LeBron James’ decision as to whether or not to opt out of the final year of his contract is more than just a formality.
While it’s still unclear who James will be playing for next season, his choice – which must be made by midnight on Friday (EST) – will be telling of where he could potentially end up.
Here’s a look at what LeBron’s decision could mean, one way or the other.
What opting in means
On the surface, James opting into the final year of his deal – which will pay him $35.6 million for 2018-19 – seems like an obvious signal he’ll remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But that’s not necessarily the case.
While that route would technically commit him to the Cavaliers, it actually opens the door for James to go practically anywhere in the league. The reason for that is with James under contract, any team can theoretically trade for him and fit him into their payroll by matching salaries in a swap. It opens the door for teams that otherwise wouldn’t have enough cap space to sign James outright in free agency.
The biggest beneficiary of this scenario is likely the Houston Rockets, who are considered a potential LeBron destination but are strapped for cap space. Instead of general manager Daryl Morey needing to gut the team to sign James in free agency, the Rockets could trade for him and then go over the cap to re-sign Chris Paul and Clint Capela – a key figure to their contention hopes.
Houston basically did this last summer with Paul, who opted in with the Los Angeles Clippers to facilitate a trade to his preferred destination.
James’ decision to opt in could also mean he’s willing to play out another year in Cleveland, but if staying put is what he wants, it may make more sense for him to opt out and sign another one-plus-one deal with a player option on the second year. That buys James more flexibility and protects his earning potential from a potential serious injury.
James opting in would also give the Cavaliers more leverage. Instead of allowing James to find a trade partner, Cleveland could force him to play out the final year of his contract – although that type of hard-ball tactic, especially with someone as powerful as James, would be unwise and leave the Cavaliers with nothing to show for their troubles when he eventually walks out the door next summer.
What opting out means
James opting out drastically limits the field vying for his services. The only teams he’s been linked to that also have the necessary cap space to hand him his max contract are the Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
That puts the onus on the Lakers to get a deal done with the San Antonio Spurs before James’ deadline so LeBron can opt out and sign with Los Angeles in free agency. If he opts in, that would mean the Lakers would have almost no chance at landing both Leonard and James this summer, as one would require most – if not all – of their desirable trade assets.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for everyone involved and while James isn’t facing a deadline on his decision of where he wants to go, it could narrow down his options.
The Clippers shipped guard Austin Rivers for centre Marcin Gortat on Tuesday in a swap of expiring contracts that makes sense for both teams.
For Los Angeles, the trade clears up some of the clutter at the guard position after the team selected Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson in the draft last week, adding to a group that already includes Lou Williams, Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley.
Rivers’ departure means the end of the first situation in NBA history where a player has been coached by his father, which came to fruition when Doc Rivers traded a second-round pick to the Boston Celtics for his son in January 2015.
The elder Rivers received criticism for nepotism, while Austin caught grief for being under the protection of his dad, which he touched upon in his farewell Instagram post.
Rivers wrote: “I know the scenario of me playing for my pops wasn’t easy for people to understand and accept ….some never will, but to the ones who did… I can’t thank you enough. Me and pops did something that has never been done in our sport!! Which was hard for a lot of people to understand but I am grateful for the time I experienced playing for him and the clippers.”
Wow, I really don’t know where to start or how to put all of my emotions and feelings into words . But I’ll just start out by saying Thank You, first and foremost to the city of LA and to the fans of the LA Clippers. You have done nothing but show me love and positivity. The acceptance you gave me along with taking a chance on me 4 years ago, means the world to me! At that time I hadn’t shown much in the league....and was still trying to learn . And for you all to accept me and give me a chance to grow and play means more than you will ever know. People really don’t understand what positivity can do for someone’s confidence. And to the clippers fan base.... I really appreciate you all helping me find my confidence in the league and cheering me along the way. I know the scenario of me playing for my pops wasn’t easy for people to understand and accept ....some never will, but to the ones who did... I can’t thank you enough. Me and pops did something that has never been done in our sport!! Which was hard for a lot of people to understand but I am grateful for the time I experienced playing for him and the clippers. I want to thank all of my team mates aka my brothers. I Really appreciate y’all helping me grow as a player and a person! I also want to thank all of the coaches and all of the staff of the clippers organization! A lot of you don’t get the credit you deserve! From the great training staff, to all the people that make our job and life that much easier, I really am thankful!! Always will love LA and consider it a home! Thanks -AR25 M.o.a.M
After struggling to find his place in the NBA at the time of his arrival in Los Angeles, Rivers made himself into a useful role player with the Clippers and averaged a career-high in minutes (33.7), points (15.1), assists (4.0), rebounds (2.4), steals (1.2) and 3-point percentage (37.8) this past season.
With the Wizards, he’ll join the talented backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal as a player who can come off the bench for reliable minutes – something Washington haven’t had at the guard position in recent years.
“Acquiring Austin gives us another versatile, experienced player who provides scoring and playmaking,” Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. “He is coming off a career year and his ability to create offence for himself and others will help our second unit and allow us to play a variety of lineups throughout the season.”
With Gortat gone, that leaves a massive void at the centre position, where only Ian Mahinmi remains. That could make Washington aggressors for Dwight Howard, who is expected to be bought out from the Brooklyn Nets after being traded by the Charlotte Hornets last week.
Even after moving Gortat, the Wizards remain over the salary cap, but Howard may be willing to join for the mid-level exception, which Washington can still offer as a taxpayer team.
The trade could also impact the future of another centre – DeAndre Jordan.
The Clippers may have acquired Gortat as a replacement to Jordan, who can opt out of his $24.1 million contract by Friday’s deadline.
Even if Jordan decides to play out the final year of his deal, Los Angeles could explore trades for the big man this summer or before February’s trade deadline.
There were rumours the Clippers were exploring deals for Jordan this past season. His skillset is limited, but the 29-year-old, who is coming off a campaign in which he averaged 12.0 points 15.2 rebounds, is one of the best lob threats and rebounders in the league.
For both the Clippers and Wizards, this trade is likely the first domino before a string of more moves.
The Lakers team president hedged on the Lakers’ hopes this summer while also putting pressure on himself in a press conference on Tuesday, when he said the franchise will only have failed in their rebuilding effort if they miss out on a big-name free agent by the end of the 2019 offseason.
“Next summer, if nobody comes and I’m still sitting here like this, then it’s a failure. But if you judge us on one summer, that’s ridiculous. Then a lot of dudes shouldn’t be in their roles. Because if we’re banking on one summer for the Lakers, we’re in trouble,” Johnson said.
“Like I told you before I took the job and when I took the job, it’s going to be a two-summer thing for the Lakers,” he added. “This summer and next summer. That’s it. If I can’t deliver I’m going to step down myself. She [team controlling owner Jeanie Buss] won’t have to fire me, I’ll step away from it, because [then] I can’t do this job.”
Magic Johnson reiterated he will not force anything in free agency and makes it very clear he isn’t feeling any pressure as he heads into this vital free agency. pic.twitter.com/h0NkBldSUw— Ohm Youngmisuk (@NotoriousOHM) June 26, 2018
Johnson’s comments may indicate multiple things, with the most obvious being the Lakers are trying to soften the blow if they fail to add either LeBron James, Paul George or Kawhi Leonard this summer.
George has been linked to the Lakers for more than a year now, but there has been buzz that he’s considering spending at least one more year in Oklahoma City.
Leonard has reportedly made it clear to the San Antonio Spurs that he wants a trade to the Lakers, but he technically won’t have control over his situation until he hits free agency next summer.
And if neither George or Leonard head to Los Angeles, that may deter James from relocating out west. James alone wouldn’t turn the Lakers into a championship contender, so it’s possible he may also stay in Cleveland for another season before surveying the landscape in a year’s time.
However, Johnson’s bold statement that he will step down if he can’t return the Lakers to prominence could also mean he’s supremely confident that the team will get something done with one of the three aforementioned stars.
Either way, the next few weeks will be extremely telling.