LeBron re­turns to LA to plot his next move as free agency nears

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY TOM WITHERS As­so­ci­ated Press

LeBron James flew back to Los An­ge­les from a fam­ily va­ca­tion in the Caribbean. He could be there longer than usual.

Hours be­fore NBA free agency opened with the three-time cham­pion as its most coveted prize, James re­turned Satur­day to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where he has two homes and a film pro­duc­tion com­pany. The Lak­ers are hop­ing they can per­suade him to sign with them and re­turn them to glory.

Los An­ge­les is among the teams in the mix to land James af­ter his agent told the Cleve­land Cava­liers on Fri­day that he will not ex­er­cise his $35.6 mil­lion con­tract op­tion for next sea­son. At 12:01 a.m. Sun­day, James will be an un­re­stricted free agent, and agent Rich Paul is ex­pected to con­tact sev­eral teams with the Lak­ers and Cavs atop his list.

By de­clin­ing his op­tion, James po­si­tioned him­self to be able to choose where he’ll play next, and Cleve­land, just up the road from his home near Akron, re­mains a strong pos­si­bil­ity. But there are at least three other teams – and maybe an out­sider or two – with le­git­i­mate shots at land­ing James, who made it clear fol­low­ing this year’s NBA Finals that he’s still driven to win cham­pi­onships.

Here are the cases — for and against – the lead­ing con­tenders:


WHY: Home; money.

James came back four years ago to a hero’s wel­come, some­thing that seemed unimag­in­able when he left in dis­grace four years ear­lier for Mi­ami. But he vowed to do ev­ery­thing he could to de­liver a ti­tle to cham­pi­onship-starved Cleve­land.

He delivered in 2016, eras­ing past sins and rais­ing James to a wor­shipped level few ath­letes in any sport have ex­pe­ri­enced. His fam­ily is com­fort­able here and it’s where he has com­plete con­trol.

The Cavs can also of­fer him the most lu­cra­tive pack­age, a five-year, $209 mil­lion con­tract.

WHY NOT: Flawed ros­ter; blem­ished re­la­tion­ship with owner Dan Gil­bert.

Last sum­mer’s stun­ning trade of guard Kyrie Irv­ing left the Cavs with­out a qual­ity run­ning mate for James, who was forced to carry a heav­ier of­fen­sive load through­out the reg­u­lar sea­son and play­offs.

Cleve­land has deep salary-cap is­sues — par­tially caused by James’ fail­ure to com­mit longterm — and the Cavs cur­rently lack enough tal­ent to un­seat the cham­pion Golden State War­riors.

Gil­bert and James mended some fences for his re­turn in 2014, but they re­main dis­tant other than a shared com­mit­ment to win­ning. Gil­bert has gone above and be­yond fi­nan­cial bar­ri­ers to ap­pease James, but the well could be run­ning dry.


WHY: Salary-cap space; busi­ness in­ter­ests; iconic fran­chise.

With some savvy moves, the Lak­ers are poised to po­ten­tially add two su­per­stars — James and Paul Ge­orge and maybe Kawhi Leonard – to a team fea­tur­ing up-and-com­ing tal­ents like Kyle Kuzma, Bran­don In­gram and Lonzo Ball, who is re­port­edly deal­ing with a knee in­jury.

James loves the Hol­ly­wood lights, and with two homes in the Los An­ge­les area as well as a film pro­duc­tion com­pany, he has al­ready es­tab­lished some roots in the land of movie stars and slow-mov­ing traf­fic. The ap­peal of play­ing for one of the league’s most sto­ried teams is an­other al­lure.

WHY NOT: Youth; the Western Con­fer­ence.

There’s lit­tle doubt James has some qual­ity years ahead of him. But does he have enough time to let a group of un­proven play­ers with no post­sea­son ex­pe­ri­ence de­velop into a ti­tle con­tender? And if he jumps con­fer­ences for the first time in his ca­reer, the path to the Finals is far more treach­er­ous.


WHY: Ris­ing team; stay­ing in the East.

In Six­ers guard Ben Sim­mons, James sees a younger ver­sion of him­self and he’d rel­ish the chance to play along­side the 21year-old while men­tor­ing him. The Six­ers also have cen­ter Joel Em­biid, 24, pro­jected to be­come the game’s next dom­i­nant big men. Philadel­phia would in­stantly vault from con­fer­ence con­tender to fa­vorite with James, who could make a strong run at his ninth straight Finals in Year One.

WHY NOT: Too young; front-of­fice dys­func­tion.

Much like the Lak­ers, the Six­ers lack post­sea­son ex­pe­ri­ence and James would be sur­rounded by play­ers who have barely tasted the post­sea­son. Gen­eral man­ager Bryan Colan­gelo’s res­ig­na­tion fol­low­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into whether he cre­ated Twit­ter ac­counts to crit­i­cize his own play­ers, has given the im­pres­sion that the team isn’t op­er­at­ing in con­cert and then would turn off James quickly.



Hous­ton: While the Rock­ets once seemed a good fit, James de­clin­ing his op­tion all but elim­i­nated the chances of him join­ing up with close friend Chris Paul and MVP James Harden. If James had opted in with the Cavs, they could have worked out a sig­nand-trade with Hous­ton. San An­to­nio: James reveres Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, but liv­ing in Texas doesn’t seem ap­peal­ing to the star’s fam­ily and the Spurs are still try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with Leonard, who can be­come a free agent af­ter next sea­son.

HEC­TOR AMEZCUA [email protected]

The Cava­liers can of­fer LeBron James the most lu­cra­tive pack­age of all his suit­ors, a five-year, $209 mil­lion con­tract.

The Los An­ge­les Lak­ers are poised to po­ten­tially add LeBron James and Paul Ge­orge, above, and maybe Kawhi Leonard.

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