The odds are out on where LeBron James will play next season, and his decision could have a huge impact on the Western Conference. James could still exercise his $35.6 million player-option and return to Cleveland, but the more likely scenario is to decline the option and hit the open market.
According to the odds, the Lakers, Rockets, and Spurs are the three most likely teams in the Western Conference to land him. Here is how they can do it, and how it would impact the conference in 2018-19.
The Lakers currently hold the best odds of any team in the NBA to land LeBron James and will be heading into free agency with more cap space than any other team in the league. The Lakers will have enough free money that they can add James as well as another star, most likely Paul George. Then the question is, do you keep Lonzo Ball or do you strike while the iron is hot, sell high, and trade him to bring in vets to complete the roster? Either way, a Lakers team built around James and George would all but assure the Lakers would end their playoff drought.
How it affects the West - Last season just two games separated the three seed Blazers from the eight seed Timberwolves, with the Nuggets dropping to ninth in the final game of the season. A revamped Lakers squad would instantly be in the playoff mix, meaning any team that made playoffs last season (not named the Warriors or Rockets) would most likely end 2019 on the outside looking in.
Houston is also a favorite to add James, but the Rockets would have to shake up the roster for it to happen. Chris Paul is heading to free agency and could be looking to make more than the $24.6 million he made last season. Star center Clint Capela is also hitting the open market. Capela made just $2.3 million last season and has a giant raise coming his way. That doesn’t leave a lot of money to sign James.
The Rockets may have to find ways to free up Ryan Anderson ($19.6mil), Eric Gordon ($12.9mil) and P.J. Tucker ($7.6mil) to make it all happen. Houston would have one heck of a starting five, but not much of a bench. Either way, they would still be a favorite to win the title in 2019.
How it affects the West - James to Houston wouldn’t impact the standings as much as James to the Lakers would, but it would most certainly make it a two horse race to the Western Conference Finals. The Rockets were penciled into the Western Conference Finals this season, and with James added to the roster you might as well use a permanent marker. The real impact would be in how teams adjust. If the Western Conference turns into Golden State, Houston, and everybody else (which you could argue it is already), you could really see some playoff caliber teams enter rebuild mode in an attempt to be ready for the post-Warriors/Rockets era.
The Spurs would be an intriguing landing spot simply to see what happens when the best player in the game gets paired up with the best coach in the game. However, like the Rockets, San Antonio is in a tough financial situation.
Tony Parker is hitting free agency, freeing up $15.5 million, while Rudy Gay and Danny Green could free up another $18.8 million combined if they both choose not to exercise their player options. If Gay and Green exercise their options, then you will most likely see the Spurs push hard to trade Patty Mills ($10mil) and Pau Gasol ($16mil) to free up space.
How it affects the West - A core of James, Kawhi Leonard, and LaMarcus Aldridge would instantly make the Spurs a top three team in the Western Conference. The Spurs finished seventh last season, and vaulting to three would mean a team like the Blazers could end up missing the playoffs when it’s all said and done.
The Spurs would also make it a lot tougher for the Warriors and Rockets to make a repeat trip to the conference finals.