LeBron free agency 2018: Strongest case for each NBA team on James' reported list

On Thursday, Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer put out a terrific story about the potential end of the Spurs' dynasty that you should read when you have a few minutes. As will happen on the internet, a paragraph way down at the end of the story -- the third-to-last paragraph to be exact -- wound up getting as much attention as the story itself, probably more, because it involved LeBron James and where he may, or may not, end up signing as a free agent this summer. From O'Connor

There have been whispers, mostly on social media, about whether LeBron James would consider the Spurs because of the mutual respect between James and Popovich, now the coach of the U.S. men's national basketball team. But I've consistently heard from multiple league sources that LeBron currently has only four teams on his list: the Cavaliers, Lakers, Rockets, and 76ers.

It's not the first time we've heard these teams connected to James. Heck, the Sixers and Lakers are already putting up billboards trying to lure LeBron. They all make varying degrees of sense, albeit for different reasons, but in the end LeBron will be entering his 16th season in 2018-19 and he's most likely going to go where he thinks he'll win another title, if not a few more, right away. Through that lens, let's look at a brief overview of what each of these teams can offer LeBron.

Cleveland Cavaliers

At this point, Cleveland really only has two cards it can play in the LeBron sweepstakes. One is the hometown factor, which nobody else can compete with. But let's be honest: That doesn't feel like it's going to carry much weight when it comes down to it. The second, and probably the most influential card Cleveland can play is the unprotected 2018 Brooklyn Nets first-round pick it brought back from Boston in the Kyrie Irving trade. 

Entering Thursday, the Nets are tied with four other teams for the third-worst record in the league, which means that pick could still end up in a fairly wide range of spots. Let's say somehow it lands in the top three at best. Prior to the draft, that would have a lot of value, and the Cavs could theoretically use it to make a deal for a win-now player to put alongside LeBron and whatever would remains of this new core the Cavs traded for at this year's deadline. Maybe DeAndre Jordan. Maybe Marc Gasol

The Cavs can't get into the free agency race because they just have way too much money on the books, but trades are doable. Perhaps Paul George, if he were motivated enough, would opt in with the Thunder and then accept a trade to the Cavs. If you're the Thunder, and you're going to lose George anyway, you'd love to get back that Brooklyn pick and Kevin Love, for instance. 

This is all very blue-sky stuff for the Cavs. 

Don't bet a lot on any of it happening. 

Philadelphia 76ers

So this one seems pretty simple, yes? Come to Philadelphia, LeBron, and you get to play alongside the most talented young core in the game in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. There are basically no cap concerns. The Sixers would have to move a few small pieces and likely not re-sign JJ Redick to bring on LeBron at his full price, but this is very doable. If LeBron wants to be there, it's getting done. 

LeBron and Simmons are actually pretty similar players. Both are gigantic guys who basically run the point and make everyone around them better, so Simmons' inability to play off the ball as a horrific shooter would complicate things somewhat from a basketball standpoint. 

But if you're Philly, you're pitching straight talent. And more than that, young talent that could, perhaps, with LeBron's still otherworldly talent on board, turn into a multiple-championship situation over the next three or four years. LeBron has said the only thing he's chasing now is the ghost of Michael Jordan. To me, James is already the best player in NBA history, but for a lot of people, he needs not just one more, but two more championships at least, which would give him a total of five, to be talked about in the same breath as Jordan. 

Philly's title window won't be closing any time soon. 

Defensively, the Sixers are already a top-five team with Simmons and Embiid the head of the snake. From a financial standpoint, if Philly could find a way to keep some of the shooting it has acquired in order to keep the floor spaced for LeBron and Simmons to create, man, it's pretty difficult to imagine trying to deal with that team on either end. 

Finally, there's the leadership factor. At All-Star Weekend, TNT's Kenny Smith made what I thought was a very good point, which is that LeBron is at his best when he's leading guys who "want to be led." In other words, not guys who feel like they're past that point in their career, or who have already won without LeBron, but guys who are eager to soak up his knowledge and guidance. Think Kyrie Irving before he became Kyrie Irving. That's what LeBron could do for guys like Simmons and Embiid, both of whom have all the talent in the world but have never stood on the stage LeBron could provide. 

As a guy who clearly relishes leading, that has to be intriguing for LeBron. 

Los Angeles Lakers

Lonzo Ball. Brandon Ingram. Kyle Kuzma. Julius Randle. And cap space, baby. Loads of cap space. The Lakers had themselves a massive trade deadline in unloading enough money to put them in position to add not one, but two max contracts over the next two summers, which are set to be loaded with big-time free agents. 

By now everyone knows that Paul George has been linked to the Lakers, and if that were to happen, a lot of people have suggested that LeBron could follow. This is the Lakers' best pitch, obviously. They can bring in LeBron and a star to put alongside him, whether it's George or someone else, and pair those two with what is quietly starting to look like one of the most promising young cores in the league. 

To the point of that young core, Ingram has probably made the biggest Year One-to-Year Two leap in the league. Kuzma has looked like the steal of the draft all season. Randle is kind of a stud on a lot of nights. And then there's Lonzo, who is really starting to live up to the hype. Since returning from his injury he's looked like an All-Star. His shooting, particularly from three, has been really, really impressive for a good while -- well over 40 percent from three over his last 15. 

A big question about Lonzo has been whether he can be the lead dog on a team, and the answer to that, in my opinion, is no, certainly not as a scorer. But you put great players next to him and just let him feel the game and create and get the pace dialed up, and he's going to start looking like a superstar in his role. 

This is another team that LeBron could mentor, and take to a level the Lakers couldn't dream of going without him. It likely hinges on their ability to get another max player next to James, who wouldn't be enough on his own with this young team to make the Lakers real contenders in the West. But look what the Lakers are doing right now. They've won 17 of their last 25 games. Add LeBron and another star to that mix, throw in the glitz and history of the Lakers franchise and the opportunity to return them to glory, and this is going to be a pretty strong pitch. 

Houston Rockets

It's scary to think about how good this Rockets team would be with LeBron next to Chris Paul and James Harden, but we might have to start wrapping our heads around it really quickly if Houston indeed comes up short of a title this season. That's an important note: If Houston comes up short. 

When Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors in the summer of 2016, he made it clear that had they won the title that season, rather than blow that 3-1 lead to the Cavs, he never would've signed on with Golden State. Indeed, latching on to a team that clearly doesn't need you to win it all, even in this era where stars are happy to join forces and split glory, is a bridge too far. Winning a championship like that almost doesn't count from a legacy standpoint. But ... when you can position yourself as the missing piece? Now we're talking. 

From that standpoint, the Rockets could well be in a win-win situation this season. Either they win the title, or they fall just short and become a strong candidate to land LeBron and possibly win multiple titles over the next few years. 

Now, for this to happen the Rockets would have to do some salary cap gymnastics. Trevor Ariza would almost surely be gone, which would be fine. Maybe Paul and LeBron are willing to take substantial discounts, but even then, they'd have to likely part with Eric Gordon and/or Ryan Anderson, the latter of which could well cost you a draft pick or two in addition, and that's if teams feel like helping Houston become a juggernaut by taking on its spare parts. 

You also have to consider Clint Capela's free agency. Houston obviously wants to keep him. he won't be cheap, but his cap hold isn't much, meaning you could wait to sign him until LeBron has been added because you can go over the cap to bring back your own players. Obviously, none of this would be simple. But it's possible. 

The easiest thing would be for LeBron to opt in with Cleveland and then accept a trade to Houston, much like Paul did with the Clippers to carve his path to Houston. If LeBron is motivated to get this done, and Cleveland doesn't want to lose him for nothing, don't rule this out. Nobody saw the Paul trade happening until, well, it happened. I'm telling you, keep your eye directly on this one. If Houston falls short of a title this season, in my mind, they become a very strong candidate to land LeBron. 

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