LeBron James is officially 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 now that he's declined his player option.
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, now that LeBron has decided not to opt-in, any sign-and-trade possibility becomes very challenging.
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. Since Cleveland has James' Bird rights, they can sign LeBron to whatever type of deal he wants.
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
Trading a combination of Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston leaves the Warriors with $124 million in salary, $5 million below the hard cap. This scenario would force Durant to opt out of his contract and sign for a significant discount (think $20 million) and have Golden State fill the remaining nine spots with minimum contracts. The cap gymnastics have the Warriors with $127.9 million in salary, about $1 million below the hard cap.
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, reigning MVP 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
Houston would also require a complicated sign-and-trade scenario, one that looks like a near impossibility given the large salaries on the Rockets' roster and Cleveland not wanting to take back big money in a deal.
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.
Illustrations by Brian Konnick