James had seven days left before he had to make a decision whether to exercise his player option which would have paid him $20 million next season. By announcing an opt out now, he gives the rest of the NBA time to make moves and get strategies in place two days before the draft. It also puts pressure on the Heat to get their plan in place after a bitter end to the season. The threat of losing the best player in basketball is real for Miami and they will have to amend their roster drastically to make James comfortable.
By opting out before the draft, hundreds of possible scenarios are in play, not the least of which would be the Cavs making a move with the first pick. The Cavs could trade for a veteran like Kevin Love to make themselves championship ready for James.
After the humiliating Finals loss to the Spurs, James said he would first get away with his family to clear his mind. After a brief vacation he said he would talk to the organization and later with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. He took the vacation, but it is almost certain he didn't meet with Wade and Bosh. After a difficult season and a worse Finals, it appears James had made it clear what he thinks about the money owed to Wade and Bosh.
So where could James wind up next year? The short answer is anywhere he wants. There are only a handful of teams that wouldn't do everything in their power to retain his services. There are also only a handful of teams that have the available cap space as currently constructed.
Unlike leaving Cleveland, Miami is not James' team. Although he is the leader and clearly the best player, the city still belongs to Wade, making an exit much easier than his first decision. Riley and Arison should be very aware of that and do what is necessary to keep him. They certainly want to stay loyal to Wade, so it will take a lot of juggling or a lot of spending should Wade opt in.
If James leaves Miami, home to Cleveland would be the most likely destination. Aside from returning home, Cleveland is the only team that wouldn't make James appear to be a mercenary. Legacy is still very important to James. If he starts bouncing around the league chasing championships, his critics will always have ammunition to belittle his achievements.
The next obstacle is the roster. They have Kyrie Irving and some intriguing young talent, but absolutely no playoff experience or veteran leadership. The Cavs would have to sacrifice the number one draft pick to acquire a big name to entice James. That's a serious gamble, and one Gilbert might not be ready to take.
Finally, they would have to sell James on newly hired head coach David Blatt. He is highly regarded as an excellent international basketball coach, but he is unknown to players in the U.S. Cleveland probably won't have the time to make a proper pitch for Blatt and would need someone within James' inner circle to convince him he is the right fit.
The remaining potential destinations are total speculation. There is a case to be made for nearly every team. Here are the one's I find most intriguing.
1. Miami Heat
2. Cleveland Cavaliers
3. L.A. Clippers: They give James the best chance to win a championship next season. James is extremely close with Chris Paul and he adores Doc Rivers. They are championship ready with three contracts they could shed to create cap space. They would most likely have to part ways with Deandre Jordan which would be tough, but to get James in exchange would be well worth it. If the Donald Sterling saga comes to a conclusion and Steve Ballmer is able to retain ownership, it is very likely he would be willing to pay luxury tax. He overpaid for the Clippers by about a billion. What's another $30 million? I would love to see Blake Griffin and James on the same team.
4. Houston Rockets: They've reportedly been making plans to put a full press on Carmelo Anthony. If they can get James at the same asking price, that's certainly the direction they will go. They have some pieces to move before this can become a reality, but a starting lineup of Patrick Beverly, James Harden, James, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard is scary. They won't have any depth on the bench unless the domino effect of signing James provides them with some veterans willing to take a discount. It's intriguing, but I'm not sure James would want to play with Harden or for a team that has no interest in defense.
5. Atlanta Hawks: It's doubtful because it's Atlanta, but there are some interesting theories as to how this would work. Head coach and long time Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer has already got momentum on his side with a nice playoff showing this season. He is striving to make the Hawks the Spurs of the East which might be attractive to James after watching the system precision of the Spurs in the Finals. By clearing some space and getting a healthy Al Horford back, the Hawks could trot out a lineup of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, James, Paul Millsap and Horford. Not too shabby. He would play with teammates that complement his skill set and that would have no problem letting him come in and be the man.
The rest of the teams in play (but really not) are as follows:
6. Brooklyn Nets: Because Mikhail Prokhorov will not spare any expense, but they are too old.
7. New York Knicks: Because he could sign with Anthony and play under Phil Jackson, albeit through Derrick Fisher, but they have a crazy owner and an incomplete roster.
8. Chicago Bulls: Because they would be a true contender instantly and they have some cap space and a great head coach, but it was Jordan's team, Joakim Noah hates him and it would be another slap in the face to Cleveland.
9. Phoenix Suns: Because they have the money to give him a max contract and they are on the rise, but they aren't championship ready.
10. Dallas Mavericks: Because they have the cap space, but Dirk Nowitzki is an older second option than Wade and they're in the same division as the Spurs.