On June 8, the NBA Finals mercifully came to an end as the Golden State Warriors swept a woefully outmanned Cleveland Cavaliers team. It was a boring, predictable bow pinned on the end of an otherwise entertaining 2017-2018 season.
As the last of the dust settles, and the talking heads begin their postseason prognosticating, the seemingly perennial question of LeBron James’ free agent status once again looms. Unlike the past few seasons, however, his decision isn’t as simple. Cleveland is no longer a shoo-in to retain its homegrown superstar, and Houston (yes, Houston) has emerged as a potential landing spot for — at the very least — one of the top three basketball players on the planet.
So as it stands, prevailing wisdom suggests that the top destinations would be Cleveland, Philadelphia, Houston, or the Lakers. The Lakers have very little chance at luring James with the current roster — even if they managed to secure another superstar — so it's pointless to entertain that theory. Cleveland is always a possibility, especially because he has so much leverage in the front office there. But assuming he just re-signs doesn't make for a compelling article, so we'll assume he leaves.
And he should.
What more does he have to give or prove to Cleveland? He brought his hometown a Finals championship against one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled. That's a legendary narrative. Asking for more would be selfish. Unlike his move to Miami, this time James has earned walking papers.
So assuming James astutely leaves Cleveland that leaves two logical destinations: Houston and Philly.
So why Philadelphia? Philly was one of the most surprising teams of the season due largely in part to the unexpectedly immediate contributions from big man Joel Embiid and rookie point guard Ben Simmons. Pairing LeBron with the uber athletic, pass-first Simmons and an imposing big in Embiid the likes of which James has never played with would make the 76ers an instant contender. Embiid is on the books for $25 million, yet Simmons is still on his rookie deal for a mere $6 million so Philly doesn't have to concoct any salary cap magic. And wherever James goes, hungry veterans will follow at a discount, knowing that he is their last chance at a ring. The players are there, and the money works. It wouldn't be the most illogical move.
While it's an appealing situation worth investigating, there are reasons, however, that could and should lead James to view them as the second best option.
First is their youth. Rookies and young platers very rarely play large roles on LeBron's teams. Most of that has to do with the fact that they're still trying to catch up to the pace and skill level of the league. LeBron teams are usually filled in with veterans who understand their role on the team and let LeBron do LeBron things. Would he be willing to endure the growing pains of playing with such a young core?
Secondly, while Simmons and Embiid are fantastic on the court, their track records for being able to stay on the court leave something to be desired. James played all 82 regular season games this year and then played three finals game with an injured hand. Would he be able to carry the 76ers if both pieces were lost for any significant stretch of time?
The answer could be yes, but would a team missing either of those pieces make it back to the finals? Boston is poised to become a powerhouse next season and proved how deep their bench could go with the right coaching. That alone could be reason enough for James to pack up and head west, and I haven't even touched on the uncertainty regarding the 76ers front office after they sent Twitter genius and team president Brian Colangelo packing.
The King in Houston
So that leaves Houston, the team with the best regular season record in the NBA. The team with the likely regular season MVP. The team that pushed the Golden State Warriors to seven games despite late season injuries to key players.
Assuming all star point guard Chris Paul re-signs with the Rockets, Houston would be sporting two superstars to shoulder some of a load that no one on that Cleveland team wanted to touch with a ten foot pole. This current Rockets team is as close to his Miami team as he's going to find, if not better. Plug in James and the Rockets could seemingly be level with the Warriors in terms of talent.
Rockets owner Tillman Fertita has already gone on record saying he's willing to incur the luxury tax if it means winning a championship, and the addition of James for all intents and purposes would signal the green light for such a move. What that implies is that the Rockets would not only have three superstars, they'd also have a bench to spell them.
The only snag at the moment preventing this from being a no-brainer is the Rockets’ current salary cap situation. There are moves that would need to be made, one of which would be offloading Ryan Anderson's contract on another team. That same contract was the ultimate hang up that prevented last summer's Carmelo Anthony acquisition and looks to be just as big of a pain in general manager Daryl Morey’s side this year as well. Morey has proven to be a genius, though, so I'm not betting against ability to make it work.
So as Rockets fans continue to lament over their Western Conference Finals defeat, they should appreciate the Warriors for sweeping the Cavaliers. They showed LeBron that the answer for finals glory may not be in Cleveland anymore. More so, they may have sent him packing to Houston. Time will tell.
This story originally appeared on SportsMap.