What LeBron James' opt-out means on the eve of NBA free agency

Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James may have eyes for other NBA teams in free agency. (Getty Images)

The greatest player of his generation is available to play for your favorite NBA team again.

Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James will decline his $35.6 million option for the 2018-19 season and become an unrestricted free agent, according to Yahoo Sports’ Shams Charania. Most teams would gladly move mountains to sign the three-time MVP into cap space, but don’t get your hopes up. Opting out of the final year of his deal likely severely limits LeBron’s landing spots.

ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith suggested James will “have a conversation with” seven teams after free agency opens at midnight on July 1 — the Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. Other reports had the list trimmed to the Cavs, Lakers, Rockets and Sixers, and some already had it boiled down to Cleveland and L.A.

LeBron James just shortened his free agency list for us

LeBron’s decision not to opt into the final year of his contract likely eliminates the Rockets, Warriors, Celtics and Heat — not to mention the vast majority of the rest of the league — from consideration, since none of those teams can create the kind of cap space necessary to absorb what would be a $35.35 million maximum starting salary for the 15-year veteran. Those teams would have had to trade for the final year of LeBron’s contract, but opting out makes that possibility more complicated:

The Rockets, for example, could still work a sign-and-trade by properly ordering their operations, but they would then be committed to LeBron, Chris Paul and James Harden for $101 million and hard-capped at $129 million. Fitting even a 12-man roster into the remaining $28 million would be near-impossible and would almost certainly mean letting Clint Capela walk in restricted free agency, finding someone to take on the $42 million left on Ryan Anderson’s contract and dumping Eric Gordon.

The Warriors and Celtics are in similar situations. It’s tough for any cap-strapped team to completely rework a competitive roster around LeBron, and that may even be unwise for teams already built to contend for a championship without him next season. The difficulty of maneuvering his way to a team already built to win, even if he were to opt in, is likely what led to the decision he made on Friday.

As our own Dan Devine detailed in the LeBron Tracker earlier this week:

Unless LeBron decides before Friday night to opt into the final year of his current contract, thus leaving the door open to a “getting to the Rockets the same way Chris Paul got to the Rockets” scenario, this is looking like a three-team race between the Cleveland Cavaliers (who can use James’ Bird rights to re-sign him despite being over the salary cap), the Los Angeles Lakers (who have the salary cap space to sign him to a maximum-salaried deal) and the Philadelphia 76ers (who don’t have enough cap space for that right now, but who can get there in fairly short order). There’s no single no-brainer choice. All have their pros and cons; every evaluation you make along the way might lead you to a different destination.

By opting out of $35.6 million, James will actually take a slight pay cut in 2018-19, when he can earn a starting salary of $35.35 million. The Cavs can still make him the biggest offer — a five-year deal just north of $200 million. Other teams can sign him for up to four years and closer to $150 million.

The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t out of the LeBron sweepstakes

Since returning to Cleveland in 2014, James has played on a series of shorter-term deals with opt-out clauses almost every year, such as the one he just exercised. At some point, the 33-year-old will lock in a longterm deal to maximize his earning power before entering the twilight of his career, but given that he finished second in MVP voting this year, we may not be at that point yet. He could still be looking for two-year deals with a second-year player option in order to maintain his flexibility.

That sort of deal would give Cavs GM Koby Altman one last shot to reshape the roster around LeBron (again) while giving James the freedom  to reenter free agency next summer, when the cap spikes, a bunch of bad contracts from 2016 come off the books and the super-team possibilities are aplenty.

LeBron did reach a seventh straight Finals this past season, his fourth straight with the Cavaliers, and his Northeast Ohio roots are well-documented, so this news does not rule out Cleveland. There are ways the Cavs can bolster their roster around him — namely a reported swap of No. 8 pick Collin Sexton for Charlotte Hornets point guard Kemba Walker. Kevin Love could also be on the table. While James has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the team’s owner and his teammates, arguments for him returning to Cleveland by default have gained steam, given his limited options elsewhere.

Can the Los Angeles Lakers find LeBron a superstar partner?

The Lakers have long been linked to LeBron, mostly because he makes his offseason home in L.A. (two of them, actually) and has entertainment business ties there. President of basketball operations Magic Johnson has also made it known the Lakers are in the market for LeBron and other max-contracted free agents. They have the cap space to sign two superstars and the young assets to chase another.

Problem is, the San Antonio Spurs have at least been resistant to the idea of trading disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard to the Lakers, and reports have begun to surface that Paul George might be leaning toward returning to the Oklahoma City Thunder. There has been much debate about whether or not LeBron would sign in L.A. without assurance the Lakers could land another star, but obtaining Leonard and/or George would certainly make them a more attractive destination for the three-time champion.

Did LeBron just improve the Philadelphia 76ers’ odds?

The Sixers are a wildcard. They’re close to having enough cap space to fit LeBron’s max right now, and they would have little problem sending out the salary to create the rest of it. They were considered a fringe contender without LeBron this past season, with budding superstars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid taking the reins into the playoffs, and they have more intriguing pieces to boot — Dario Saric, Robert Covington and recent No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz among them. The lot of them could be dangled along with some draft assets to chase Leonard or another superstar to pair with LeBron.

The question in Philadelphia is one of fit. James and Simmons share an agent. The off-the-court bond is strong, but on the court their playing styles may not mesh. Both prefer the ball in their hands, and Simmons does not have the shooting ability to space the floor for LeBron. Embiid has eyes on being the face of the franchise on and off the floor. Would he be comfortable in the considerable shadow LeBron casts on an organization? That’s a question Sixers coach Brett Brown would love to answer.

James has said family will play a bigger factor in his decision, which is why Cleveland and L.A. have always been considered the favorites. He will also prioritize his ability to contend for rings and chase “the ghost” of Michael Jordan, which makes the Sixers an intriguing option as well. Joining the young Lakers without another superstar player to share the load in the West or returning to the Cavs in an Eastern Conference featuring the improved Celtics probably delivers less assurances of contending.

Then, there’s always the element of surprise. The Heat were far from a favorite to land LeBron’s services when he chose Miami in 2010. We can talk ourselves into circles on this, but we won’t really know anything until the greatest player of his generation makes his next decision. Stay tuned.

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Ben Rohrbach is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!