LeBron James is set to be a free agent, and his decision where to play next season could shake up the NBA once again. So where will the King find his throne? We look at the most likely options.
Why LeBron would pick Boston
The Celtics had the Cavs on the brink of elimination, and that was without injured stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. Danny Ainge has assembled a squad that is not only the future of the Eastern Conference but can contend at a championship level right now, something that might appeal to James as he transitions into the latter part of his career. Would he be willing to put his historic rivalry with the Celtics aside to potentially hang another banner or two in the TD Garden rafters?
How the Celtics could make it work
A lot of this would depend on the status of James' relationship with Irving, who asked for and got a trade away from James and the Cavs last summer. If Irving isn't interested in a reunion with James, then the best option might be sending him back to Cleveland -- though that move couldn't be done until after July 1. Boston could also build a trade package around Hayward, who was being courted by the Cavs back in 2014 before James decided to return home.
Why LeBron would pick Cleveland
We're not sure if you're aware of this -- it hasn't been covered much during his 15 years in the NBA -- but James is from Northeast Ohio, which is where Cleveland happens to be located. Though James has left Cleveland behind before, he came back and brought the city its first title in more than 52 years. Even after another NBA Finals loss, James might decide to try to win another title at home.
How the Cavaliers could make it work
This doesn't take too much thinking. James could opt into the final year of his current deal -- putting the pressure on Dan Gilbert & Co. to continue to make moves around him to stay competitive -- or sign a five-year max deal worth more than $205 million, a difference of $50 million compared with what James could get from a different team.
Golden State Warriors
Why LeBron would pick Golden State
An MVP core of James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry? The NBA has never seen anything like that. Steve Kerr would probably be able to hand the clipboard to any of the three on a given night and still watch the Warriors roll to the title. The question remains, though, if James would be willing to make a move that would likely cast him as the NBA's biggest villain again.
How the Warriors could make it work
Adding James would certainly involve breaking up the Warriors' core in some form. The easiest method -- and that's a relative term in this case -- would be to have James opt in, then send the Cavaliers a package built around either Klay Thompson or Draymond Green, in addition to key reserve Andre Iguodala, in exchange for the four-time MVP. The Warriors can just barely free up the cap space to sign James outright, but it would mean gutting their team and having Durant take a massive pay cut, something he already did this season.
Why LeBron would pick Houston
First, he'd be united with Banana Boat buddy Chris Paul -- and could bring Dwyane Wade along with him on a minimum salary deal should Wade decide to leave Miami again. CP3, 2017-18 MVP front-runner James Harden and James would form a trio as formidable as any in the NBA. Though a move to Houston would force James to confront the Warriors earlier in the postseason, he'd be joining the team that came closest to beating Golden State this postseason. Plus, there's no state income tax in Texas, which means LeBron's max salary would be worth a little more there.
How the Rockets could make it work
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has some experience with this after having brought Paul on board last summer. If James made it clear to Gilbert that he was leaving Cleveland, he could opt into the final year of his deal, allowing the Cavs to trade him to Houston (likely for a package centered around Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and future draft assets). This would allow the Rockets to bring James on board without gutting their core to open up the cap space to sign him outright. But from Cleveland's perspective, ownership is willing to pay $150 million in luxury taxes for a team led by James, but not for a package of Gordon and Anderson.
Why LeBron would pick the Clippers
James and Clippers front-office consultant Jerry West have developed a connection over the years, built on the back of their experiences as all-time greats. James even calls West "The Godfather." So if James is dead set on making Los Angeles his next professional home, then the Clippers could present themselves as a better alternative to the Lakers. L.A.'s "other" squad has made the playoffs six of the past seven seasons and just locked up Lou Williams to a reasonable contract extension. Of course, Lou might have to give up his favored No. 23 if James came to town.
How the Clippers could make it work
If DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers and Wesley Johnson all declined their player options and LA let them all walk, the Clippers could get in the neighborhood of having enough cap space to sign James outright. However, with a financial crunch of teams with cap space this summer, Rivers and Johnson are likely to opt into their contracts. Of course, in that scenario, the Clippers also lose the teammate James would be most interested in playing with in Jordan. A better option might be to work a trade with the Cavs, likely sending Danilo Gallinari (and his $21.6 million salary) to Cleveland along with other players and picks. However, as with the Houston scenario, Cavs ownership is not willing to take on significant luxury-tax penalties this time in the case of Gallinari and the remaining $40 million on his contract.
Los Angeles Lakers
Why LeBron would pick the Lakers
Rumors of LeBron going to the Lakers have been around for about as long as LeBron has been in the league -- possibly longer. James has a second home in Los Angeles to go along with a budding Hollywood production company and has spoken highly of Lakers rookie point guard Lonzo Ball (even if James isn't a big fan of Lonzo's father). Plus, the Lakers are the one team on this list that could promise James he wouldn't be the only superstar coming on board this summer.
How the Lakers could make it work
After trading Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. -- to LeBron's Cavs, coincidentally enough -- the Lakers freed up nearly $15 million in cap space this summer. Magic Johnson & Co. are committed to just $34.6 million in salary for 2018-19, and that's before likely stretching the remaining two years on Luol Deng's deal. The Lakers will be able to offer James a max deal and should be able to create enough cap space to bring on another max superstar as well.
Why LeBron would pick Miami
James already took his talents to South Beach once, winning two MVP awards and two titles, so could we be in for a Heatles reunion? Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade mended fences over their contentious breakup, so it's possible James and Riley could do the same. Plus, by staying in the East, James would avoid the Warriors until the Finals.
How the Heat could make it work
Because of moves made over the past two summers, the Heat will be closer to the luxury tax and not under the cap heading into this summer, so they'd have to be creative to add James. In 2010, Miami and Cleveland worked out a sign-and-trade so the Heat could acquire James and compensate the Cavaliers; this scenario is unlikely because the Heat would be faced with hard cap restrictions, and there is no incentive financially for James. The other option would be to trade players like Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson to teams with cap space to free up room to sign James, but that would be significantly more difficult, particularly with Johnson's contract escalating from $5.8 million to $19.2 million in 2018-19.
Why LeBron would pick Philadelphia
When James went from Miami to Cleveland, he traded a pair of aging stars in Wade and Chris Bosh for younger counterparts in Irving and Kevin Love. A move to Philadelphia this summer would mirror that, as he'd be teaming up with Joel Embiid (who'll be 24 when the 2018-19 season begins) and Ben Simmons (22). James and Simmons already share an agent. Could they end up sharing the court? #TrustTheProcess
How the Sixers could make it work
Three of the Sixers' four highest-paid players this season come off the books in July, so Philadelphia will enter the summer with close to a max cap slot. It'll have to make a couple of small moves to get to James' full max salary, but that'd be a much easier process than the one the Sixers used to get Embiid and Simmons in the first place. Doing so without a true front-office structure in the aftermath of the Bryan Colangelo scandal might be more difficult.
San Antonio Spurs
Why LeBron would pick San Antonio
James has never made his respect for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich much of a secret, and he'd likely jump at the opportunity to play for Pop and potentially end the Warriors' stranglehold on the Western Conference. Plus, if James is thinking about prolonging his career, he'd certainly have to take a look at the organization that has gotten more years out of its stars than any other in NBA history.
How the Spurs could make it work
Freeing up the cap space to sign James outright would almost certainly mean saying goodbye to Tony Parker, hoping Danny Green and Rudy Gay don't pick up their player options, and likely trading Pau Gasol to a team with cap space on top of that. The path of less resistance would involve having James opt in, then working a trade with Cleveland, either for All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge or former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard -- the latter of which would be a seismic move even by recent NBA standards.
Illustrations by Brian Konnick