Following his team’s NBA Finals loss to the San Antonio Spurs, LeBron James has decided to opt out his contract with the Miami Heat and become a free agent. With two years and $43 million remaining on his contract, James will now have an opportunity to weigh his options, which will still include the Heat. James had until the end of the month to make a decision, but with the top basketball player in the world making an early decision there will be ripples that affect the way the NBA Draft plays out.
Free agency negotiations do not begin until July 1, and signings cannot occur until July 8 (when the salary cap is officially set). However, that does not mean the Heat will not have some inkling of what their superstar plans on doing. If James does indeed intend to leave Miami, it could send the reigning Eastern Conference champions into an immediate rebuild. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have the same early termination option as James, and may want to follow suit if their top star decides he wants to flee the scene. Alternatively, if James gives the impression that he is leaving and either of the other big three plan to stay, Miami could look to trade them leading up to the draft.
Signing LeBron James is basically a free ticket to the conference finals, so while every team would probably make any moves necessary to clear the cap space for him to come in, it really is only a feasible option for a few. Having the talent to entice James away from a great situation in Miami is something even fewer teams have. The only team drafting near the top that has both the cap space and talent potential to allure James would probably be the Philadelphia 76ers. It seems unlikely that James looks that direction, but if the Sixers think they have a shot it could cause them to lean away from drafting a small forward like Jabari Parker, or another ball handler like Dante Exum. They may instead look towards acquiring a Bosh-esque floor spacing big man like Noah Vonleh.
While the rumors–or wishes– for James to return to Cleveland have been occurring for almost as long as he has been gone, the situation just does not appear realistic. The Cavaliers are in worse shape than when James left, in spite of having the top pick for the third time in four years. The better bets to land LeBron James are some of the teams who fared much better last year, such as the Houston Rockets. While the Rockets are over the salary cap, they could potentially clear the space for another max or near-max contract. They were rumored to be targeting another early opt out free agent in Carmelo Anthony, and could shift their sights with James on the market.
Should that happen, the Rockets’ pick at No. 25 in the first round will definitely be on the table, as a money saving measure. The same can be said of the Chicago Bulls, who could pair James with a healthy Derek Rose to sport two former MVPs and the reigning defensive player of the year in Joakim Noah. They still hold their amnesty, which could be used on Carlos Boozer, and have two first round picks (No. 16 and No. 19) that they could pair with players to shed more salary.
Teams looking to getting under the salary cap to make a run at LeBron James will have to look to move their first rounders, so there could be a flurry of deals before and during the draft. Ditching first round picks saves guaranteed salary paid to rookies, or the picks could be used on draft-and-stash players from overseas who can be signed during another off-season. The picks could also be used to entice teams to take on salary, like when the Pistons gave the Bobcats a first round pick to take on Ben Gordon’s salary, allowing Detroit to sign Josh Smith and Brandon Jennings.
Even if James intends on returning to Miami, the allure of him as a free agent is sure to shake up the NBA draft. As his last run through free agency showed, even a tiny chance to sign LeBron James is enough to drive teams wild. While it should be expected that James will stay put, look for any front office with even a sliver of hope to make the appropriate moves needed to sign James, and that begins on draft day.
Commentary by Brian Moore