LeBron James has opted out of his contract with the Miami Heat. This obviously puts Miami in a precarious position, especially if Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh also move on to greener pastures, but where exactly can James go?
Under the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, the Heat can offer James a five-year maximum deal worth $127.7 million. Other teams are limited to offering a four-year contract, maxing out at $94.8 million. Though it seems more likely that James will take less money to attract more talent to the Heat. And other teams will likely make additional roster moves to pair James with other stars.
According to Spotrac, only five teams other than the Heat have the cap space to offer James the maximum $23.7 million per year without making any additional moves: the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers.
The 76ers won just 19 games last season, so it is doubtful James will see them as a viable option. Same for the Utah Jazz, who won 25 games and finished last in the Northwest Division.
The Lakers have a rich tradition of winning but it is doubtful Kobe Bryant is ready to play second fiddle to James. Plus, aside from Bryant, there isn’t much star power on that roster to help them climb from the Pacific Division cellar and contend with the Los Angeles Clippers or Golden State Warriors. Jodie Meeks led the team in Win Shares last season with 4.5, which is 88th among the 143 players who started at least half their team’s games. Bryant accumulated 10.9 win shares in 2012-13. But at 35 years old, there are legitimate concerns about his ability to stay healthy.
Dallas, with presumed returning free agent Dirk Nowitzki, is enticing, and James has said that the Mavericks “are probably the reason why I am who I am today.” But a 49-win season in a division that boats the San Antonio Spurs is probably not on James’s wish list.
That leaves Phoenix, who Grantland’s Zach Lowe recently included as one of five potential landing spots James should consider if he “wants to earn his actual max on an up-and-coming team with a smart new head coach who favors an exciting style of play.”
The Suns have so much cap flexibility, they might be able to sign LeBron to the max, re-sign Eric Bledsoe at close to his (lower) max, and still have max-level cap room in the summer of 2015. They’re flush with extra first-round picks, meaning they’d have weapons to land another star player over the next couple of years.
In the short term, LeBron can take some of the ballhandling duties from Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, give the team the killer low-post threat it lacks on nights Markieff Morris’s midranger isn’t falling, and seal up a below-average defense. The Suns’ two most important rotation big men, Morris and Channing Frye, can shoot from the outside, giving LeBron free rein to occupy the post when he wants.
It appears James has most of the leverage in this situation, but his decision will likely be based less on how much money a team can give the four-time MVP and more about who each team can pair with the superstar.