The Golden State Warriors are champions, and the party in Oakland is ongoing. It will last all summer, as it should, but it’s worth noting that the NBA they return to after the party will look very different from the one they just ran through for the third time in four years.
All four NBA Finals appearances have been met by LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers (in varying states of disrepair), and if the Warriors intend to take home a three-peat, they will likely have to go through LeBron again, but they may not be going through Cleveland.
Where James lands in free agency will set the stage for virtually every other transaction this summer, and will largely determine the power structure of the league for the 2018-19 NBA season and beyond. Who might ascend to join the Warriors atop the NBA rankings? Could anyone topple them? Here’s how dangerous each scenario would be:
Odds to land LeBron: Even
How they get him: The Lakers have emerged as heavy favorites, and not just because of LeBron’s Hollywood interests. LA will have the cap space to add two max free agents to a collection of young talent in Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. One long-standing rumor has LeBron and Paul George heading to LA, but that second spot could really be for whoever LeBron wants to play with.
If he did it: Results depend upon who else ends up with James, but offering LeBron some flexibility (and control) in determining his teammates could be an advantage. Whoever takes the second max slot, plenty of veterans should be interested in filling out the roster on cheap deals. It would be the ideal type of team for LeBron: a second star to help shoulder the load; talented, energetic youngsters who would improve as the stars age; a couple veterans on the bench.
Warning Level: 4 — If LeBron does this right, he creates a legitimate Western Conference challenger, but it doesn’t change the Warriors’ status as favorites.
Odds to land LeBron: 4/1
How they get him: If LeBron wants younger teammates, the obvious choice is to embrace #TheProcess. Philly could create space for a max contract and would offer him a super-talented young core. If having another established veteran superstar isn’t a priority, the Sixers offer as much as anyone. They also don’t have a GM right now, which probably means LeBron could exert some influence over other moves this offseason.
If he did it: LeBron alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Dario Saric could be great for years to come. This young Philly team had people convinced they were Finals-bound this season, so they would certainly be among the top contenders if they added James.
Warning Level: 4 — The pure talent level at the top of the roster would rival the Warriors if they added LeBron; the experience level and championship mettle would not. That warning level could rise as Embiid and Simmons ascend.
Odds to land LeBron: 10/1
How they get him: The Celtics are the best team of this bunch without LeBron, which may or may not be a selling point. Adding him would mean trading Kyrie Irving or Gordon Hayward. Nobody doubts GM Danny Ainge’s ability, nor his willingness to do something as cold as trade Hayward after a brutal injury [see: Isaiah Thomas]. It helps that either of the Celtics’ stars would be the best player Cleveland could get back in a sign-and-trade.
If He Did It: Adding LeBron to the Celtics’ young stars would create a monster in the East: a starting lineup of LeBron, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford and either Kyrie or Hayward. Brad Stevens is a massive asset. If they could retain defensive demon Marcus Smart, they would be tremendous on both ends of the floor, and would get continue to get better with budding stars in Tatum and Brown.
Warning Level: 5 — If LeBron wants the best basketball situation, this is it — and if he pulled it off without decimating what they have, the Celtics are right there with the Warriors.
Gambling Odds: 7/1
How they get him: The problem for Houston is that the Cavs might rather lose LeBron for nothing than trade for what the Rockets would offer — Ryan Anderson and the $40 million he’s owed over two seasons. They’d have to sweeten the deal with Eric Gordon with draft assets, and even that would be a tough sell. Daryl Morey is another GM we should be wary of doubting, but managing to retain Chris Paul and Clint Capela while adding LeBron would be his best trick yet.
If he did it: The Rockets would have an impressive Big 3 with James Harden, CP and LeBron. The team would only get worse as the three superstars got older, though, and what they would have to sacrifice to get LeBron makes it hard to imagine them building the depth necessary to be significantly better than last season.
Warning Level: 3.5 — As much as the prospect of adding LeBron to the team that most challenged the W’s in this year’s playoffs sounds dangerous, the roster that would actually remain shouldn’t scare anyone in the Bay Area too much.
The Case for Cleveland: The Cavaliers remain among the favorites, but it seems far-fetched. They have the 8th pick in the draft and could trade Kevin Love, but neither is a game-changer. Cleveland can offer LeBron the most long-term money ($205 million over five years), but that would lock him into one of his worst basketball options for possibly the remainder of his career.
Warning Level: 2 — You’d imagine they could improve enough to get a game or two next year, but the Cavs won’t beat the Warriors in the playoffs again this run.
The Other LA: If James is determined to head west but can’t get what he wants from the Lakers, the Clippers are a possibility. It would be tough for them to clear space to sign him without several players declining lucrative options, and a trade would have to center on Danilo Gallinari, which the Cavs wouldn’t love. Playing with Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan (assuming he opts in to his deal) might be an upgrade over Cleveland, but not a significant one.
Warning Level: 3 — LeBron could make a top-four seed in the West with the Clippers, but why? The Lakers are the better LA option.
The Sleeper in San Antonio: Greg Popovich has lost most of the players on his roster with championship experience and is grasping at his relationship with Kawhi Leonard. Recruiting LeBron could be tough when one of your principle selling points was going to be the stable environment and well-oiled competitive machine. I have learned, though, that underestimating the Spurs is a dangerous game.
Warning Level: 5 — If, somehow, the Spurs ended up with LeBron, Kawhi and LaMarcus Aldridge being coached by Popovich in potentially his last season, it would be a force to be reckoned with.
Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.