The Golden State Warriors are champions, the draft is over, and another Summer of LeBron has officially begun. LeBron James, with his eight consecutive NBA Finals trips in the balance, will decide to either join a new team -- the Los Angeles Lakers seem most likely -- or stay with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yet while they're not the frontrunner, the Houston Rockets are, as currently constructed, the team that gives him the best chance of beating the Warriors, who have knocked James off easily to end two consecutive seasons. If LeBron is going to consider Houston, you'll likely know it by Friday, June 29, which is his deadline to decide on the player option for the final year of his contract.
James likely must decline free agency -- taking a $35.6 million salary for next season -- to go to the Rockets as part of a trade. That is exactly what Chris Paul did last season, and it would allow Houston to figure out how to work around a loaded salary cap sheet that would be difficult to work around in free agency. Here's a quick look at their guaranteed salaries for next year, with information via BasketballInsiders.com:
Total cap holds
- (Notes: Minimum-salary cap holds and non-guaranteed contracts were not counted. Capela could sign his qualifying offer for $4.75 million instead of counting as a $7 million cap hold, but that would be highly unlikely.)
The NBA salary cap next year is projected at $101 million. That means that even renouncing every free agent's cap hold -- these are used to protect a team's ability to re-sign the player while also keeping them on the team's cap until it's done -- would not put the Rockets in position to give LeBron a max contract (about $35.4 million). Moreover, there's little chance James would want to sign with Houston if Paul, his longtime friend and fellow superstar, were not part of the team.
In theory, the Rockets could get someone to take on the $42 million Ryan Anderson is owed over the next two years, perhaps by attaching a bunch of first-round picks to the deal. Maybe they would give away Eric Gordon, as well. That is how the Warriors managed to sign Andre Iguodala in 2014 and how the Lakers managed to clear enough cap space for two max free agents this offseason. Then the Rockets would have to get Paul to take a massive discount -- unlikely, as he is president of the players union and negotiated the current salary structure.
And after all that, if their cap somehow were within range of James' asking price having had two key players accept big discounts and giving away a bunch of draft picks to shed salary, they would have to let Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza and Tarik Black walk and have basically no bench.
That's the best-case scenario, if everything were to work out. It won't.
After all, if LeBron were to choose Houston, he would be coming to play with a 65-win team that was one win from the NBA Finals, not a trimmed-down roster minus one of the best big men in the league in Capela and a very valuable wing defender and shooter in Ariza. The reason Houston came so close to beating Golden State was its long, athletic defense capable of switching onto all of the Warriors' shooters while still protecting the rim. Capela and Ariza were at the core of that unit.
So, an opt-in and trade, it will have to be. If you're not a salary cap expert (join the club), this basically means LeBron signs up with the Cavs for the final year of his deal. From there, the Rockets do the same in re-signing Paul, Capela and hopefully Ariza before putting together a package of players that make enough money to match LeBron's salary within the required range of latitude, and also that Cleveland would want in return.
As ESPN's Kevin Pelton laid out a few weeks back, Houston could get to that magic number of $28.4 million without having to unload Anderson:
The Rockets would be required to send out at least $28.4 million in matching salary after the end of the July moratorium, and a package of Eric Gordon, Aaron Jackson, Nene, Chinanu Onuaku, PJ Tucker and Zhou Qi would add up to $29.4 million. (Houston would have to guarantee the 2018-19 salaries of Jackson and Zhou first, because otherwise their salaries would not count for trade purposes.)
Losing Gordon and Tucker would hurt, but you're adding LeBron to a core of Harden, Paul, Capela and Ariza. Houston would do this is a hot second. The question is: Would the Cavs? Frankly, they wouldn't have much of a choice. The only way LeBron is opting in is if he's facilitating a deal like this, meaning he's not staying with the Cavs, meaning anything Cleveland gets is better than losing him for nothing. The Rockets would probably add in a future first-round pick or two, and the Cavs could turn around and flip Tucker and Gordon (both of whom are on attractive contracts) for future draft picks as well, setting their post-LeBron rebuild in motion behind this year's No. 8 pick Collin Sexton.
If you're the Cavs, unless LeBron decides to come back, you're secretly hoping he chooses a team like Houston for a sign-and-trade because losing him for nothing is going to sting a hundred times worse.
Look at what the Clippers got back when Paul opted in last summer so he could be dealt to Houston: Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and a future first-round pick. Or look at what the Cavs got in 2010, when James left the first time: two first-rounders and two second-rounders that they used to allow other trades. That's a whole lot better than a Dear John letter, as the Miami Heat can tell you about their experience losing LeBron.
But the Rockets shouldn't be ruled out. Again, they can offer a ready-made championship team and have a path, however tricky, to clearing the money necessary to bring LeBron aboard.
If Houston is going to come from the back of the pack to pull off a summer stunner, a lot of things will have to happen. But first, LeBron has to opt in with Cleveland, and he has to do that by June 29. That's the date to watch. If that date passes and LeBron hasn't opted in, which is to say he's still on the market, then you can, in all likelihood, rule out Houston and probably the Cavs (more than likely if he returns to Cleveland it will be via the opt-in rather than opting out and re-signing as a free agent for probably less money than he's already making).
This would turn all attention to the Lakers and potentially the Sixers, who could renounce all their free agents and then trade a package including Markelle Fultz (or Robert Covington) attached with Jerryd Bayless, without taking much money back, and feasibly get far enough under the cap to sign LeBron as a free agent.
But let's take this one possibility at a time, shall we?