He’s been called the most powerful man in the NBA, capable of morphing a fringe contender into a legitimate title threat with a single signature.
But right now no one knows exactly what LeBron James’s next move will be.
The four-time MVP opted out of the final year of his contract with the Miami Heat last week to become an unrestricted free agent for second time in his career, but according to reports he has no meetings scheduled with other teams.
At this moment, James might be surveying the moves of some of the top teams in the league like the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Chicago Bulls and Houston Rockets, or even contemplating another run with his home-state Cleveland Cavaliers.
The only reported requirement for James is a maximum-level salary. According to ESPN, any team desiring James’s services will be informed he expects a starting salary of roughly $20.7 million next season. James has never been the highest paid player on any team he’s been part of during his 11-year career, and the 29-year-old did take a pay cut to team up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami four years ago.
Miami appeared in four straight NBA Finals, winning two, with James, Wade and Bosh as the core, but the team crumbled before the San Antonio Spurs in five games last month and is in need of a retool in order to remain contenders. However, should James stand pat with his salary demand it leaves Miami with little cap room to build around him.
Seven teams can offer James a maximum salary: Dallas, L.A. Lakers, Phoenix, Utah, Philadelphia and Orlando.
Of that list only Dallas was a playoff team last season, while the Lakers have enough salary cap space to ink James and Carmelo Anthony and team them with Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers have made James and Anthony their top priorities this summer, but while Anthony continues his free agent tour around the country, James and his agent Rich Paul haven’t scheduled any meetings, according to ESPN LA.
Phoenix offers a very intriguing package, and may be the best of the bunch. They won 47 games last season with a solid group of guards Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, and missed the playoffs by one game without a top scorer like James.
With $29 million devoted to salaries next season, the Suns also have enough cap space to sign James and Anthony, and have several first-round draft picks to continue to the build the team without having to sacrifice any assets in a sign-and-trade.
"We are in a good position," Suns managing partner Robert Sarver said to AZ Central. "We have a lot to offer, too, with the depth of our roster compared to some of the other teams. We think we have a favorable opportunity, but obviously he'll make his decision when he wants to make it.
"He's a smart player and a smart businessman. He'll look at the facts and make a decision."
A move back to Cleveland would be one of the better redemption stories in league history, and the Cavs also have several budding stars in point guard Kyrie Irving and the recent No. 1 overall pick in guard Andrew Wiggins. But Cleveland has $16 million in salary cap space, which wouldn’t satisfy James’s main requirement, and they are in the mix for restricted free agent forward Gordon Hayward. Any accepted offer to Hayward would ultimately take the Cavs out of the running for James, as reported by USA Today, unless he backs away from his salary demands and tries to bring Cleveland its first professional championship in decades.
Chicago and Houston are teams on the cusp of title contention, but neither has the cap space to outright sign James to a max-level deal and would need Miami to agree to a sign-and-trade. The Bulls can offer forwards Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy and their expiring contracts, or even throw in forward Taj Gibson.
If any team can relieve Miami’s possible loss of James it’s the Rockets. Houston does have All-Star guard James Harden to trade, as well as point guard Jeremy Lin and his expiring $14.8 million deal. Like Florida, Texas does not have have a limited income tax on individuals.
Even with half the league positioning for his free agency for the last three years, the Heat appear to remain frontrunners to keep James. A more likely scenario is James using all his leverage to force Miami to sign him to a max deal and letting either Wade or Bosh go.