LeBron James is apparently headed into unrestricted free agency this summer. According to multiple reports, James is declining his $35.6 million contract option for next season. The news was first reported via Twitter by Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com.
James had until 11:59 p.m. to express his intentions to the Cavs and his agent Rich Paul informed the team Friday morning, said the people who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the sides are not publicly commenting on moves ahead of free agency opening Sunday.
The three-time champion is now the most coveted prize in an NBA free-agent class that includes All-Stars Paul George and Chris Paul. Teams can begin negotiation with free agents at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.
The decision to decline the option for 2018-19 was expected by James because it gives him more options, which includes him re-signing with the Cavs, who can offer him a five-year, $209 million contract. James can also sign a short-term deal with Cleveland, something he has done each year since returning in 2014.
In 2010, he bolted for Miami and spent four seasons with the Heat, winning two titles, before returning home to Northeast Ohio.
While the decision may cause some anxious feelings in Cleveland, ESPN's Dave McMenamin reports (via Twitter) that James' decision to not opt in isn't a harbinger of the end of LeBron's time with the Cavs:
Had LeBron opted in, that would have been a bad sign for Cleveland -- it would basically have meant that his camp had a trade partner lined up. As it stands now, CLE is still in the mix. According to a Cavs source, the team's "Plan A, B & C in free agency is to keep LeBron"
David Aldridge of Turner Sports reports via Twitter LeBron's opt-out makes it harder for the Houston Rockets to acquire him this summer, but may help the Los Angeles Lakers in landing him.
James’s decision to opt out makes a potential trade with the Rockets less likely. It helps the Lakers, who would like to use their existing assets to make a Kawhi Leonard trade, and use their cap space to make James a max contract offer.
Additionally, reports ESPN's Ramona Shelburne (via Twitter), James' move helps other teams interested in him as well:
What LeBron deciding to go through with free agency does is remove some of the pressure on his free agent suitors with cap space like LA & Philly. Lakers in particular had been pushing to answer the Kawhi question before LBJ had to make this decision.
James said he’ll factor family into his next choice and there’s still a chance he’ll re-sign with the Cavs, who were swept by Golden State in this year’s Finals.
With the ability to sign two maximum-contract players, the Lakers can build a “Super Team” with James if they are able to also land George or work out a trade with San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard.
James already has some shallow roots on the West Coast with two homes in the Los Angeles area and a film production company.
The chance to join one of the league’s most iconic franchises has an appeal to James, who just completed his 15th season and said following this year’s Finals that he remains in “championship mode.”
He has long been linked to the Lakers, partly because he has two homes in the Los Angeles area along with a film production company. There’s also the fact that the Lakers have enough salary-cap space to sign James and another maximum-contract player like Leonard or George and form a “Super Team” capable of competing with the reigning champion Golden State Warriors.
The first major free-agent domino fell Thursday as George reportedly decided not to exercise his $20.7 million option for next season with Oklahoma City.
For now, George is set to hit the market when free agency officially begins at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, but he may not go anywhere. The Thunder can offer him more money and George could get a five-year, $176 million and stay in Oklahoma.
It’s unclear what affect, if any, George’s decision has had on James and his plans. The two are good friends and there’s little doubt they would relish the opportunity to play together after competing against each other for years.
As for Leonard, there’s little clarity on his troubled relationship with San Antonio. It remains unclear if the Spurs are willing to trade him and if they are willing to part ways with him, where he would land.
For James, the dilemma is whether to leave his home again. Upon his return to Cleveland four years ago from Miami, James said it took time away to realize what he was missing.
“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball,” he said. “I didn’t realize that four years ago. I do now.”
James also said he always felt like he would come back to Cleveland to finish his career where it began.
But that was before the Akron native led the Cavs to four straight Finals and won Cleveland’s first professional sports title since 1964. If Decision 3.0 is to go, James feels content.
“I came back because I felt like I had some unfinished business,” he said following Game 4 of the NBA Finals. “To be able to be a part of a championship team two years ago with the team that we had and in the fashion that we had is something I will always remember. ... It ended a drought for Cleveland of 50-plus years, so I think we’ll all remember that in sports history.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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