LeBron James could be taking his talents away from South Beach, as the Miami Heat star has informed the organization that he will opt out of his contract. James will forgo the final two years of his deal and become a free agent on July 1.
Since James can go elsewhere, several teams are preparing to make a push to sign the free agent. While anything is possible, the list of teams that have a realistic chance of signing the league’s best player is very small.
The Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers might be attractive options for James, but neither is in a position to offer him a large contract. The Clippers’ only hope of landing James might be through a sign-and-trade, and the Rockets would have to deal both Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to give themselves space under the salary cap.
The New York Knicks have virtually no chance of landing James, considering they are still over the salary cap threshold, even with Carmelo Anthony becoming a free agent. The Los Angeles Lakers can offer James a max contract, but he isn’t likely to sign with a team that won 27 games last year and has no young talent.
Miami is far and away the frontrunner to sign James, but there is one team that could become serious competition. The Cleveland Cavaliers appear to be the biggest threat to Miami its their roster intact.
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Of all the teams that have been reported as legitimate contenders to sign James, Cleveland has the most cap space. The organization is committed to paying just over $32 million in salary for the 2014-2015 season, leaving them with a lot of flexibility. Not only can the Cavaliers offer James a max contract, but they also have room to sign another top player.
The Cavaliers might not be atop the list of many free agents, but joining James in Cleveland could make the team the instant favorite to win the 2015 NBA Finals. Even if Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh are unwilling to sign with the Cavs, the team could land a player like Zach Randolph or Pau Gasol.
The Heat showed their age when they were defeated by the San Antonio Spurs in the finals, and the Cavs have a bevy of young talent. At 22 years old, Kyrie Irving is already one of the best point guards in the NBA. Players like Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson are still getting better, after being top five draft picks in recent years. Last year’s first overall pick, Anthony Bennett, has been a major disappointment, but he still has a chance to greatly improve, following his rookie season.
Cleveland will land another top young talent in the coming days. They have the No.1 pick in Thursday’s draft, which could give James the opportunity to play alongside a potential star in Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker. Both players are highly touted, and the Cavs could use the selection to trade for an All-Star, possibly Kevin Love.
Aside from basketball reasons, James could be enticed by the opportunity to return to his hometown team. He failed to bring a title to Cleveland during his first seven years in the league, and could see his public image improve by returning to the Cavs, whom he spurned with “The Decision.”
“I think it would be great,” James said of playing for the Cavaliers, when Miami visited Cleveland in 2012. “It would be fun to play in front of these fans again. I had a lot fun times in my seven years here. … I’m here as a Miami Heat player, and I’m happy where I am now, but I don’t rule that out in no sense.”
“And if I decide to come back, hopefully the fans will accept me.”
A second run with Cleveland makes a lot of sense for James, though the organization will have a tough time competing with what Miami can offer. Even though the Heat failed to win a title this year, James won two championships in Miami, reaching the finals in all four seasons. The Cavaliers haven’t reached the playoffs since James’ departure, winning just 33 games in 2013-2014.
Wade and Bosh are also likely to opt out of their deals, but that doesn’t mean they won’t re-sign with the Heat. All three players proved in 2010 that they are willing to take less money if it will help them win, but Miami can offer James a larger contract than Cleveland can, and he is well aware of the fact that he’s underpaid.
All of the speculation and rumors about James’ future will end in a few weeks when he finally signs a new contract. Four years ago, his time as a free agent lasted a week, until he left Cleveland for Miami.