TIME NBA

4 Ways LeBron James Could Go

Miami Heat v San Antonio Spurs - Game Five
LeBron James drives in Game Five of the 2014 NBA Finals in San Antonio, Texas. The Heat lost the game, and the series Chris Covatta—Getty Images

He's got options after opting out of his contract

LeBron’s opting out of his contract! Oh my, it’s 2010 all over again, another free agent frenzy! He’s leaving the Heat! He’s coming back to Cleveland! The Decision, Part II!

Let’s all relax. LeBron James has indeed exercised his right to opt out of the last two years of his current contract with the Miami Heat, a deal that would have paid him almost $43 million combined. But this move is less a surefire sign that he’s leaving Miami than it is a prudent business decision by the best player on the planet—by a guy who is more mature, on and off the court, than he was during his free agent carnival four years ago. James has won two championships and reached four straight NBA Finals, since signing with Miami in 2010. He knows it’s not all about him. “It would be really shocking if this is as much of a production as last time,” says Tom Penn, an NBA salary-cap expert and former vice president of basketball operations for the Portland Trail Blazers, who now provides commentary for ESPN. “He’s going to keep it more low profile.”

This isn’t to say LeBron won’t enjoy a little wining and dining from suitors. The move gives James, 29, what every working American wants: some options to shape his future. “But nothing is simple,” says one NBA executive. Remember, this isn’t baseball: Player salaries are capped, so a team can’t come in and offer James a gazillion dollars to be the face of their franchise. And team salaries are capped, too. Unlike the NFL, hoops teams can exceed their allotted cap. But the further above that number they go, the more penalties they have to pay.

Here are some of the feasible options LeBron will be looking at this summer.

1. Stay in South Beach. He took his talents there, he’s been wildly successful there, he seems happy there. Why the heck would he leave? “The big question for Miami,” says Penn, “is whether the Big Three are still all in to win.” Miami can give James a five-year deal, max, while other teams can only offer four. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can also opt out of their deals, which are eating up valuable salary cap space for Miami the next two seasons. Would the Big Three each be willing to take enough of a pay cut so that Miami can retool their roster to add better role players? They each already took less money to form the Big Three back in 2010; would they be that charitable again?

James, if anything, deserves a raise. “I would be surprised if he accepts less money to stay in Miami,” says the NBA executive. “For him, he’s already been there, done that with the discounts.” It may be up to Wade and Bosh to take the financial hit. Bosh, 30, is owed $20.6 million next season, but he’s no longer a $20 million per year player. Wade is owed $20.2 million, and with his knee problems and poor performance in the Finals, it’s clear the 32-year-old isn’t aging gracefully.

So the superstars have some talking to do. But don’t be shocked if James accepts a below-market salary to stay. He more than makes up for any shortfall in endorsements: He pulled in $53 million in off-court cash this past year, according to Forbes. Miami likely gives James the safest shot at more championships.

2. Chicago Fire. One team that won’t have to move mountains to afford LeBron is the Bulls. The team annually overachieves: Franchise star Derrick Rose has missed most of the last two seasons, but the Bulls have still finished comfortably above .500, made the playoffs each season, and are always a pain to play, thanks in large part to the intense defensive preachings of coach Tom Thibodeau. Rose, James, and reigning defensive player of the year Joakim Noah: That’s a nice Big Three.

The cons of going to Chicago: Rose’s health will always been a question, thanks to his history of nasty knee injuries. As for quality of life, Chicago is nice in the spring, summer, and fall, but there’s no comparing Chicago winters to Miami winters.

3. Houston, We Have No Problem. Houston is an attractive landing spot for LeBron. It’ll be a little harder for the Rockets to afford James, says Penn, as they’d likely have to move players they’re fond of, like Jeremy Lin and big man Omer Asik. But come on, this is LeBron James we’re talking about here. He could play with Dwight Howard and James Harden, a prolific scorer. Rockets sharpshooter Chandler Parsons is an emerging star. Plus, like Florida, Texas has no state income tax.

The cons of going to Houston: Remember the Dwight Howard-Kobe Bryant-Steve Nash-Pau Gasol superteam in Los Angeles? How did that horror show work out? Howard made some positive strides last season, his first with the Rockets. But he has a history of being a distraction. Will LeBron bet his championship legacy on him?

4. Cleveland Calling. Ah, the fairy tale ending. James breaks his hometown’s heart by leaving, but then returns—two titles already in tow—to end Cleveland’s 50-year championshiop drought. Five thousand books are written about how Cleveland’s curse is lifted, how so many suffering sports fans can rest in peace, what it all says about the city and the Rust Belt and the American spirit itself.

Cleveland cons: Where to begin? Cleveland has had the worst record in the NBA since James left. The team has won the draft lottery three of the past four seasons. Kyrie Irving, the 2011 pick, is terrific, while Anthony Bennett, last year’s stop selection, had a rough rookie season. He might be a bust. The Cavs own the top pick this year, too, but the June 26 draft is now real cloudy: Many experts pegged Joel Embiid, an athletic, defensive-minded seven-footer from the University of Kansas, as the top selection, but his foot fracture is scaring off teams. Even James may not be able to rescue the Cavs, although a watered-down Eastern conference could open a door to the Finals.

The bigger issue for Cleveland, however, is probably the owner: Remember, Dan Gilbert blasted James as he walked out the door. (The most hilarious claim—in all-caps no less—in his infamous open letter: “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE. You can take it to the bank.”) James is going to play for this guy again?

If you’re betting, says Penn, put your chips on James staying in Miami. “He has a clear comfort level with [Heat president] Pat Riley and [Heat coach] Erik Spoelstra and the city,” says Penn. “The sting of losing in the Finals is still present, but they reality is, moving forward, Miami should still be really, really good.”

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