There’s a new contender in the LeBron James sweepstakes. The Lakers have long been considered the biggest threat to lure him away from the Cavs next summer, but they would have to completely reshape their roster to even have a chance at competing for a title. With Los Angeles in the midst of another disappointing season, chatter about LeBron going to Houston has been growing around the league. It almost makes too much sense not to happen. The Rockets have a ready-made team with another MVP-caliber player, one of James’s best friends in the league, and a supporting cast that complements him perfectly. It all depends on what LeBron is looking for. Houston would give him the best chance of beating Golden State. It might be his only chance.
LeBron to the Rockets would be a mirror image of Kevin Durant to the Warriors. Durant didn’t join a team under construction as LeBron did in Miami in 2010 and Cleveland in 2014. Neither of LeBron’s previous superteams won a title in their first season together. They had to learn how to play with each other, and LeBron had to create a culture from the ground up. Durant, in contrast, was the final piece for a group whose growing pains were behind them. The adjustment process was relatively simple. All Durant had to worry about was playing basketball, and his life on the court had never been easier. The Warriors won 73 games in the season before Durant arrived. They became almost unbeatable with him.
The Rockets haven’t won a championship in the Daryl Morey era, but they aren’t far off. They have the highest winning percentage (.833) and point differential (plus-11.17) in the league, and they are second to the Warriors in net rating (plus-11.3 to Golden State’s 12.8). They have no real weaknesses on either side of the ball. They have a top-two offense and top-five defense, the traditional mark of a legitimate contender. All that and Chris Paul has played in only 10 games this season. In a world without Golden State, they would be the favorites to win it all. Slide LeBron into their lineup and they could become a historically great team in their own right.
James Harden would be the best player LeBron has ever played with. Dwyane Wade’s prime years playing with LeBron James were beset by injury, and Kyrie Irving had yet to enter his in Cleveland. Harden is a 28-year-old at the peak of his powers, and he’s LeBron’s biggest competition for MVP this season. His numbers are absurd: 32.3 points, 9.2 assists, and 5.3 rebounds a game on 46.2 percent shooting. The possibilities for what Mike D’Antoni could do on offense with them are endless. A pick-and-roll between LeBron and Harden with three shooters around them would be completely unguardable.
For all the concern about how adding Paul would impact Harden, he has been even better this season next to another star in the backcourt. The Rockets play at such a fast pace and do such a good job of spreading the floor that there are still plenty of shots to go around to keep everyone happy. A Big Three of LeBron, Harden, and Paul would depress their individual statistics, but they would be incredible together in D’Antoni’s system. All three are amazing passers who are shooting better than 40 percent from 3 this season. D’Antoni could keep two of the three on the floor for almost the entire game, and Houston has the supporting cast in place to space the floor for them and do the heavy lifting on defense. LeBron has won three titles, and the Rockets would be the most talented team he has ever been on.
It’s not just the Big Three. Houston would have more depth than either Miami or Cleveland. Clint Capela has taken a big step forward in his fourth NBA season. He’s averaging 13.1 points on 66 percent shooting, 11.2 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in only 25.2 minutes per game. Capela is averaging more rebounds per minute than Tristan Thompson, and he’s better at every other facet of the game. Eric Gordon is the favorite to repeat as Sixth Man of the Year, and his skill set makes him a great fit as a complementary scorer. He’s a volume 3-point shooter who can put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble. Gordon would get nothing but open shots on this version of the Rockets.
D’Antoni would have the lineup flexibility to match up with anyone, even Golden State. Houston has three 3-and-D players on its roster who can stay on the floor against the Lineup of Death: Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and P.J. Tucker. All three can switch screens, guard multiple positions, bang with bigger players in the paint, and keep smaller players in front of them on the perimeter. Just as importantly, they can keep the Warriors honest on defense. Tucker is the worst shooter of the three, and he’s shooting 37.2 percent from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game. Add Nene for extra size off the bench and Houston would have a nine-man rotation that checks every box.
For the first time in his career, LeBron wouldn’t be on a team that needs him to carry it every night. Cleveland has fallen apart as soon as he came out of the game in each of the last four seasons. In 15 seasons in the NBA, LeBron has averaged fewer than 37 minutes per game only twice. Harden is a durable star who has never had a serious injury in his nine-year NBA career, and he could allow James to take nights off in the regular season and save himself for the playoffs. LeBron has more than 1,300 regular-season and playoff games and more than 50,000 combined minutes on his body. It’s well past time for him to move into the type of smaller role Tim Duncan had in his last few years.
The presence of Paul would make LeBron’s transition easier off the court as well. The two were one half of the Banana Boat foursome, and they have been great friends for a long time. D’Antoni is a laid-back coach who would turn the locker room over to Paul and LeBron. They could hold everyone accountable and take some of the leadership pressure off of Harden. The two shouldn’t have much trouble getting their teammates to buy in. Capela is the only player in Houston’s rotation younger than 28. Everyone else in the prime of their career, and they are ready to win.
The key to making the finances work is dumping Ryan Anderson. If the Rockets trade him, they would have $60 million in salary next season, more than $40 million below the projected 2018–19 salary cap of $101 million. Anderson wouldn’t be easy to move. He has two years and $41.7 million on his contract after this season, and he’s a defensive liability who couldn’t stay on the floor against the Spurs in last year’s playoffs. However, his ability to space the floor could improve a lot of teams around the league. The most obvious fit is with his hometown Kings. They won’t have a first-round pick next season, so they have no incentive to tank, and they could use his 3-point shooting to create driving lanes for De’Aaron Fox. Sacramento has the cap space to take Anderson’s contract without sending anything back. Attach a future first-round pick and they should be interested. Even if they aren’t, Daryl Morey is one of the most creative GMs in the league. He will be able to find a home for Anderson if he needs to.
A lot of sacrifice would still be required. Paul, Mbah a Moute, and Ariza will all be unrestricted free agents, while Capela is up for an extension on his rookie contract. Neither LeBron nor Paul could sign maximum contracts if they wanted to team up on the Rockets. LeBron lives in Los Angeles in the offseason, and he would have more off-the-court opportunities if he were there full time. Houston also wouldn’t give him the same power within the franchise as he has in Cleveland. He essentially turned the Cavs into a subsidiary of Klutch Sports, the agency founded by James’s longtime friend Rich Paul, which represents several of their players. Making the Rockets scenario a reality would require a new level of sacrifice from LeBron. The precedent has been set. Curry was wildly underpaid when Durant signed with the Warriors, and Durant left money on the table when he re-signed this offseason.
There are plenty of logistics for Morey to sort out, but everyone involved will have the motivation to make it work. For as well as Cleveland and Houston have been playing recently, both would still be huge underdogs in a seven-game series against Golden State. The Warriors just keep getting better. Their league-leading net rating has increased in each of the past four seasons. They rolled through last year’s playoffs with a 16–1 record, and this year’s version features a completely comfortable Durant and a deeper, more versatile bench. The Cavs don’t have the defensive personnel to guard them, while the Rockets rely on two traditional big men (Anderson and Capela) who will struggle to stay on the floor against their small-ball lineups. Golden State is already one of the greatest teams of all time, and it will take an overwhelming amount of talent to prevent them from winning the next few championships.
Houston’s ability to seamlessly integrate LeBron highlights just how much work he would have to do in Los Angeles, even in a best-case scenario. If the Lakers can dump Luol Deng without taking any money back, they would have the cap space to sign two players to max contracts or split the money between three stars. LeBron may be able to build a superteam with some combination of Paul, Paul George, and DeMarcus Cousins, but the Lakers wouldn’t have the money to sign any role players. They would need to depend on younger guys like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Kyle Kuzma, and they aren’t experienced enough to hold up on defense in a seven-game series against the Warriors. Lonzo and Ingram both have to get much stronger. They are on a different timetable than LeBron. He will be 39 when they are 26. He doesn’t have time to wait for the kids in Los Angeles to grow up.
In all likelihood, LeBron is headed for his third Finals loss in four years to Golden State. Warriors vs. Cavs could have been this generation’s version of Lakers vs. Celtics, but LeBron never had the supporting cast to make it a fair fight. He needed a superhuman performance to beat the Warriors once, in 2016, and they didn’t even have Durant then. He averaged 33.6 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists on 56.4 percent shooting in last year’s Finals, and Cleveland still lost in five games. LeBron in Houston is way scarier for Golden State than anything he could do in Los Angeles. It would be good for everyone. Overwhelming dominance is only so interesting. Even the Warriors seem a little bored this season. The NBA needs someone who can challenge them, and LeBron has only so many years left that he can play at his current level. He needs to go somewhere they won’t be wasted. He needs to go to Houston.