BSPN INSIDER: Five fits for LeBron James
Five fits for LeBron James
Spurs headline ranking of NBA teams that would best suit King James
Updated: June 19, 2014, 6:17 PM ET
By Amin Elhassan | ESPN Insider
About a month ago, we took a look at every team's chances of acquiring Kevin Love. A few weeks later, it turns out there might be a bigger prize on the market this summer, as the LeBron James Sweepstakes makes an unexpected return to the NBA's summer extravaganza. James, long considered to be a lock to return to Miami, might have a more open-minded approach to eligible suitors than previously expected, thanks to an off-the-court financial independence that allows him to be flexible in his salary demands.
James' "discontent" in South Beach (and to call it that might be extreme) stems from management's decision to employ cost-cutting moves (like using the amnesty clause on Mike Miller), resulting in a supporting cast that more and more resembles what he had in Cleveland: A roster of players wholly dependent on his brilliance for its collective excellence to come through. If James is willing to take a discount -- a deep discount -- to put himself in the optimal situation, it creates for some interesting landing spots.
Here are what I think are LeBron James' top-five landing spots based on fit and title potential, with pros and cons noted for each.
1. San Antonio Spurs
Pros: We had some fun in San Antonio on TrueHoop TV suggesting this, but the truth is that no other franchise can offer James what he truly seeks on a basketball level. The model franchise in terms of ownership commitment (without being meddlesome), shrewd management and elite coaching, the Spurs play a brand of equal-opportunity basketball that de-emphasizes the importance of any one cog in the system, the opposite of what James has experienced earlier in Cleveland and lately in Miami. With Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili eventually moving on, James could step in as the link to another decade of San Antonio dominance.
Cons: San Antonio is hardly a hub of global media attention, and the Spurs do their damndest to make that "flaw" a central tenet to how they run their organization: low-key and under the radar. James claims he wants to win and play basketball the right way, but living in San Antonio might be the biggest test to his commitment to that ideal. Also, being a part of the Spurs means doing away with some of the privilege of superstardom that one might enjoy in other locales, specifically organizational influence. That's not to say his opinion wouldn't be valued, but it wouldn't be the type of "as-you-command" environment he might get elsewhere.
2. Miami Heat
Pros: Other than San Antonio, Miami is probably the only other team in the league with the holy trinity of ownership-management-coaching being of top-shelf caliber. Four years ago, the Heat made a pitch to James in free agency, and it's hard to argue against the results since then: four straight trips to the Finals, two championships, two MVP awards, the second-longest winning streak in the history of the game, and a rehabilitation of his public image after the tarnish of his failures in Cleveland and the backlash against "The Decision." Miami has all the things you want: cap flexibility, only one outgoing first-round pick and stability. But perhaps the most important thing the Heat have is their place in the depleted Eastern Conference, making trips to deep June a much easier proposition. Factor in the stigma he'd be subject to if he "ditched" another team (a silly notion that the court of public opinion seems wed to), and leaving Miami might not be as easy as we are suggesting.
Cons: Cap flexibility cuts both ways: On one hand, they are free from long-term commitments, which allows them to pursue different options. On the other hand, what's the plan for the future? Who are the mystery players who will make up the future of the Heat? There has been no investment in youth in South Beach (no disrespect to Norris Cole), and the policy of adding long-in-the-tooth vets to form the supporting cast makes for a situation where much is demanded of James. Of course, that's also making the grand assumption that doing away with the contract of Dwyane Wade is an easy proposition. While Wade can still be a useful contributor, he is nowhere near worth the $40-plus million he's due over the next two years should he choose not to opt out.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Pros: With Donald Sterling in the rearview mirror, the Clippers look to take a huge step toward a legitimacy that lasts longer than their highlights and endorsements. Joining Chris Paul and Blake Griffin gives James a younger version of the super team he formed in South Beach, and the opportunity to shift the burden to two other stars in time of need. Doc Rivers is one of the most respected head coaches in the game, and last but not least, it's L.A.: If there ever was a place where James could further maximize his earnings and really become financially independent of his NBA salary, it's Los Angeles.
Cons: We don't know what kind of owner Steve Ballmer will be, but it's safe to assume he didn't commit $2 billion to say, "You guys keep doing your thing, I'm fine with these courtside seats." Every new owner seeks to put his imprint on the franchise, and unfortunately that usually means they err on the side of meddlesome. And while he'd have two stud running mates with the Clippers, the rest of the roster features many of the same issues Miami has: aging supporting cast and no prospects waiting in the wings. Finally, playing out West means having to worry about the San Antonio Spurs a lot sooner, not to mention a whole host of other threats.
4. Golden State Warriors
Pros: With a young, talented roster that is already elite defensively and brimming with offensive potential, the Warriors can give James the opportunity to contend in the West for years to come, especially since acquiring him would give them more fuel to pursue a Kevin Love acquisition. New head coach Steve Kerr has already stated that he'd like to see an offense that spreads the ball more equitably and de-emphasizes the need for one person to dominate the ball, which is reminiscent of the Spurs' beautiful game.
Cons: Kerr is unproven as a coach, introducing an element of uncertainty to the Warriors' style of play. Moreover, the Warriors have experienced a certain level of turmoil and conflict within their organization over the last few years. You can try to pin some of that on the recently deposed Mark Jackson, but rarely do these conflicts arise from unilateral blame. Finally, ownership has had its miscues recently, and a penchant for attention-seeking behavior in the media. Oh, and they play in the West!
5. Chicago Bulls
Pros: Assuming Derrick Rose is really 100 percent this time, James could pair with a young superstar who has been pretty successful (when healthy) in his own right. Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah has had his run-ins with James in the past, but he's exactly the type of teammate whom everyone values: a tough enforcer, excellent team defender and rebounder, and underappreciated passer out of the high post, who also sets good screens. Led by Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls are an elite defensive outfit year in and year out, and they have a healthy stash of incoming first-rounders and blue-chip Euro prospect Nikola Mirotic coming down the pipeline. Playing in Chicago would offer the same sort of red carpet through a weak Eastern Conference that James currently enjoys in Miami.
Cons: If James is looking for an owner who won't make cost-cutting moves, he might need to look elsewhere, as Jerry Reinsdorf has been guilty of penny-pinching in the past. Thibodeau is hardly what you would call a creative offensive mind, with the Bulls' offense, when Rose was healthy, looking very LBJ-era Cavs-like in its own right. Furthermore, Thibs' penchant for playing his best players heavy minutes seems like the opposite of what San Antonio (and to a lesser extent, Miami) has espoused over the past few seasons. Finally, having to live in the shadow of Michael Jordan means never being appreciated for what you are and constantly being compared with a mythologized version of Jordan.
Teams not making the cut
Cleveland Cavaliers: While a homecoming could warm the cockles of even the coldest-hearted LeBron hater, the Cavs' roster has yet to take shape, they have no coach and there's that letter owner Dan Gilbert wrote four years ago.
Houston Rockets: Teaming with an elite big in Dwight Howard and elite wing in James Harden is similar to what he did in 2010. Unfortunately, Harden is similar to Wade defensively, as well, and it doesn't help that the Rockets play in the toughest division in basketball.
Los Angeles Lakers: Being the latest in a long line of superstars to play for the purple and gold might actually be enticing, until you realize the superstar still there isn't quite ready to concede the shine, as evidenced by his inflexible salary. Also, they don't have a roster.
New York Knicks: The Zen Master has helped unlock the keys to greatness for several of the game's greatest players, but the Knicks' roster is terrible, and ownership is unstable.
Oklahoma City Thunder: James' playmaking means Kevin Durant as a secondary option and Russ Westbrook allowed to be Russ Westbrook with no repercussions, but their ownership has had the most famous of cost-cutting measures recently, and that playbook is shockingly thin.