Widespread speculation fuels the NBA conversation more than anything else—including what's actually happening on the court. And right now, before the 2017-18 season even starts, basketball's biggest water cooler subject is yet another free agency-related decision by LeBron James.
Where will the world's greatest player be one year from today? Nobody—not even James—can provide a definitive answer, but every single team would love to have him. The loudest candidates will fluctuate until the day he signs his next deal. Today, the clubhouse favorites aren't hindered by the salary cap, can ostensibly present a swift path to title contention, and offer different incentive structures that extend beyond the court. They are the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, and Cleveland Cavaliers.
James will likely consider those three organizations, but if winning a fourth ring is his one and only priority in a world where he's not getting any younger and a Golden State Warriors dynasty feels more certain than the changing seasons, the Houston Rockets should be his number one option. Unlike Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Cleveland, Houston needs to crawl through several obstacle courses without losing its competitive edge to afford James. (The three aforementioned teams can already afford James' max contract, which, assuming next year's cap is $102 million, will be about $35.7 million.)
Right now, the Rockets already have $78.2 million tied up in six players for the 2018-19 season, and that doesn't include cap holds for Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, or Clint Capela—three pieces of varying importance who all matter in the inevitable showdown against Golden State. Factor those in and Houston's cap space evaporates.
That doesn't entirely deflate the dream of watching James Harden, Paul, and LeBron (three of the world's most respected pick-and-roll practioners) serve on the same side, but it does make building a well-rounded team extremely difficult.
Skepticism is understandable but loopholes do exist. The most convenient one mirrors what just happened between Paul, Houston, and the Los Angeles Clippers: James can engineer a sign-and-trade by opting into his $35.6 million player option. Instead of losing the face of their franchise for nothing, the Cavaliers will take back Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, a first-round pick, and up to $5.1 million in cash.
The Cavs may say thanks but no thanks, but with Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Cedi Osman, and, for the time being, Kyrie Irving, all under contract for the 2018-19 season (plus Iman Shumpert's $11 million player option), they don't have meaningful cap space even if James opts out and walks. Anderson and Gordon are also owed a combined $35.3 million in 2019-20. That's not nothing—especially for an owner who won't want to pay the luxury tax once James abandons ship—but those contracts are hardly albatrosses in their final year; both players are not bad and would still be younger than 32.
This haul doesn't void the loss of James, and Cleveland may prefer to tear everything down by cashing out on Thompson, Love, etc., getting below the tax, and starting from scratch. But bottoming out may not be justified in a pathetic conference, in a city that can't attract free agents, with pretty good contributors still on board. Even if a championship is out of the question, a string of modest playoff runs is not.
If Cleveland agrees, the Rockets can stay above the cap, re-sign Paul to a max contract, retain Ariza and Capela without losing P.J. Tucker or Nene. They'd be, in this writer's opinion, on par with the Warriors, boasting versatile two-way weapons, competent size, and enough three-point shooting to dethrone the champs.
Things obviously get more tricky if the Cavaliers refuse to participate in a sign-and-trade, or James wants a long-term deal. Houston would have to dump Anderson, Gordon, Tucker, and other pieces elsewhere in a climate where few teams have enough cap space to take on unwanted salary.
And even if they manage to pull that off, Paul's $39 million cap hold still strangles their flexibility. The Rockets would have to re-sign the then-33-year-old point guard at a price point that's much lower than his max (which is the same as LeBron's) if they want to field more than a collection of veteran's minimum contracts, Paul, LeBron, and Harden.
Just about everyone else on next year's roster would have to go, essentially eliminating the possibility of a well-rounded team, and leaving LeBron worse off than he's been in Cleveland, with a small army of complementary three-point shooters, Irving, and Love as his supporting cast. It'd defeat the purpose of acquiring James in the first place. Harden would be the most talented teammate of his career, but with James at 34 years old and without any bench to speak of, it's hard to see how Houston would defeat Golden State four times in seven tries.
In the event a sign-and-trade isn't feasible, either LeBron or Paul would probably have to take a paycut. This, in effect, is the CBA at its super-team-preventing best. But how plausible is it? James refused to accept anything less than the max when he went back to Cleveland in 2014, but that might've been more about his frosty relationship with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert than an unbreakable commandment. Even on a max deal, James still earned twice as much money off the court than on it last season; he can already send his children's children's children to college off pizza money alone. (Reminder: Texas has no state income tax.)
Then there's Paul, who earns a decent amount through endorsements as well, but may be even more motivated by the opportunity to satisfy his insatiable professional ambition, quell critics, and finally advance past the second round. In Houston, with LeBron and Harden, Paul would be the third option on the best team he's ever played for. A trophy hunted by 29 other teams is never guaranteed, but this would be his best shot.
This may sound unlikely but it isn't impossible. Kevin Durant took less to ensure an empire in the Bay Area. To compete on truly great teams in today's NBA, truly great players must sacrifice on the court and in their savings account. That's reality right now.
If somehow the finances are figured out and these three come together in a situation that makes sense for all involved, LeBron's fit beside Paul and Harden will be smooth. All can hit spot-up threes. All can manipulate back-line defenders by turning their head or shifting their eyes. They're slippery, attack-always robots who force defenses to pick their poison; each has endured millions of possessions and then melted them into an endless ream of data.
A select few have ever dominated at the level they do, with an uncanny consistency that makes the occasional hiccup feel catastrophic. Age, fatigue, and poor health are all elusive foes, but Mike D'Antoni's system will still inject nitroglycerin into this trio, one of the brainiest, most proficient threesomes ever assembled. They'd blend syrupy half-court possessions with one of the most surgical transition attacks the league has ever seen.
Houston won't need to catch its breath. The Clippers had a +14.9 net rating with Paul on the court last year. It dropped to -5.3 when he sat. (A difference of 20.2 points per 100 possessions.) The Cavaliers had a +7.7 net rating with James on the court last year. It dropped to -8.5 when he sat. (A difference of 16.2 points per 100 possessions.) The offense will hum at all times so long as one of them, or Harden—Houston's resident train and conductor who has finished no worse than second in points per game over the last three seasons—is in the game.
As Paul and Harden will do throughout the 2017-18 season, the Rockets can stagger all three superstars, reducing minutes, lowering usage rates, and allowing each to stay fresh on the defensive end. Harden's ability to rebound and withstand power forwards down low should let D'Antoni harness a James & James frontcourt.
With Paul, Ariza, and Tucker building an obnoxious prison wall, chomping into passing lanes and mauling points of attack, Houston's most versatile five-man unit is a more suitable match up against Golden State than any lineup that currently exists.
So much can change between now and next July, but the Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green-led Warriors are the single greatest challenge of LeBron's career. To defeat them while locking arms with one his best friends would be his greatest achievement.
James's ultimate decision will say a lot about his priorities and motivations. It's the fourth act of a legendary, transcendent career. How he kicks it off will either sustain his greatness or elevate it to a higher plane. The Rockets are positioned to take him there.