The biggest story of the NBA offseason will be LeBron James's free agency. As is his typical approach, James will soak it all in and keep the media and fans guessing until the very last moment. Which leaves us with nothing to do but speculate about his future and how it will affect the NBA landscape. The Crossover is here to jumpstart that process, with our writers digging deep to forecast The King's future.
Ben Golliver, Lakers
As Golden State put the finishing touches on its sweep of Cleveland, LeBron James bemoaned his team’s relative lack of talent and basketball intelligence while asserting that he remains in “championship mode.” Indeed, if James was making a purely basketball decision with his focus on winning the 2019 title, he would force his way to the Spurs, Rockets or Celtics, three organizations with proven ownership groups, front offices, coaching staffs and rosters that would be ready to contend with the Warriors immediately upon his arrival.
But what James said he covets in June isn’t necessarily what will drive his thinking come July. In 2010, he assembled the Big 3 in Miami and immediately became the center of the basketball universe. In 2014, he returned home to Cleveland with a new Big 3, again capturing the league’s imagination. Recently, though, James’s dominance on and off the court has been usurped by the Warriors, who have claimed three of the last four titles and top billing.
For all the focus on James’s desire to win, his preference for receiving max money, the possibilities for his next Big 3, and his family’s role in his latest free-agency decision, it’s also worth noting that he loves a good story, especially one that reinforces his status as the face of the NBA. The “best story” would be for James to join the Lakers: The NBA’s biggest star would be playing for one of its marquee organizations and partnering with Hall of Famer Magic Johnson in one of the country’s largest media markets. Win or lose, the LeBron Lakers would inevitably generate a new record for saturation coverage. Imagine how many jerseys he would sell. Honestly, Adam Silver might need to launch NBA TV2 to globally televise all 82 of their regular-season games.
The Lakers can offer more than just an adrenaline shot of fame enhancement. James would be the unquestioned center of the offense, something he’s been accustomed to in Cleveland and Miami and that wouldn’t be possible in Houston. He would be able to be paired with a superstar teammate given the Lakers’ flexible cap situation, something that isn’t easy to achieve if he returned to the Cavaliers. His family would be situated in something resembling “home,” given his houses in L.A., something that can’t be said for Boston, Philadelphia, San Antonio or Houston. Plus, he would be able to play an active role in shaping the roster around him while deepening his off-court ties in the television, film, music and entertainment industries. James would get to play puppet master, mogul and Super Dad, guiding his son Bronny’s bright basketball career in one of the country’s biggest hoops hotbeds.
In a best-case scenario, James could team up with Paul George (signed in free agency) and Kawhi Leonard (acquired in a trade). Even if he only had those two superstars and 12 minimum-salary players, James would already have a better shot at beating the Warriors than he had this season. Even if a Leonard deal fell through, James could almost certainly help catapult the Lakers into a better position than the reeling Cavaliers were by the end of the season. Yes, it might take two years to field a ready-made contender, but James would be in the captain’s seat. Everyone would be working to fit in around James, thereby avoiding the acclimation from him if he joined an already-developed situation like Boston, San Antonio or Houston.
Assuming James still wants to be The Man and The Story, the Lakers are his best option.
Chris Ballard, Spurs
According to Vegas, this is the fifth-most likely scenario (tied with Boston), behind L.A., Philly, Houston, and a return to Cleveland. But in the end, the Spurs just make the most basketball sense, and isn't that what James cares about most these days? Sure, lots of things have to break San Antonio's way, including creative contract-shedding, some missteps by other suitors, and the return of the old, healthy, amenable version of Kawhi Leonard. But the lure of Pop, a versatile defensive unit, and playing alongside the best teammate he's ever had—and one who complements him well, and can guard just about anyone—will win out.
Put yourself in his shoes: Who would you rather play alongside: Ben Simmons (great player but a clone who can't yet shoot), James Harden (ball-dominant, high-usage, minus defender), Paul George (very good player but basically Kawhi-lite), or Leonard? Same goes for the coaches. Are you picking among the promising to very good choices (Luke Walton, Brett Brown, Mike D'Antoni) or the best ever?
Rohan Nadkarni, Lakers
I don’t know. LeBron doesn’t have great options. Houston would have to blow it up. Philly would be the slightest bit awkward of a fit. The Spurs don’t seem to be in serious contention. I think the Lakers make a lot of sense based on LeBron’s history when it comes to these decisions. It’s not a great option—the Kobe shadow would be weird to play under—but the Lakers can create enough space to allow LeBron to build his own team. Can James lure Paul George to Hollywood with him? What about Kevin Durant? LeBron’s presence in L.A. would make the franchise a free-agent destination again, basically the opposite effect of Kobe in his final seasons.
The Lakers probably wouldn’t be a championship contender in 2019, but by Year 2 they could have a squad to challenge the Warriors. I just can’t see LeBron joining a team that’s fully formed. In both Miami and Cleveland, he went to situations that were rebuilt to his preference. The Lakers give him a chance to do that again. Combine that with James’s business interests (the movies!) and the fact that he already has a mansion in Brentwood, the Lakers seem like the safest bet for now.
Rob Mahoney, 76ers
LeBron, above all, is a pragmatist. He knows that he plays in the more accommodating of the two conferences, and what it might cost to give that up. If he was able to drag a roster as shallow, inconsistent, and defenseless as the Cavs all the way to the Finals, he has to like his prospects against that same field with a more talented group. In joining the Sixers, he would make one of his most compelling challengers his own. The basketball fit isn’t seamless, though James would add to what is already a predicament for Sixers opponents. What team really has the size to contend with all three of LeBron, Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid?
The make of the roster would be quite different from the Warriors, but no less modern. There are some big personalities involved, but in young players who respect LeBron. The team is good enough to be of interest but not so good as to warp the optics of his signing there. And the power vacuum in the front office might actually help more than hurt; Philadelphia, more than any other team in the field, has the freedom to pick a top executive who could work in alignment with how James likes to play. The whole thing just seems like a move he might make.
Jeremy Woo, Lakers
My gut says LeBron is going to the Lakers. In that event, there will be other stars coming with him. Nobody on the roster in Los Angeles would be safe in that situation, and they would move heaven and earth to contend immediately. As difficult as it would be to make the Finals coming out of the West, LeBron has to know the road will go through the Warriors regardless, and hey—maybe his legs will be fresher in the second round.
The weather, the lifestyle, the history and the cap space are all benefits—and not necessarily in that order. And no matter what he does, you figure it’s a short term deal with an early out regardless. His best opportunity to assemble a new team that fits around him is in L.A., and the rest of the pieces will follow. They always do, don’t they?
Jake Fischer, Lakers
I'm putting all my eggs into the Gary Payton conspiracy basket. In a video interview with Black Sports Online on Monday, the Hall of Famer revealed LeBron James Jr. has committed to play high school ball at L.A.'s Sierra Canyon alongside the sons of Scottie Pippen and Kenyon Martin. James mentioned during his Game 4 postgame presser that his family is going to play a major factor in his free-agency decision. Barring the veracity of Payton's word, James's eldest child enrolling at an L.A. private school certainly would be an item anchoring him to that city.
And the Lakers, boasting flexibility to add two max-contract free agents, clearly present a better landing spot than the Clippers. It's been said LeBron was excited at the prospect of adding Paul George to the Cavs last offseason. The postseason annually shows how necessary a surplus of two-way wings is for battling the Warriors. George's agent previously told the Pacers he's interested in joining the Lakers this summer, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are already in place, Lonzo Ball is a 6'6" ballhawking defender with the perfect offensive playing style and lack of ego to complement two All-NBA superstars with their own shoe deals. The puzzle pieces all simply add up far too much. And if a random Gary Payton interview proves prescient, that will only add to the lore of NBA offseason drama far outweighing the actual on-court competition.