Every four years, the basketball world holds its collective breath and waits for LeBron James to decide which team he’ll carry to the NBA Finals on an annual basis next. We’ve been through all this before: In 2010, James took his talents from Cleveland to South Beach (where he won two championships). In 2014, he went back home to the Cavs (and won yet another ring). So … what’s in store for LeBron as a free agent now? We can’t shed any light on what team he will pick this summer, but we can offer a little advice about which team he should pick.
Using our CARMELO player projections and a little modeling of each team’s salary-cap situation, we created 30 hypothetical LeBron James free-agency scenarios, one for each NBA franchise. Not every team can afford to outright sign LeBron, of course, so we had to make some trades1 and shuffle around some salaries to squeeze him onto each roster — sometimes at the cost of many other promising players. (On the other hand, a few teams even managed to snag another big-time free agent — such as Paul George — to accompany LeBron, although that arrangement was rare.) Based on each team’s projected talent level and average age2 after adding LeBron, we then estimated its odds of winning at least one NBA championship over the next four years — which, based on LeBron’s history, is presumably how long he’d sign on to a new city.
Of course, winning rings is only part of the equation behind any LeBron decision. The other half: legacy. How will a new team affect how James is perceived in the greater pantheon of NBA legends? To measure that, we took an informal straw poll of FiveThirtyEight staffers and friends of the site, asking them to rate how much each destination would help or hurt James’s legacy, in a narrative sense.3 On our scale, a “0” means going to that team would damage James’s reputation among historical greats, while a “10” means that making the move would benefit it. (Admittedly, it’s not the most scientific metric in the world. OK, fine, it’s not at all scientific.)
Finally, we merged together the two sets of ratings — the coldly analytical probability of a championship and the subjectively emotional legacy grades — to help come up with the perfect place for LeBron to spend the next phase of his career.4
Don’t even think about it
We can cross a few choices off the list for LeBron right away. Some teams, such as the Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, neither add to the narrative arc of LeBron’s career nor offer him any real chance to win future championships. Others, such as the Golden State Warriors and Boston Celtics, provide a very good chance to win but would actively damage LeBron’s legacy if he signed there, since they’d require him to stoop to Kevin Durant’s level and join a talented longtime rival. Still others, such as the New York Knicks, would be great picks in terms of narrative — except that they’ve botched their rosters so badly that even with LeBron, winning would be nearly impossible.
Those five teams and 16 others5 have nothing to offer James in either area that another team in the league can’t at least match. So according to the principle of Pareto efficiency — which says we can rule out any destinations for which there is another choice that improves LeBron’s standing on one dimension without reducing it on the other dimension — he shouldn’t waste his time even thinking about them as potential landing spots.
Sorry, Knicks fans: Maybe they’ll be able to make a better pitch in four years.
Fine options … but not the best
Next up, we have a group of teams that James either is reportedly considering or should consider — they’re roughly as good as the ones he is thinking about. These teams are still not Pareto optimal, in the sense that there are others out there that can offer a greater chance of winning a ring and/or better narrative value, but these clubs are close enough to think about.
The Heat, which are nearly $20 million over the salary cap even if they renounce all their free agents, probably couldn’t sign LeBron this summer without some massive wheeling and dealing to trade away contracts. But they could pick him up in a trade if he opts into the final year of his Cavs contract and Cleveland works a deal with Miami, which would probably require the Heat to send away such valuable pieces as Kelly Olynyk, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo and/or Josh Richardson in the process.
After all that roster-gutting, the Heat would be left with a supporting cast that isn’t much better than the one James had in Cleveland this year, so LeBron wouldn’t stand to gain much on the championship front by choosing Miami. The only reason Miami even ranks in this group at all is that it had the sixth-best narrative grade of any NBA team, perhaps because we’ve seen LeBron in a Heat jersey before and it would be a second homecoming of sorts. But aside from that (and the fact that our algorithm isn’t accounting for Pat Riley’s knack for recruiting star talent), it’s tough to recommend a second stint in Miami for James.
This is admittedly a strange option, since most stars who find themselves on the T-Wolves have eventually left Minnesota before all was said and done. The Wolves are also capped out and would need to go the opt-in, then-trade route with James and the Cavs to snag The King. But depending on who the Wolves would send to Cleveland — dare we say Andrew Wiggins, back to the team who drafted him? — James could have a very strong talent base to work with. Even in the more likely scenario, that James is dealt for Jimmy Butler and Gorgui Dieng for salary-matching purposes,6 with another cheap/decent piece coming back from Cleveland to balance things out, the Wolves would have a 50-50 shot at a title with LeBron over the next four seasons.
So from the perspective of winning ballgames, James could certainly do worse than jetting to the Twin Cities. Our legacy grade for the T-Wolves, however, ranks 14th in the league, meaning that they’re sort of a neutral destination. He can probably do better.
If James is going to join up with a younger superstar, he might as well go all-out and pick Anthony Davis as his running mate. CARMELO projects Davis to be the eleventh-most valuable player in the league over the next seven seasons, and his game could mesh with James’s in interesting ways. Add in the possibility that New Orleans also re-signs DeMarcus Cousins, and the potential exists for James to forge a new Big Three in the Big Easy.
That team would have basically a coin flip’s chance of winning at least one NBA title over the next four years, and the Pelicans would boast a stronger narrative value for LeBron’s career arc than the T-Wolves, according to our straw poll. (Maybe simply because New Orleans is viewed as a more exciting city than Minneapolis?) It’s a long shot, but James knows better than anybody about the championship potential of three major stars on the same team.
Surprised to see the Lakers in this tier of teams? I was, too. After all, Los Angeles is the betting favorite to land James this summer — particularly since he might be able to lure at least one other superstar (Paul George) to join him, if not two (if only the Spurs would cooperate on that front). Of course, there’s no “potential to make boatloads of money outside of basketball” variable in these ratings — we’re not factoring in James’s stated desire to follow Michael Jordan on the path to billionaire status.
But, realistically speaking, the Lakers might not be as strong an on-court contender as we think, even if they do snag both James and George. To facilitate that deal, they probably wouldn’t be able to bring back free-agent forward Julius Randle for next year’s team, leaving the two stars with an extremely young supporting cast of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. That’s a promising young core, but our research has shown that teams need more star power than that to realistically contend for titles.
In the parlance of my boss, Nate Silver, James is an “Alpha” (meaning a top-tier star) and George is probably a “Gamma” (the third, and lowest, tier of star).7 Unless one of LA’s other young players develops into at least a Gamma in his own right — and CARMELO thinks that’s a possibility only with Ball — the LeBron/PG-13 Lakers would still be a bit short of a championship talent base. There’s no denying the narrative value of James reviving one of the league’s proudest franchises, but there are probably better destinations if he wants to win rings while he’s still playing at his highest level.
If the Lakers are being overvalued as a destination for James, the Jazz are undervalued. LeBron and his people don’t seem to be even entertaining offers from Utah — not that we’d expect them to — but they should be. If James joins the Jazz, which he could do as a free agent if Utah finds takers for veterans such as Ricky Rubio, Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko in separate trades,8 he’d find himself surrounded by rising young star Donovan Mitchell and reigning defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert — making for an underrated Big Three — plus some intriguing supporting pieces such as Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale.
The weakness for the Jazz comes in terms of LeBron’s legacy-building, where Utah ranked only 10th in our straw poll. It’s tough to even think of the last veteran of any repute who willingly switched teams to join the Jazz — Pete Maravich, Bernard King and Jeff Hornacek all arrived via trade, so it may have been Carlos Boozer in 2004 — and the lasting image of Utah on the championship stage is Jordan releasing his final shot as a Chicago Bull over Bryon Russell. But just the same, Utah’s current potential to blossom around James could provide him with an interesting way to one-up MJ, finally bringing a title to his longtime foil.
The top four
Strong candidates though they are, each of the teams listed above can still be beaten in both the championship-potential and narrative departments by at least one other squad. That cannot be said, however, about the following teams, meaning that each is operating at the Pareto frontier: LeBron cannot maximize things in one dimension without sacrificing along the other dimension.
But that doesn’t mean each choice below is created equal. Here are our four best picks for LeBron, roughly in reverse order from the weakest combination of winning plus legacy to the strongest:
Just as they were back in 2010, the Cavaliers are the sentimental choice. Cleveland ranks far and away as No. 1 in our legacy poll,9 with the lowest standard deviation in that grade as well. (So, pretty much everyone agreed that returning to Cleveland would have great narrative value for James’s career.) In fact, perhaps the only thing that could top LeBron’s 2014 return to the Cavs and his subsequent title run would be if he stayed with them now and continued to battle against the Warriors on the off-chance that he could engineer another monumental upset.
However, LeBron’s championship ambitions may have outgrown the Cavs once again. This roster is capped out ($45 million over the salary cap if they sign LeBron to a max deal10) and significantly over the luxury tax line as well. It’s unlikely that Cleveland would be able to go into 2018-19 with anything better than the group that stabilized the team’s season after a big trade-deadline shakeup. That crew proved (barely) good enough to win the East but was crushed in the NBA Finals despite James’s heroics, and it’s primed to decline further as time passes.11 Our metrics give LeBron a mere 1-in-4 chance of winning another title over the next four years if he stays in Cleveland, roughly the same odds as he’d have in Orlando, Atlanta or Memphis. It might be time for James to take his talents elsewhere again.
The Spurs are one of the most interesting choices for LeBron, given how glowingly he has spoken of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich (and vice versa), as well as the place the Spurs have in the mythology of James’s career. To join the team, LeBron would probably take the opt-in-and-trade route, with the Spurs potentially sending some combination of Danny Green and the injured/disgruntled Kawhi Leonard back to balance the salaries and talent being swapped.
The Spurs have some cap flexibility, so they could snag James via trade and, say, re-sign free agent forward Kyle Anderson, too. In essence, they’d be adding LeBron to the majority of a core that won 47 games without Leonard last season, which isn’t a bad selling point. Combine that with a strong narrative score (third-best in our poll), and the Spurs have a lot going for them in the LeBron derby. Having said that, they might not even be the best choice within the state of Texas …
If LeBron wants to win right away, the Houston Rockets are the obvious choice. The salary-cap machinations would be involved — James would have to opt into the final year of his Cavs contract, and the teams would need to work a trade that basically guts Houston’s entire roster, all while the Rockets would probably want to simultaneously re-sign Chris Paul and Clint Capela to new contracts as well. The resulting luxury-tax bill would be enormous, and it’s not clear how James, Paul and James Harden would play together. But if it all came together — and last year’s Rockets could help assuage some of those concerns about fit — this Houston superteam might instantly have a better NBA-title shot than even the Warriors (!) do.12
Perhaps the only question is whether the potential for championships outweighs the negative effects such a move might have on the narrative arc of LeBron’s career. According to our straw poll, Houston was the ninth-most-damaging potential location for James’s legacy — though it was also the most polarizing destination in the poll. Through one lens, James’s suiting up for the Rockets could be viewed as “taking the easy way out” to join up with other stars. But it could also be spun as an Avengers-style team-up, with the mission of ending the Warriors’ stranglehold on the league.
The Philadelphia 76ers don’t offer James the best odds of winning a title during his next contract, nor do they provide his best narrative potential. But the Sixers are the team with the best mix of both factors — and that’s why, out of all 30 possible destinations, Philadelphia should be LeBron’s next home.
The Sixers have an unmatched base of budding talent in center Joel Embiid and point guard Ben Simmons — the closest thing the NBA has to the Orlando Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal/Penny Hardaway tandem of yesteryear. They also boast improving young forward Dario Saric, 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz and unsung supporting star (at least, in the eyes of the advanced metrics) Robert Covington. And Philly has the cap space to sign James outright if it can find a taker for Jerryd Bayless’s expiring contract and perhaps either Justin Anderson or Richaun Holmes in related trades. So to bring LeBron aboard, it wouldn’t have to gut its entire roster (but would probably have to sacrifice pending free-agent shooter JJ Redick).
The Sixers also have a strong narrative argument to present The King. Philly ranks among the league’s most historic franchises, having won the third-most games of any NBA club ever (trailing only the Celtics and Lakers). Yet LeBron would be no bandwagon-jumper if he signed there — the team hasn’t won an NBA title since 1983, when another former MVP (Moses Malone) joined forces with Julius Erving and company to win a championship. According to our straw poll, Philadelphia had the fourth-best legacy-building potential for LeBron of any team in the league, in addition to the third-best championship potential. For our money, that’s a difficult combo to beat.
Yes, there are real concerns about how Simmons, a ball-dominant point guard who literally never shoots 3-pointers, would coexist with James, who has tended to run his own show with the ball (and who had to work years to refine his shooting touch). Fultz was a mess most of his rookie season, Embiid has a long history of injuries (plus his personality is an acquired taste), and the team is rolling with coach Brett Brown as GM right now, after Bryan Colangelo resigned amid a scandal involving burner Twitter accounts. But every destination has its flaws. Philly gives James the best combination of championship potential and possible upside for his brand as an all-time NBA legend. That’s why, this time around, LeBron should take his talents to South Broad.