With LeBron James opting out of his contract on Monday, teams throughout the NBA are preparing pitches to make a run at him.
I'm told he has five preferred destinations.
A few of the five will outright stun you, while a couple of teams not on the list will surprise you, as well. Because of salary-cap situations, a couple of the teams on this list are extreme long shots. Nonetheless, I'm told James still would consider playing there. Based on what I'm hearing, here are the five places that could be landing spots for James this offseason.
Though a return to Miami is no lock, the Heat might still be the front-runner for James. In fact, I've heard that the Heat's confidence in retaining James is buoyed by their belief that James' options are relatively limited.
Two-thirds of the Big Three definitely want to remain in Miami. Dwyane Wade is Mr. Heat and certainly can't get the $42 million he's owed over the next two years anywhere else. And Chris Bosh has also fallen in love with Miami. I'm told both players will consider taking less money annually (though more long term) to allow the team to add talent, which could help the Heat add a strong player or two to lure James back to South Beach. The one question with Bosh is whether he'll stay in Miami if James leaves.
As for winning another title, as long as James returns, the Heat are still the favorites in the East. They also might be capable of beating anyone out West besides San Antonio (and the Spurs are no lock to reach the Finals next season).
The Heat could stand to add more talent at point guard. Kyle Lowry would be their dream, though Toronto must be considered the favorite to retain him. Miami could also land much-needed help on the wings by snagging Shawn Marion, Marvin Williams or Trevor Ariza. I'm also told that Pat Riley intends to make a run at Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins, who has one year left on his contract.
Miami's best chance to keep James would be to bring Carmelo Anthony to South Beach. But unless the Heat can find a way to give Melo near-max money, that's "a pipe dream," to use Riley's words.
The Cavs are certainly the sentimental choice. Even Heat fans would have to understand James returning to his hometown team to take care of unfinished business.
While James has gone a long way toward restoring his image nationwide, the storybook tale of him trying to lead Cleveland to its first championship in basketball, football or baseball in more than 50 years would have much of the country in his corner.
Basketball-wise, it's not a bad move either. The presence of Kyrie Irving alone assures that James would have more talent than he ever had in his first stint in Cleveland. But to strengthen their chances of landing him, the Cavs should find out whether James wants to play with Kevin Love when they meet with him after July 1.
In the likely event that he does, the Cavs should trade their No. 1 overall pick (either Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins) and Dion Waiters to Minnesota for Love (assuming Love isn't traded on draft night).
James would need to teach Love and Irving the intangibles it takes to win, but with those three as their core, the Cavs could reach the Finals next season.
A lot has been made about the possibility of James teaming up with Anthony, and few teams in the league have a better chance of pulling that off than Houston.
The Rockets are confident they can trade Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin to clear the cap room necessary to offer near-max dollars. While they'd like to keep Chandler Parsons, he might have to be sacrificed to move Asik and/or Lin. I'm told Golden State might be interested in trading for Lin if it can land Parsons along with him.
In any event, assuming the Rockets obtain the cap room to sign James or Anthony, the next step would be to give up star guard James Harden in a sign-and-trade for whichever superstar (James or Anthony) they don't sign as a free agent. Faced with the prospect of losing their superstars, both New York and Miami would be open to accepting Harden in a sign-and-trade.
In James, Anthony and Dwight Howard, the Rockets would have potentially one of the best Big Threes in league history, and certainly the best since the '80s trios of the Lakers' Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and James Worthy and the Celtics' Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.
New York Knicks
This is far-fetched because New York would have to work a miracle to clear the cap room to sign James. But if it's any consolation to Knicks fans, they're at least on James' radar.
Obviously, this would require Anthony re-signing with New York. The Knicks would then have to find a taker for Amare Stoudemire, or perhaps the combination of Tyson Chandler and Andrea Bargnani. The Knicks would also have to trade them to teams beneath the salary cap so the team doesn't receive anything in return. Philadelphia could be a potential partner in a trade for Stoudemire, and Dallas would have interest in Chandler.
Still, James and Anthony playing together in New York next season is a near impossibility.
The Nets would have just as much trouble as the Knicks clearing the cap space to land James. While they would perhaps have the pieces to appease Miami in a sign-and-trade, they'd first have to get beneath the luxury-tax line to be eligible to take back players in a sign-and-trade.
That would mean moving Joe Johnson or Deron Williams (they'd prefer it be Williams), but with Williams' injuries and max contract, that will be incredibly difficult. If they somehow found a taker for Williams, the Nets could then offer up Brook Lopez to Miami in a sign-and-trade for James.
As with the Knicks' scenario, this is barely within the realm of possibility.
One other possibility
Los Angeles Clippers
As mentioned above, I'm told the Clippers are not among James' most preferred destinations. While James and Clippers point guard Chris Paul are great friends, there are concerns about the compatibility of their games. Paul is not as capable of excelling off the ball as Wade was when he adjusted to playing with James.
Beyond that, there is still the very real problem of Donald Sterling's shadow hovering over the Clippers. I was not told that this would be an issue, but as outspoken as James was about wanting Sterling out of the league, it seems implausible that he would willingly go play for the Clippers until Sterling's ouster is complete. That is not likely to happen before July 8.
Obviously, Riley's ultimate desire is to keep James, but I'm told that if he must lose him, his preference would be to sign-and-trade him to the Clippers for Blake Griffin. If James decides he's leaving, that would indeed be the next best thing for Miami. And while the Clippers aren't at the top of his list, they can't be ruled out completely.