If LeBron James' goal this offseason is to join the team that gives him the best chance of knocking off Golden State after back-to-back losses to the Warriors in the NBA Finals, his best hope may be joining the Houston Rockets -- who took the Warriors the distance in this year's conference finals.
Because Houston is already too close to the salary cap to sign James outright before even dealing with new contracts for free agents Chris Paul and Clint Capela, getting LeBron to Houston would almost certainly require a trade. Is such a scenario possible? Let's look at how it might happen.
Step 1: James opts in for 2018-19
If LeBron wants to play for the Rockets, it would probably be necessary for him to go the same route Paul did a year ago: passing on free agency to set up a trade to Houston. Why? Because even if the Rockets were to pull off a sign-and-trade deal for James as a maximum-salary free agent, doing so would hard-cap them at the luxury-tax apron, estimated at $128 million for next season.
Max salaries for James and Paul (an unrestricted free agent), plus James Harden, would swallow up more than $100 million of that total. Add in a max salary for Capela (a restricted free agent) and Houston would already be pushing the apron, with 10 roster spots still left to fill.
So unless James or Paul is willing to take a massive pay cut -- unlikely given their leadership roles in the National Basketball Players Association (Paul is president, James is first vice president) -- LeBron opting in is the way to go. A trade would allow the Rockets to re-sign any of their free agents, including Capela, Paul and also starting small forward Trevor Ariza, with new owner Tilman Fertitta's willingness to pay a giant luxury-tax bill the main issue from Houston's standpoint.
Unlike Paul last season, James wouldn't have to sacrifice much in the way of salary to do so. In fact, his $35.6 million player option is actually worth slightly more than the current max projection for 2018-19 ($35.35 million). And six months after a trade (mid-January, in this scenario), LeBron would be eligible to sign a max extension with the Rockets, meaning he can get to Houston and sign a long-term contract without having to wait until the summer of 2019.
The trick here would be finding a workable trade between the Rockets and Cavaliers.
Step 2: Searching for an Anderson taker
Ideally, Houston would match James' salary in large part with the $20.4 million owed Ryan Anderson in 2018-19. However, with two years left on Anderson's contract (he'll make $21.3 million in 2019-20) and with him falling largely out of the Rockets' playoff rotation, that's a tough sell. The New York Knicks' unwillingness to take back Anderson was a key factor in Houston's pursuit of Carmelo Anthony falling short of the goal line last summer.
Dealing James for a package centered on Anderson would likely push Cleveland deep into the luxury tax next season, so that idea is probably a nonstarter. Any trade involving Anderson would require a third team with cap space to take on his contract in exchange for future picks, allowing the Cavaliers to cut their payroll. Alas, Houston's first-rounders the next few seasons would have limited value with LeBron on the roster, and there will be more teams looking to shed salary than add it. So it would probably take at least two and maybe three first-rounders to persuade another team to take on Anderson -- without compensating Cleveland.
Instead, the Rockets may have to live with Anderson on their books and find another trade package for James.
Step 3: Building a LeBron trade without Anderson
Matching James' salary without involving Anderson is possible but more painful for Houston, which would have to give up key parts in return. Assuming the Rockets are limited to players currently under contract -- sign-and-trade rules would also be challenging on the Cavs' end of the deal -- Houston would have to trade basically everyone besides Harden and Anderson.
The Rockets would be required to send out at least $28.4 million in matching salary after the end of the July moratorium, and a package of Eric Gordon, Aaron Jackson, Nene, Chinanu Onuaku, PJ Tucker and Zhou Qi would add up to $29.4 million. (Houston would have to guarantee the 2018-19 salaries of Jackson and Zhou first, because otherwise their salaries would not count for trade purposes.)
This version of the trade sends out two of the Rockets' top four players in minutes played in the playoffs, which would hurt their depth. It would also hamper their 3-point shooting; Gordon and Tucker combined for 333 triples during the regular season, more than twice as many as LeBron's career-high 149. Still, those are sacrifices Houston GM Daryl Morey would happily make, just as he did giving up several contributors to land Paul last summer.
After all, James would slide into Tucker's role as starting power forward, and the Rockets would have their taxpayer midlevel exception (estimated at $5.3 million) to sign a backup shooting guard to replace Gordon. And, again, they could bring back all of their free agents.
The real question is whether Cleveland would sign off. Adding $29 million in payroll would put the Cavaliers some $16 million into the projected luxury tax for a team unlikely to seriously contend without James. So Cleveland would probably look to flip Gordon and Tucker, who should both have positive trade value because of reasonable contracts.
If the Cavaliers can't easily shed payroll elsewhere, they could probably maneuver their way under the tax line by using the stretch provision. Waiving and stretching George Hill, for example, would save Cleveland $14 million in 2018-19 because Hill's 2019-20 salary is guaranteed for just $1 million.
The Cavs would surely want a couple of future first-rounders for their trouble, after getting two of them, plus a swap option and two second-round picks, for signing-and-trading James to the Miami Heat in 2010 -- a move that did not force Cleveland to take on any salary in return. (A caution to Cavaliers fans: Don't expect a better return if James is traded again, since first-round picks are valued much more highly now than they were in 2010.)
Ultimately, I think Cleveland would sign on in order to get the first-round picks and whatever can be had for Gordon and Tucker. While not ideal, that option is better than James leaving outright in free agency with the Cavaliers getting no draft compensation.
Of course, there are many important variables before the two teams could even begin talking trade. First and most critically, LeBron has to decide Houston is the next place he's taking his talents, and to do so before the June 29 deadline to pick up his player option.
If that happens, however, there appears to be a path for James to join the Rockets.
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