Tuesday, June 25, 2024

LeBron James free agency: What kind of contract can Lakers star sign, and which teams may be interested

LeBron James free agencies tend to be seismic events. His 2010 Decision (capital-D) to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat changed the balance of power between players and teams forever. His 2014 decision (lower case-d) to return to the Cavaliers set up one of the most memorable championships the NBA has ever seen in 2016. His 2018 choice to depart Cleveland and head west to play for the Los Angeles Lakers resurrected a historic franchise after half a decade in the toilet.

Now, for the first time since 2018, James has the ability to become a free agent again. It is not a guarantee that he will. James has a $51.4 million player option with the Lakers that he can choose to accept or decline by June 29. Should he decline it, he hits the open market. So where is James going to play the 2024-25 season? How much money can he earn? Here’s everything you need to know ahead of the James’ possible free agency.

How much money can he make?

There are three contract formats we need to cover here, all of which are different variations of the max. First thing’s first: no matter where James signs, he can only agree to a contract that lasts three total seasons. This is because of the Over-38 Rule, a CBA safeguard against teams paying older players after they retire as a form of cap circumvention. James is 39, so he obviously meets the age requirement to trigger that rule.

The most lucrative contract James can sign this offseason would come in the form of an opt-in and eventual extension, most likely with the Lakers, but potentially with another team through a trade. That deal would start at his option number, which is roughly $51.4 million, and then include 8% annual raises for the 2025-26 and 2026-27 season. The total figure would be a little bit over $164 million.











There are two important notes to remember on this format, though. First, James cannot sign it until August 18, the two-year anniversary of his last extension. The second is that James would not be eligible for a no-trade clause, as no-trade clauses cannot be added to existing contracts, only included in new ones. If either of these things are deal-breakers for James, he can simply choose to opt out and sign a new contract with the Lakers right away. Such a deal would be slightly less expensive for the Lakers because his 2024-25 salary would have to be slightly cheaper. Rather than getting the built-in 8% raise he had in his last contract, James would only be able to get a 5% to reflect his maximum salary on the open market. Therefore his starting salary would be a shade lower than $50 million, and then include 8% raises annually after that. The total figure here would be just under $162 million.











Finally, we have to consider what a contract might look like if he were to find a new team in free agency. The format here would be similar to the one above. James would be eligible for a 5% raise on his previous salary as his maximum starting point on such a deal, but could then only receive 5% raises moving forward. The total figure here would come in at roughly $157 million.











James could theoretically take less than the max, but he has not done so since he rejoined the Cavaliers for the 2014-15 season. The contracts above are his maximum figures for this next deal. Anything below those numbers are potentially in play, though unlikely.

What teams might be interested?

The obvious frontrunner here, by far, would be the Lakers. There has been no substantial reporting suggesting that James is seriously considering other teams. They have the easiest path to paying him through his Bird Rights. The Lakers have long treated him as a partner in team-building, and he will surely be consulted on possible moves this offseason as they attempt to revamp the roster. At this moment, the assumption should be that James will remain a Laker next season.

But let’s at least lay out the path to alternatives. The easiest way for James to change teams would be through free agency. At this moment, only two teams are projected to have the $49,987,718 in cap space needed to pay James his max. One of those teams is the Detroit Pistons. Let’s go ahead and assume that James isn’t interested in playing in Detroit.

The other team that meets the cap space criteria would be the Philadelphia 76ers. They are far more interesting, and we have covered James’ possible fit there in depth here and here. Here’s the short version: Philadelphia has essentially trimmed its cap sheet down to just Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey. James could partner with those two to give the 76ers the most talented star trio in basketball, and with another $12 million or so in cap space plus the cap room mid-level exception to work with, the 76ers could then cobble together a viable supporting cast for those three. 

However, even if James is interested, Philadelphia has been linked far more frequently to Paul George, the other star small forward on this year’s free-agent market. The 76ers may prefer George, but James would probably be their second choice in star acquisitions this offseason because any others would require trading draft picks. They have been linked to players who would, like Jimmy Butler, but their preference would obviously be to add talent without giving up anything but money.

Eight other teams have relatively clear paths to creating cap space. The Hornets, Raptors and Jazz simply aren’t desirable destinations. The Magic and Spurs both present intriguing basketball situations, but are both so young that winning now might not be realistic. 

And then there are the Oklahoma City Thunder, currently looking at roughly $35 million in space. They could approach James’ max salary by offloading Josh Giddey and Kenrich Williams, which would likely be fairly doable. James has expressed admiration for Thunder general manager Sam Presti in the past, and Oklahoma City has so many draft picks at its disposal that drafting Bronny James would be a straightforward matter. For now, though, it seems unlikely that James would want to finish his career in a market like Oklahoma City.

Speaking of Bronny James, the former USC guard is known to have set up visits with two teams despite receiving invitations from more than 10. One of them is, predictably, the Lakers. The other, surprisingly, is the Phoenix Suns. Phoenix’s general manager is James Jones, a former teammate of LeBron’s in Miami and Cleveland, and the two have held a strong relationship ever since. However, the Suns can offer James no more than a minimum salary, given their current financial restraints. It’s hard to imagine James going from the maximum to a minimum salary, even at this point in his career.

That covers free agency. What about a trade? The likeliest path to a trade, should one occur, would be in June. James would inform the Lakers that he would like to pick up his player option and immediately be traded to a specific destination. The Lakers would have to comply or risk losing James for nothing in free agency. This is the maneuver Chris Paul used to land in Houston in 2018, and timing is especially important in James’ case. 

When the calendar flips to July, the harshest new financial restrictions of the new collective bargaining agreement will kick in. Those restrictions would prevent second-apron teams from aggregating salary for James or taking back more money than they send out, effectively barring those teams from actually getting him. While first apron teams will be able to aggregate, they won’t be able to take in more money than they send out, making a James trade much harder for them then than it would be now. A sign-and-trade is likely out as well because even current rules would hard cap the acquiring team at the first apron, and new rules could potentially also hard cap the Lakers at the second, depending on the structure of the deal. Therefore, if James wants to get traded, it would behoove him to opt in and force that trade around the draft rather than face all of these harsh restrictions.

So, if James were to hypothetically pursue a trade, who would be interested? Well, almost everybody, but there are two teams we need to note specifically here. The first would be the Golden State Warriors, as they are known to have chased James at the trade deadline. The Lakers reportedly asked James at the time if he was interested in such a trade, and he said no. It’s hard to imagine anything changing in the months that have passed since, but they need to be acknowledged. James faced the Warriors in the NBA Finals four times and obviously has a great deal of respect for Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

The second team here would be the New York Knicks. James has flirted with the Big Apple for practically his entire career. Here’s an incomplete list of moments that have raised the hopes of Knicks fans in the past:

  • In 2008, James called New York his favorite city (though he called Brooklyn his favorite borough).
  • In 2010, James met with the Knicks in free agency before ultimately deciding to sign with the Heat.
  • In 2018, James played his final game against former teammate Dwyane Wade. That game was played at the then-Staples Center in Los Angeles. Afterward, James was caught telling Wade “it was either here or the Garden,” referring to Madison Square Garden, as the two venues worthy of such a matchup.
  • On Feb. 2, it was reported that Rich Paul, James’ long time agent, and Leon Rose, current president of the Knicks and James’ former agent, held a meeting to hash out their years-long feud. Paul learned the business by working for Rose at CAA before he ultimately struck out on his own and took James with him.
  • On Feb. 3, ahead of a game against the Knicks, James refused to say whether or not he planned to pick up his player option for the 2024-25 season, generating speculation about possible interest in the Knicks.
  • On Feb. 5, after a win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, James wore a Knicks towel during his postgame press conference.

The Knicks have spent years planning to pursue a superstar through trade. They have the draft capital to both trade for LeBron and draft Bronny. They just nearly made the Eastern Conference Finals despite a glaring hole at power forward caused by the absence of Julius Randle. Slot James into that position and the Knicks potentially could have reached the Finals. A deal here would presumably be built around Randle, the non-guaranteed contract of Bojan Bogdanovic and draft picks, of which the Knicks have plenty. This arrangement would match James’ salary cleanly, though the Lakers may demand players back from the Knicks as well. It is unclear who they would and would not be willing to surrender. For now, though, the Knicks remain a fantasy scenario, as James is not known to have pushed for a trade to New York.

And that just about covers the realistic landing spots for James. True, any team that drafts Bronny will be in the conversation either now or later, but the teams covered above make the most sense for the reasons described.

What is the latest news surrounding James?

James himself is notoriously quiet when it comes to his free agency decisions. He speaks only once his mind is made up, and he does so on the platform of his choosing. Someone close to James, though, has let a few notable nuggets slip out in recent media appearances.

Rich Paul appeared on the altcast of Game 2 of the Western Conference finals and declared that “LeBron is a free agent.” This is notable because James, obviously, is not a free agent at the moment. He can become one through that option, but he has not officially made that decision. When Chris Haynes pressed him, he refused to specify if that meant James would be opting out. “I don’t know what he’s gonna do. We’re gonna do what we do every year. We’re gonna evaluate the situation and we’re gonna make the best decision.”

In an interview with Haynes on Bleacher Report, Paul made another interesting comment hinting that James may be more open-minded about his future than he’s letting on. He said that, in his opinion, “the Lakers’ focus should probably be more so on Anthony Davis than LeBron at this point.” Paul also represents Davis, so the comment isn’t that surprising given that Davis is 31 and still in his prime while James is 39 and nearing the end of his legendary career, and it was made in reference to the Lakers’ coaching search rather than any roster decisions, but still, it was another point in the “maybe James is thinking about other teams” column.

In all likelihood, James is just doing his due diligence. He is functionally considering himself a free agent at the moment because he has the right to become one, so he is exploring his options in the ways that he can, but it would be irresponsible of him not to. Even if other teams are on the table, that doesn’t mean the Lakers are out or even underdogs here. James is just evaluating his options. One of them is very much still the Lakers.

What is ultimately going to happen?

All signs right now point to James remaining with the Lakers. Should any substantial reporting between now and his decision suggest otherwise, we will address that at the moment, but right now, it looks as if LeBron’s free agency will be relatively anticlimactic. The only real question at this point is what sort of contract James ultimately decides to take. For now, an opt out with a new deal appears slightly likelier. That path would give James an official no-trade clause, something he has never had before and may want down the line if the Lakers fail to put a winner around him in his final years. Given the relatively minor financial difference between that path and an opt in and extension, it appears to be a bit likelier. Nothing can be ruled out at this stage, but until there is a genuine reason to believe that James is eyeing another team, specifically, the Lakers deserve to be considered the frontrunners.

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