The winners and losers of LeBron James’s decision to opt-out of his contract two days before free agency officially begins have been known for quite some time. The Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, and any other team that’d conceivably be of interest to him are now—barring a wild decision to gut their roster for a 33-year-old superhuman who’s probable to re-enter free agency next summer or the one after—disqualified from the race.
That leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers as the three most logical and likely options.
What makes the next 48 hours or so extra interesting, though, is a certain two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Finals MVP, and perennial All-NBA superstar being available on the trade market. As a way to get a major leg up on the other two suitors, each of the three teams still in the running for LeBron should also try and trade for Kawhi Leonard, which may very well create the type of bidding war that puts a smile on San Antonio’s face. (Boston has more desirable assets than Cleveland, L.A., and Philadelphia, and are well-positioned to, at the very least, drive up Leonard’s price, too.)
The Sixers won’t do what I'm about to suggest, but Ben Simmons is the ultimate trump card in any trade negotiation. Should they put him on the table (highly unlikely given Leonard may still be hurt and is an unrestricted free agent next summer), nobody, maybe not even Boston with the ever-untouchable Jayson Tatum, can beat that offer.
That transaction all but assures that LeBron will sign in Philadelphia. It’s an opportunity for him to stay in the Eastern Conference, team up with Joel Embiid and the far more established/complementary Leonard on the type of team that matches up extremely well with the Golden State Warriors.
That scenario is also a fairy tale. Back in reality, the Sixers are more likely to offer some of the following until the math makes sense: Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, Zhaire Smith, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected first-round pick in 2021. Meanwhile, the Lakers have Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and their own first-round pick in 2019 and beyond.
Without knowing what San Antonio wants to be in a post-Kawhi universe—trading LaMarcus Aldridge would really kickstart a fascinating rebuild—it’s unclear which package is more desirable: one of those two future-asset-rich hauls or what Cleveland has. The Cavs can piece together a package that allows the Spurs to compete now and look ahead to a brighter tomorrow, perhaps with Kevin Love, Collin Sexton, and a future first-round pick.
Of course, there’s always the chance LeBron already knows where he’s going next season, and we haven’t factored Paul George into the equation, either. Leonard is not the be-all, end-all at the end of the day, but if one of these three teams can pry him away from the Spurs, it’s hard to see how they don’t become the prohibitive favorite.