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Where Should LeBron James Sign?

Alex Kennedy and Yannis Koutroupis discuss what LeBron James should do and break down each of his options.

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After it seemed like LeBron James and his agent weren’t going to seriously entertain offers from other teams, news broke today that the four-time MVP is starting to open up to the idea of seeing what the market has to offer. Or it’s all just a smoke screen and he’s going to stay in Miami. Who freakin’ knows at this point? But with the prospect of signing a fourth star-level player all but out the window at this point for the Miami HEAT, LeBron’s other options warrant a deeper look. Basketball Insiders’ Yannis Koutroupis and Alex Kennedy discuss what’s next for James and which options make the most sense.

Yannis Koutroupis: Let’s start with the Houston Rockets, who could trim enough salary to make him an offer of about $16 million and still be able to keep Chandler Parsons. If you’re LeBron, how seriously do you consider them?

Alex Kennedy: I think it’s an intriguing situation, since a core of LeBron, James Harden and Dwight Howard would be very tough to beat. Houston also has a wide open window to contend, which is one of the reasons why they were so attractive to Howard last summer. It’s not like the Rockets are going anywhere, as players like Harden, Parsons, Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley, etc. haven’t even entered their prime yet and Howard is still capable of dominating on both ends of the floor. The Rockets’ best basketball is likely ahead of them, which is why they’re so interesting.

However, I think the big problem here is that LeBron wants a maximum contract, according to reports. Houston would have to dump Jeremy Lin’s contract and make some moves just to sign James, and then that would still require him to take a pay cut. It doesn’t sound like that’s something James is interested in doing at this point, especially since he has never really been paid what he has deserved throughout his career. There’s no question it’s an attractive situation though and his agent Rich Paul has had contact with them. What do you think of the fit?

Yannis: If I’m LeBron, this move makes me nervous for a variety of reasons. The potential for a dynasty is there, but it’s almost too good to be true. They have an owner dedicated to winning, great fan base, growing media market and two of the best players at their position in Dwight Howard and James Harden. Winning a championship seems like it would be a formality, but to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about teaming up with Howard and Harden. Winning a championship takes a lot of sacrifice and mental toughness. At the end of games against the Portland Trail Blazers there seemed to be a real lack of chemistry between the two on the court. It was either one or the other. Neither seemed very comfortable without the ball. They both want to be the leader and alpha male of the team, but with LeBron on board they’d obviously have to accept dropping a spot in the pecking order and him getting a lot of the credit for their increased success. I’m not sure how that would go over. Being looked at as a secondary player in Los Angeles didn’t sit well with Howard at all, and Harden went to Houston largely in part to be the man.

Plus, only making in the neighborhood of $16 million is a problem. LeBron’s just too dominant of a force to play for that kind of money. As profitable as the league is, especially the team he plays for, he truthfully should be amongst the highest paid players ever. He proved in Cleveland that he’s going to contend for a championship no matter where he plays. There are other options where he would be just as close to contending while making significantly more. Believe it or not, I think with the right follow up moves, the Phoenix Suns could even be a little bit closer – and frankly their top-notch medical staff alone makes them worth considering. LeBron’s logging a lot of wear and tear, which at some point is going to catch up to him.

Alex: I see what you’re saying. While I think Houston does have some intriguing elements, I do realize that there are some cons associated with the Rockets as well.

You mentioned Phoenix, and this is honestly my favorite non-Miami destination for LeBron. Nobody has been talking about the Suns because Phoenix isn’t known as a big-time free agent destination, but I think they’re a serious contender to land James.

They have two max contracts to offer, so they could sign LeBron to the salary he wants as well as another star such as Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh, or they could try to swing a trade for Kevin Love with all of their assets (because, remember, Suns GM Ryan McDonough has been amazing when it comes stockpiling young players and first-round picks). They could bring in James and a second star, and then have an amazing supporting cast that consists of an All-Star Goran Dragic and re-signed Eric Bledsoe, as well as solid role players like Markieff Morris, Miles Plumlee, Gerald Green, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Tyler Ennis and others. Or, if James doesn’t want Phoenix to sign a second star, he could have them use their remaining cap space on two or three cheaper free agents and help construct the roster however he sees fit. This would be a team that has a very interesting mix of youth and veterans, capable of competing right away and for years to come.

Not to mention, he’d be playing for a great head coach in Jeff Hornacek, who did an excellent job last year. This is a Suns team that exceeded all expectations last season and nearly made the playoffs in the ridiculously talented Western Conference with a roster that was expected to be one of the worst in the league. They’d be scary good with LeBron at small forward. Also, they play an exciting brand of basketball and James would fit right in with their up-tempo system. The Bledsoe connection is interesting as well, since he is close with LeBron and they share the same agent (Rich Paul).

With that said, does LeBron really walk away from Miami, where he has won two championships, to go to an up-and-coming team like Phoenix that hasn’t been to the playoffs in several years and that features so many young players and inexperienced management? It’s pretty risky to go there, leaving behind Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and his battle-tested teammates. Phoenix is definitely an attractive situation and one that I would give a lot of thought to if I were LeBron, but I’m just sure if LeBron is ready to make the jump to the Suns.

Yannis: Eric Bledsoe is the point guard that LeBron has deserved to play with his entire career. And, I don’t think there’s any question that Chris Bosh would join him there in a heartbeat, because they’d give him the max too – something the HEAT may not do. I love the fact that they have such a top-notch training staff too. Did you know they grew a completely new foot for Grant Hill when they got there? I’m not sure if they practice witchcraft or what, but they do something that other teams don’t do and could potentially extend James’ career by a few years.

If Pat Riley had the kind of supporting cast in place that the Suns could offer, we wouldn’t even be talking about any other possibilities right now. It’d be a done deal that he’s staying in Miami. Jeff Hornacek is unproven, but he’s got potential. If LeBron can turn Erik Spoelstra into a top-tier coach, he should be able to turn Hornacek into a star as well.

Here’s the one thing that the Suns have working against them that pretty much kills their chances: Robert Sarver. He’s had a championship-caliber team before, but he tried to save money instead of spending to get them over the hump. LeBron can’t trust him with three or four of the most important years of his career. Can the Suns trade Sarver for Mark Cuban?

Alex: You’re right about Sarver. LeBron was reportedly frustrated with Miami’s cost-cutting moves like amnestying Mike Miller and not using the mid-level exception last year, so imagine how he’d react to some of Sarver’s cheap moves?

Cuban, on the other hand, is an amazing owner. But again we run into the issue of LeBron not getting a max contract. After re-signing Dirk Nowitzki, the most Dallas can offer LeBron is about $16.8 million, so that’s an issue based on James’ reported priorities.

Also, I’m just not sure the supporting cast on the Mavericks is good enough for LeBron to seriously consider them. Dirk Nowitzki has had an outstanding, Hall-of-Fame career, but he’s 36 years old and will start declining at some point soon. Tyson Chandler is 31 years old and has already started to show signs of serious wear-and-tear. I just don’t see why LeBron would commit long-term to this group, when the very reason we’re talking about him leaving Miami is because he’s not sure if they have the talent and wide enough window to compete for championships over the course of this next contract. Well, can’t the same things be said about Dallas?

As much as I love Cuban and believe he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win a championship, I just can’t see LeBron choosing Dallas. I especially can’t see him taking a pay cut to go to Dallas; the situation isn’t attractive enough. It’s unfortunate, because I’d love to see Nowitzki be able to play with another star and compete for another championship before the end of his career, but I just don’t see it happening.

Yannis: Mark Cuban makes a really compelling case, and his desire to win a championship is unquestionable. However, like you, I have doubts about how long the championship window is going to stay open there. Do those guys have enough miles left on their legs to win another couple of championships? I’m not sure.

And, Monta Ellis – sheesh. LeBron’s spent the last few years of his career playing with guards who think they’re better than him. Not getting paid the max is bad enough, but watching Ellis take more shots than him on a regular basis? LeBron will be in the broadcast booth before we know it. Also, I think that Cuban may be a little bit too hands on for LeBron. Can you imagine all the late-night texts about how happy he is that he’s a Maverick? Or all the loud advice from the sidelines? It’ll leave LeBron longing for the passive aggressive letters of Dan Gilbert before the All-Star break.

Alex: Ah, Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The team that we’ve been talking about LeBron potentially returning to for years. There are a few reasons why Cleveland is a legitimate possibility:

1. Kyrie Irving is a stud and now that he signed a five-year extension, he’s going to be in Cleveland when he reaches his prime. What’s his ceiling? Best point guard in the league? One of the NBA’s best players overall? It’s very possible. Like you said about Bledsoe, James would finally have the chance to play with an elite point guard.

2. Andrew Wiggins has superstar potential, which means Cleveland could have a pretty scary trio in a few years. Before Cleveland won the lottery, I laughed off the idea of the Cavs even being mentioned as a potential suitor for James. But with Wiggins, they do become slightly more intriguing.

3. LeBron really cares about how he’s perceived, so I think there’s a legitimate chance that he would want to go back home and win those Cleveland fans back over. He has said that he wants to live in Akron when he’s done playing basketball, and that becomes much easier if there’s a homecoming at some point.

4. Like Houston, Cleveland’s best basketball is ahead of them. He doesn’t have to worry about the championship window slamming shut like it could in some of these other cities. They’re a young team that should only continue to get better each year.

But therein lies the problem with Cleveland: They might just be too young. LeBron has gotten to the point where he wants to compete for a championship every single year and he’s not going to be patient with a team that is still using training wheels. He’s in win-now mode, not develop-talent mode. Irving is 22 years old, Wiggins is 19 old, Dion Waiters is 22 years old, Tristan Thompson is 23 years old and Anthony Bennett is 21 years old. Yes, Anderson Varejao and Jarrett Jack are veterans and Cleveland could bring in some more experienced players on small deals, but the core of the team is incredibly young and still a few years away from peaking.

That may scare James away, especially since these other situations give him the chance to win right away. What if Irving, Wiggins, Waiters and the others aren’t ready to play at a championship level for two or three years? James just wasted this contract (and his prime) on a young team when he could’ve been adding to his ring collection.

Not to mention, I’m not sure he’ll want to play for Dan Gilbert again and he runs into the small-market issue that was reportedly something he didn’t like during his first stint with the Cavs. Like Phoenix, we’re also talking about inexperienced management again in first-time head coach David Blatt and first-time general manager David Griffin (although I have a lot of respect for both guys and think they’ll be phenomenal in the long run, just like Hornacek and McDonough. But still, it has to be mentioned.). I understand why Cleveland is brought up so much and it’d be a hell of a storyline, but it’s a long shot in my opinion.

Yannis: I’d bet a lot of money that LeBron ends up back with the Cavaliers. Just not right now. Gilbert doesn’t deserve it. Not after the way that he acted, or after the way he’s failed miserably to rebuild the team since his departure. Yeah, he’s gotten some nice pieces, but that happens by default when you’re drafting in the top four every year. Of course you’re going to get good players.

Gilbert deserves LeBron at the end of his career – the worn down LeBron who can only play power forward and misses 20 percent of every season because he just needs the rest. Gilbert, like a lot of NBA owners tend to do, forgets that the game isn’t about him. It’s about the players, and even after getting let down by LeBron in 2010 he shouldn’t have acted the way that he did. Where’s the graciousness? How about a thank you for carrying that franchise for so long?

He should take a long hard look at the Los Angeles Lakers and how they handled the departure of Dwight Howard. They didn’t pout and throw a fit. They retooled quickly and took care of their own. And now, what do you know? They’re one of the few teams that get to talk to LeBron’s agent Rich Paul.

Alex: True, but it sounds like LeBron was hesitant to meet with the Lakers. Initially, it was reported that he wasn’t interested and then they were a late addition. I’m just not sure if L.A. is the best destination for James.

There are obviously a ton of perks that come with playing in that city, but I don’t know if James is interested in teaming up with Kobe Bryant, especially considering he’ll be making significantly less money than Bryant. I really think the two-year, $48.5 million extension that the Lakers gave Kobe hurts their chances of adding a star this summer. I get it, the Lakers wanted to show that they’re loyal to their star players and it was basically a lifetime achievement contract for Kobe. But had Kobe taken a smaller number, we’d be talking about Los Angeles like we talked about Phoenix – a team that can add multiple stars and form a super team – except they’d be in the NBA’s best market and on a historic franchise. Instead, the Lakers can sign LeBron to a max deal and then fill out the roster with cheap players. How is that situation more attractive than some of the other ones we mentioned?

Look, I’m not going to blame Kobe for taking the pay day – I’m never going to fault a guy for signing a huge contract when it’s put in front of him – but I question the Lakers’ decision to offer that much money. If they had went the route that the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks took with Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, signing Kobe to a deal around $10 million per season and giving him several years, the Lakers would be a much more attractive destination right now because they’d be making it rain on LeBron and other top free agents as well.

Staying on the topic of Kobe, if LeBron is concerned about Dwyane Wade’s health and ability to still play at a high level while making max money, he should be terrified of Kobe for the same reasons. Yes, Bryant is a freak of nature and we’re all hoping that he comes back at an elite level. But at 35 years old, with all of those basketball miles on his body, there’s no guarantee that he’s going to be a dominant player again (as we saw last year, when his comeback lasted six games). And yet he’s still going to take up a huge chunk of the Lakers’ salary cap over the next two years.

Also, as long as Kobe is in Los Angeles, he’s going to be the face of that franchise. It wouldn’t be LeBron’s team, even though he’d clearly be the best player on the team. I’m not sure that’s something he wants to sign up for, especially because there have been reports that Wade’s similar status in Miami bugged him. I’m not trying to dump on Kobe – I’ve been a huge fan of the guy for years – but there’s no doubt that he makes this tougher on the Lakers.

Being able to construct the empty roster and coaching staff may be appealing to LeBron, but not with the limited cap space that the Lakers would have. Like I said, if the Lakers had a ton of cap room this summer and could allow LeBron to team up with other stars, they’d probably be one of the top destinations we’re talking about. But with their current cap situation and the fact that so much is reliant on a banged up, aged Kobe, I think there’s a reason LeBron wasn’t too interested in meeting with the Lakers.

Yannis: The Lakers continue to get killed for that extension for Kobe. But it’s because we’re so locked into thinking through the lens of how things impact this owner-friendly CBA. Think about it from the player’s perspective. The Lakers didn’t see Kobe play a single minute on the floor after his torn Achilles and they made him the highest-paid player in the NBA for the next two seasons. That’s loyalty. That’s giving a star player everything that he deserves. All LeBron and Carmelo have heard over the last couple of years is billionaires talking about how they should take less money. The Lakers are the one franchise paying their star more than he deserves. It hurts the Lakers’ flexibility, yes, but I don’t think that it hurts the way that they’re perceived by star players.

And, I know that LeBron is gung ho over getting a max contract right now – as he should be – but of all the guys that we’ve talked about so far, I think that Kobe is the one guy who he could live with getting paid more than him. Look what he’s been through with that franchise. The highs and lows, they’ve stuck by him. And, at his weakest moment – where 29 out of the other 29 teams in the NBA would refuse to give him a max extension and make him take less, they said here’s the biggest offer we can make you, if you want to stay with us another two years, sign on the dotted line. Plus, LeBron knows how hard it is to win at the rate that Kobe has and how much work he’s put in. He also could trust him to go out fighting, and take off time only when he absolutely has to, not every other weekend like has become commonplace for Wade.

The Lakers aren’t just trying to sign LeBron, though, because they know they don’t have a talented enough roster to lure him away from Miami. They’re trying to sign him and Carmelo at around $16 million. I don’t think it ends up happening, but only because I think LeBron is too proud of what he’s built in Miami to walk away from it right now. It’s not because he doesn’t want to play with Kobe or that the bright lights of the Lakers and Hollywood don’t appeal to him. Rather, he’s built something special and at the end of the day I think he’s enjoyed winning in Miami too much to give up on trying to do so again there.

Alex: I agree, which brings me to my prediction: LeBron will ultimately stay in Miami. There’s no question that LeBron’s future seems more up in the air now than it did even a few weeks ago, but I just think he will sign a short-term deal in Miami and give the HEAT another two or three years to build upon their legacy. I think he takes maximum money, but fewer years because it will give him the chance to weigh his options again very shortly and it would also give him some control over the team since his free agency would be looming from the moment he signed on the dotted line.

I’m curious to see what will happen next for the HEAT. If Wade and Bosh agree to take slight pay cuts, suddenly things become very interesting in Miami again. Wade, especially, should consider taking less. At this point, he’s a part-time player who clearly can’t contribute at the level he used to. Miami is extremely loyal to him so they may offer him big money, but let’s be honest: how much would Wade get on the open market? Not close to the max. The HEAT are basically bidding against themselves here because they don’t want to low-ball a guy who has been so important to the franchise. But Wade (and possibly Bosh) taking less would really be the best-case scenario for Miami. The HEAT would have some money to throw around, and Pat Riley has shown what he can do when given some cash to work with.

But even if James, Wade and Bosh all take the max, the HEAT could still retool and add a younger, more talented supporting cast for next season. We’ve already heard them linked to free agents like Isaiah Thomas, Pau Gasol, Anthony Morrow, Marvin Williams, Carlos Boozer (if amnestied), Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Caron Butler and others. I’m sure we’ll hear plenty others mentioned in the coming days as well. Riley can still restock the cupboard and put a pretty good supporting cast around the Big Three, even though they weren’t able to steal away a big name like Kyle Lowry or Marcin Gortat. Players look at Miami and see a team that is going to walk to the Finals in the depleted Eastern Conference, so they’ll always be able to find veterans who want to play there and compete for a ring. And Riley has shown that he’s excellent at recruiting players and signing them at a discount – it’s how he was able to land Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Greg Oden and others despite the fact that they had been offered larger contracts and bigger roles elsewhere. I’m not pushing the panic button on the HEAT’s supporting cast just yet.

Also, I think LeBron’s familiarity with Miami is important here. He trusts Riley and Spoelstra, he gets along with Wade and Bosh and he loves living in Miami with his family. If he goes to a new team, there are a lot of unknowns involved. Will the front office do as good of a job as Riley has done at putting bargain-bin pieces around him? Will the coaching be on par with Spoelstra’s? Will he mesh with his new teammates as well? Will he and his family enjoy living in the new city?

In sticking with that last question, there’s a human element here that everyone is overlooking. We all look at NBA players and forget that they’re people too. Remember, by switching teams James would be uprooting his family, moving across the country and going to work for a new organization. How many people would make that move by choice – finding a new home, putting their kids in a new school, adjusting to a new life – and, oh by the way, you’re taking less money to make that life-altering move. That’s what LeBron would be doing, since Miami can offer him the most money because they have his Bird rights.

I think LeBron is definitely having some doubts about the HEAT and weighing his options right now, but I also think his relationships with Wade, Bosh, Riley and Spoelstra are important, as is the fact that he and his family are comfortable in Miami. I believe he’ll sign a short-term deal to stay with the HEAT and we’ll be doing this again two or three summers from now (and then maybe that’s when he makes his return to Cleveland like you said, Yannis.)

What do you think LeBron James should do? Which one of these destinations sounds best? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below and let us know who you agree with.

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