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Could We Be Entering the Dawn of the Mercenary LeBron Era?

With the Cavaliers up against the wall in the Eastern Conference finals, it’s time to ponder the King’s upcoming summer. He could very well change the way we think about free agency … again.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

LeBron James has fallen on hard times in this postseason. The Cavaliers are a dented car heading home from Boston, running on empty with tape holding together a cracked windshield and dragging the tailpipe along the pavement. And it’s the King behind the wheel.

The Cavaliers are such a disaster that even some of their loyal fans think LeBron should bounce this summer. Aside from winning the Finals, losing to the Celtics is the best thing that could happen for James. He wouldn’t have to deal with the scrutiny of having another Finals loss on his record, and the roster is in such disarray that it’s easier than ever to denounce the Cavaliers front office for its decisions.

The blame game has already started. In the past few days, it was reported that LeBron and Tyronn Lue never wanted to trade Kyrie Irving even if the Nets pick were included (in August, a league sourced told me that James and Lue “cooled” on the deal after learning the extent of Isaiah Thomas’s health concerns), and that LeBron wanted the Cavs to acquire DeAndre Jordan, not the collection of misfits they ended up acquiring at the trade deadline. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst wrote this week that the Cavaliers have “organizational fatigue.” James, for his part, hasn’t exactly helped in that regard. The max-level one-and-one deals he’s signed since rejoining the Cavs in 2014 have anchored the team in cap hell and contributed to the position they’re facing today.

But LeBron can walk out the door unscathed, pointing the finger at Cavs owner Dan Gilbert on his way out. James earned that right after helping lead Cleveland to its first championship in 52 years with a historic 3-1 comeback against the Warriors. But it was James’s heroics that season that led Kevin Durant to join the Warriors juggernaut mere weeks later. The league is still feeling the ripple effects of Durant’s decision. And so here we are, with James once again staring down a decision that will change the NBA as we know it.

There’s no perfect destination for LeBron, but from the time I first reported last June that LeBron had eyes for Los Angeles, it’s become apparent that the teams he’s reportedly interested in—favorites like the Rockets, Sixers, and Lakers, or dark horses like the Heat or Clippers—are better equipped to build a true contender than the Cavaliers are. Those teams are all either better, younger, and/or have more flexibility to make impact additions than Cleveland. LeBron should leave. The tough part is figuring out where he should go.

Clutch City’s New Resident?

The Rockets are the most worthy rival to this Warriors dynasty yet. We found out on Wednesday night what happens when their extreme system starts to click. P.J. Tucker can make you pay. Eric Gordon can make you suffer. The Rockets relentlessly attacked Steph Curry like you would a player who missed five-plus weeks with a sprained MCL. Suddenly we have at least one compelling series in the conference finals.

But there’s plenty of doubt about Houston’s chances, especially now that Golden State stole home-court advantage. The only way to leave no doubt in anyone’s mind is to do what the Warriors did on July 4, 2016, when they signed Durant. If the Warriors storm back to decisively claim this series, you can bet that Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and new owner Tilman Fertitta will think big this offseason. There’s nothing bigger than pursuing the King.

Houston has two superstar guards who can call their own number on any given possession, but having a bigger creator would give the Rockets more flexibility with their play choices and lineups. It’s fun to dream about James screening for Chris Paul, receiving the ball on the pick-and-pop, then attacking a closeout before kicking the ball out to James Harden for a wide-open 3. LeBron is at his best when the floor is spaced by four shooters; he’d have that in Houston and the two best playmakers he’s ever played with in his entire career. What better way to ease into your mid-30s than to play more off the ball alongside Harden and Paul?

There have been rumblings all season that Houston will pursue James, and the interest could be mutual if the King still has a desire to join forces with his Banana Boat brother CP3. But if Morey flexed all of his GM muscles to land Paul last summer in a blockbuster trade, he’ll have to channel Arnold Schwarzenegger to acquire LeBron—or any star, for that matter. Their cap situation makes it impossible for the Rockets to sign LeBron, re-sign Paul and Clint Capela to max deals, and bring back Trevor Ariza. James and Paul would have to work out discount shenanigans to make it work, which seems improbable. LeBron hasn’t taken less than the max since leaving Miami, and Paul agreeing to take less money as the NBPA president would be a lousy look.

More realistically, James could do what Paul did: opt in, and force a trade to Houston. But that gets messy. Remember last summer when the Rockets had trouble dumping Ryan Anderson? That problem isn’t going away, because Anderson has two years and $41.7 million remaining on his deal. Dumping Anderson would require mortgaging future assets in the form of draft picks to make it work. Eric Gordon would need to be traded too, though that shouldn’t be too difficult: He has plenty of value around the league as a high-powered scoring guard.

Morey is one of the best at creating cap space out of thin air—his sign-and-trade for Paul last summer should be taught in GM school—but it wouldn’t be easy to acquire James and bring back Paul, Capela, and Ariza without depleting the roster of vital contributors. Then again, D’Antoni uses only seven players in the postseason anyway. If LeBron wants to join the Rockets this offseason, Morey should do whatever it takes to court the King.

Trust LeProcess

The Sixers are in an intoxicating position heading into the future, with two of the NBA’s brightest young stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, the no. 10 pick in the upcoming draft, and the cap space to sign a free agent to a max contract. It’d be a lot less trouble for LeBron to sign with them for his projected max of $35.4 million than join the Rockets. Plus, their path to the NBA Finals is smoother.

But while James would fit seamlessly alongside Harden and Paul, there are more questions with the Sixers. Embiid still has durability concerns, and he’s still only an average floor spacer, shooting 32.7 percent from 3 for his career. Simmons can’t shoot at all. Unless Simmons develops a reliable shot this summer, the dynamic would have to change drastically knowing James would take the ball out of the hands of the likely Rookie of the Year.

That might not be such a bad thing. Playing alongside his looper would force the young Aussie to expand his game and learn the intricacies of cutting and screening, and the basics of shooting a basketball. James could effectively teach Simmons the ropes of being a superstar, then pass the baton once that time comes. But is James trying to be a mentor or to win?

If I were the Sixers, I’d push hard for Kawhi Leonard, who’s spent time rehabbing in New York under the care of Dr. Jonathan Glashow, the 76ers’ chief medical officer. If the Sixers went all in with a monster trade package headlined by Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, the no. 10 pick, draft-and-stashes, and Jerryd Bayless’s salary, they could theoretically have a Big Three with Embiid, Simmons, and Leonard, and still retain max cap space to sign James if J.J. Redick agreed to a deal worth less than $10 million annually. If Philly can get assurances of both Leonard’s health—Glashow must know—and James’s interest in joining the team, then that admittedly rich trade package is reasonable. Their lineup of Embiid, Simmons, James, Leonard, and Redick would be outrageous, and so lethal with its blend of size and skill that even the Warriors would have a hard time matching up with their frontcourt of Durant and Draymond Green.

It’s really just a matter of what the Spurs would want in a package. I’ve heard from multiple NBA executives that San Antonio won’t settle for anything less than a grand-slam offer. If offers were underwhelming around the draft and the start of free agency, the Spurs might opt to let the saga drag into training camp, or even into the season. Leonard could always rekindle his relationship with the team, or return to the floor and increase his trade value. But the Spurs must also remember the Raptors’ trials and tribulations with Vince Carter, who was disgruntled during the summer of 2004 and into the season. The Raptors waited too long, trading Carter for two mid-first-round picks, two role players, and a washed Alonzo Mourning only after Toronto and its star had reached a breaking point. The Spurs are skating on thin ice, and there might not be a better trading partner in the league than the Sixers.

Hollywood As Hell … Again

Several possible factors in LeBron’s decision-making process have been raised by league sources: a place to raise his family; a place where he will have the best shot at winning more championships; a place where he can begin setting up his post-playing career and dip into the world of entertainment and team ownership.

The Lakers, more than any other team in the league, sit at the nexus of all the reasons LeBron would want to join a franchise. Much like the Sixers, the Lakers can try to trade for Leonard (with a package built around Brandon Ingram and/or Kyle Kuzma with future picks), or (more realistically) they can sign a second star free agent like Paul George, or hold off until 2019 and sign Leonard outright. Veteran free agents would flock to Los Angeles to play with the Lakers, and as Ingram, Kuzma, and Lonzo Ball all develop, it may not be long until they can contend.

But the Lakers aren’t ready yet, and with so many moving parts, decamping for a blank slate of a team might be a hard pill to swallow when there are other teams he could join that are closer to title contention. James is a mortal, despite how hard he’s tried to convince us otherwise over the course of his 15-year career. His next decision could be his last one as a transcendent player.

LeBron is the most powerful player in basketball. He’s already once changed the way players understand their power as free agents, and he can “break the mold” again this summer. He can have his cake and eat it, too, by signing one- or two-year deals with teams on the brink of contention. That could be the Rockets this summer, then the Sixers in a year or two, then the Lakers around 2021. It would be the dawn of Mercenary LeBron.

Mercenary LeBron seems like NBA fan fiction, but it’s something to consider since his extended stays seem to last one year too long. The Heatles were in shambles by their fourth season, much like the Cavs are now. There’d be no greater legacy than to win across eras with players from different generations, and LeBron has the unique opportunity to take that kind of legacy to its outer limits. Houston appears to be a worthy adversary to the Warriors’ reign of terror, but there’s one player who can make sure that’s the case. It’s time for LeBron to build another titan.