Free Agent Stock Watch: LeBron James

If LeBron James has learned anything in the nearly four years since he took his talents to South Beach, it’s not to create another frenzy about his next free agent move. This time, the four-time MVP’s choice will simply be a decision, and not “The Decision,” the title of the ESPN telecast on which he announced his intention to sign with the Heat in 2010. James told media at the beginning of the season that he wouldn’t address his ability to opt out of his contract and hit the market this summer, and he’s largely kept his word. The vacuum of information from James himself has led to speculation and rumors, but not nearly as much as has revolved around Carmelo Anthony, who made it clear before the season that he wants to opt out and become a free agent.

Another reason why there hasn’t been much hype around James is the success that he and the Heat are enjoying. There’s been no 27-game win streak like last year, but the Heat remain a strong title contender, and if they win their third straight championship, it would seem counterintuitive for James not to try for a fourth. James, in a rare break from his silence about his potential free agency, said last month that he couldn’t envision himself leaving the Heat, though he insisted that he won’t make up his mind until the season is over. A report soon thereafter from Sam Amico of Fox Sports Ohio indicated that most NBA executives reportedly feel as though it’s a two-team race between the Heat and the Cavaliers, with the Heat way out in front. Amico wrote much the same today, though he cautions that most of it is merely educated guesswork from people around the league.

A confidant of James recently revealed to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News that Phil Jackson‘s arrival in New York would prompt the superstar to at least consider signing with the Knicks. That wouldn’t have otherwise happened thanks in part to James’ falling out with the Creative Artists Agency, his former representation and a firm with close ties to the Knicks. New York remains a long shot regardless of Jackson and CAA because the Knicks lack cap flexibility for next summer. The team would surely do all that it could to trade away salary and clear room for James if he wanted to sign there, but that wouldn’t be an easy task, particularly with Amar’e Stoudemire‘s cap-clogging $23.4MM salary for 2014/15.

Still, a lack of cap flexibility didn’t stop Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of from writing in February that the Clippers are “perhaps the most serious competitor” the Heat have for James. A source close to James told Windhorst and Shelburne that the 29-year-old will consider teams without cap room. That means the Heat would have to cooperate in a sign-and-trade, and executives around the league think they’d ask for Blake Griffin from the Clippers if James insisted on such a move. Miami would probably hold out for similar ransoms from other capped-out teams, and James could be less inclined to sign with those clubs if they’re stripped of other significant talent. The Clippers could work out salary-dumping moves with other teams to open cap space, but those trades would also probably mean parting with a key contributor or two.

James, like the other two Heat stars, isn’t planning a hometown discount for the Heat, according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News, and that suggests that the Rich Paul client is looking for the maximum payday wherever he goes. He could make slightly more than $115MM over five years from the Heat and close to $85.5MM over four years from another team, as Luke Adams of Hoops Rumors explained before the season. That nearly $30MM chasm would be mitigated by a new contract that gives James the maximum salary in what would otherwise be the fifth year of a deal with the Heat, meaning the difference is actually only about $6MM. Still, that doesn’t take into account changes that could come about if the league and players, as expected, opt out of the collective bargaining agreement in the summer of 2017, when James would only be three years into his next deal. There’s no telling if James will still be an all-world force after four more years, when he’ll be 33. So, a legitimate financial incentive exists for James to sign a new five-year max deal with the Heat this summer.

Stll, the most lucrative path might be for James to opt into his current deal for at least one more season, since that would give him a higher 2014/15 salary than he could get in any new contract. Amico’s latest report casts that as unlikely, given the general assumption that most NBA players enjoy being the subject of free agent recruitment. It’s certainly no given that James will opt out, however. I wouldn’t be surprised if he opts in, particularly since it would allow him to make as much money as possible next season while still granting him the flexibility to make a choice again next summer, when he’d hold a player option for 2015/16.

The notion that James might not even become a free agent this summer makes every team aside from the Heat something of a long shot to sign him. The Cavs make sense as the leading non-Miami candidate for him, since James has spent the vast majority of his life in northeast Ohio and still owns a house in his native Akron. Of course, James also has a house in South Florida, too, and he didn’t win a championship until he fled Cleveland. The Cavs don’t appear anywhere close to title contention these days. The odds that they’ll overtake the Hawks for the final playoff berth this season are growing worse, seemingly by the day. Kyrie Irving is already a marquee player, and former No. 4 overall picks Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson are on the rise, but even with James, the Cavs wouldn’t approach the sort of “super team” label that was affixed to the Heat in 2010. The presence of James would ostensibly make Cleveland a more attractive free agent destination, but no superstars signed with the team when James was there the first time.

There’s a team that’s even lower in this year’s standings that might have a better shot at surrounding James with free agent talent. There’s been precious little talk connecting James to the Lakers since a July report from Shelburne and Windhorst noted that the Lakers had him in their sights for 2014. That was before the Lakers signed Kobe Bryant to a two-year, $48.5MM extension that kicks in for 2014/15, compromising the team’s cap space. They’d still have enough room for James this summer, plus perhaps another top-tier free agent in 2015, when Kevin Love, Rajon Rondo, LaMarcus Aldridge and others could become available. Bryant’s ability to recover from a season lost almost in its entirety because of injuries could be the stumbling block to their pursuit of James, since he won’t have a chance to see the 35-year-old shooting guard perform in an NBA game this year. If there’s fear about how Wade, at 32, will hold up, the same is true about Bryant.

The uncertainty over where James will end up next season will make his choice a major story at some point, regardless of how little insight he gives us about his intentions. It won’t be like 2010, but James probably won’t exactly get to enjoy a quiet start to his summer vacation. At least a few teams will probably hold off on other business until they know what James is going to do. I expect he’ll attempt to defuse the hubbub with as quick a decision as possible, and if he feels strongly about staying with the Heat, he might make an announcement well in advance of July 1st, when he’s set to become a free agent. As soon as the Heat are either eliminated from contention or lift the Larry O’Brien trophy, the attention will zero in on the league’s pre-eminent star. What happens from there will shape the 2014 free agent market, the 2014/15 season, and, depending on his choice, the 2015 free agent market, too.

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