’ gang in Miami?
Eh, nope. As overpowering as the Miami Heat were over the last four seasons, it appears that even an alignment as powerful as these three Hall of Famers doesn’t have a shelf life of much longer than that. Would you like to pay Dwyane Wade, of the 54 games played this regular season, $21.6M in 2015-16? Right now it’s easier to imagine Wade’s player options looking less like a championship ingredient and more like a toxic asset.
If LeBron really does want to win “Not one, not two, not three…”, the correct solution is to sign with one of the NBA’s more balanced rosters. Instead of crowding out valuable role players with hefty deals to multiple stars, what if LeBron was the unquestioned crown jewel of a team that also had nine other pieces of a respectable ten-man rotation? That’s something we’ve never seen before. A bright general manager should, in theory, be more important to LeBron than the number of All-Star appearances that surround him in the locker room.
No, these five possibilities won’t actually happen. But they are fun to imagine — and, truly, could be the type of destination that would maximize LeBron’s career number of wins and rings.
1. Atlanta Hawks
In their first season under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks instituted a manic five-man three-point barrage that earned them a playoff birth even though their best player, Al Horford, was healthy for only 29 early-season games. The ball really zips around Atlanta’s half-court sets — they were second in the league in assists — and having capable three-point shooters at power forward and center means that the key will be nice and clear for LeBron to drive into, with instant kick-outs punishing any opponent who dares double-team.
Last summer, General Manager Danny Ferry showed a knack for finding valuable starters on the cheap, signing Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll to two-year deals with total values way below the players’ true value ($19M and $4.5M, respectively). These are exactly the type of contracts that will be necessary for any GM to secure when LeBron is commanding so much cap space.
2. Toronto Raptors
It seems like way more than a year ago that Masai Ujiri was declared Executive of the Year. Ujiri’s 57-win Denver Nuggets team was notably devoid of superstar players, a team led by zero-time All-Star Ty Lawson. Ujiri’s twelve months as General Manager of the Toronto Raptors have been just as breathtaking. The highlights include swapping the bloated contracts of the inefficient Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay in exchange for the better part of a multidimensional bench unit. The roster that Ujiri built went 48-34 even though all of his transactions were perceived to be motions towards rebuilding instead of striving for playoff contention.
If Ujiri did have a true superstar on his team, his preternatural ability to find resourceful role players where everybody else sees underwhelming names would make for an instant championship contender.
3. Phoenix Suns
Honestly: is the future brighter for any NBA team? The Suns won 48 games last year with a $53M salary — $14.4M of which was paid to the injured Emeka Okafor. For the price of a tanking team at well below the salary floor, the Suns would have tied for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. What’s more: the Suns have three first-round picks not only in this draft, but in next year’s draft as well! If he joined Phoenix, LeBron would be on a team primed to contend in both the present and the future.
4. Philadelphia 76ers
If I were LeBron I would at the very least want a meeting with Brett Brown and Sam Hinkie in an attempt to understand the methods that went into last season’s madness. The Sixers’ torrential losing in 2013-14 appeared to be, more than anything, undoing the mistakes of the previous generation, a necessary step to take for the Sixers to become a future contender. A season or two at 30-40 wins would be a small price to see LeBron at the helm of the league’s youngest and fastest team. With his imaginative and forward-thinking trades — see Jrue Holiday for Nerlens Noel and a lottery pick — Hinkie is a prolific dealmaker who would find the right complimentary players if his rebuilding process got accelerated with the addition of LeBron. Being at the forefront of the analytics movement sounds a lot more appealing than being surrounding by as many 15-year vets as possible.
5. San Antonio Spurs
As ESPN’s Amin Elhassan has pointed out (Insider article), if LeBron joined the dark side, it would be a clear signal that James’ primary goal is winning. Putting James on the Spurs would be, from the jump, an immediate contender to be one of the very best basketball teams of all time. While the Spurs usually don’t waste their time even considering most of the league’s superstars, in LeBron they would be getting a player who is already a more prolific passer than anybody on their 2014 championship roster. What’s more, mastermind coach Gregg Popovich would not be afraid to play LeBron less than 30 minutes a game, or give LeBron rest 5-10 nights a year — precautionary measures that would surely elongate James’ already very-durable career.
Joining the Spurs means that LeBron would be passing up significant opportunities in his off-court earnings. I wouldn’t begrudge him one iota if he’s never considered joining the club exclusively for this reason.
But oh my, if LeBron did join the Spurs? The 2013-14 iteration of the club was already one of the most beautiful and smart and successful teams in recent memory. And if the best player in the world joined the team? Well, I wouldn’t be alone in picking the Spurs over the field from here on out.