The buzz for LeBron James possibly coming to Houston as been a thing for practically a year now. Very tiny seeds were planted the day that Daryl Morey pulled off the acquisition of point guard Chris Paul, a card-carrying BBFOB (Banana Boat Friend of Bron), and they have since steadily grown, reaching their apex around the time the Golden State Warriors were dispatching the Rockets, and then LeBron, from the NBA's postseason.
Numerous articles have been written and infinite data has been crunched to try to make the mathematical and emotional puzzle come together to where LeBron James completes the ultimate super team here in Houston — Harden, Paul, James, and hell, throw Clint Capela in there. It's basically been a fantasy NBA version of Infinity War, as former James teammate Chris Bosh pointed out recently:
Well, if there were ever a Rockets dream of LeBron coming to Houston, that dream was put on life support with the news this morning that LeBron James has opted out of the final year of his contract with the Cavaliers to become an unrestricted free agent:
Sources: Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James has declined his $35.6M player option for 2018-19 and will enter free agency.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 29, 2018
Intuitively, if you're not a close follower of how the NBA does business and allows teams to shape themselves, you might say "Great! He's a free agent! Let's go sign him!". however, as we outlined for you earlier this week, the only way the Rockets were going to be able to acquire LeBron James — short of gutting their roster and convincing James and Paul to take massive pay cuts (not happening) — was to have LeBron opt into his deal with Cleveland and then have him force a trade to the Rockets, similar functionally to Paul last year, although Paul had the option of signing with the Rockets without a trade because the team had the necessary cap space.
Now, the Rockets, thanks to a slew of very large contracts on the books, both currently and imminently (Paul and Capela re-signing presumably), the worst of which is Ryan Anderson's $42 million boat anchor over the next two seasons, are operating well above the salary cap, making a James signing (or a signing of anyone significant, for that matter) a virtual impossibility.
Rockets will need to move on to other options now. An opt-in-and-trade was the only feasible way to get LeBron to Houston and this move kills that. https://t.co/dF0i3ACrrY— ClutchFans (@clutchfans) June 29, 2018
LeBron's options of where to go now as a free agent are pretty limited, given the fact that most of the teams that would interest a player of his stature are well over the cap, so, obviously, LeBron's decision today is an indicator that he's got this thing narrowed down to a few teams, with the Lakers and a return to the Cavaliers the two betting favorites, the Lakers being the heavy overall favorite.
The players to watch now are Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. LeBron reportedly doesn't want to head to the Lakers without another established star in tow. George has been a seeming lock for Los Angeles since the Pacers traded him to Oklahoma City a year ago. Like James, George is choosing not to opt in for the final year of his deal in OKC. Both are unrestricted free agents. Magic Johnson's recruiting skills are under the microscope.
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Leonard's situation is more complicated. He wants out of San Antonio, wants to become a Laker, but he is under contract to the Spurs. They would have to deal him to LA, and they are in no hurry to do so, nor should they be. They will trade Kawhi to the team that offers the best scenario for the SPURS, not the best scenario for Kawhi. There is still a very, very outside chance the Spurs try to repair their relationship with Leonard. The Spurs, and ONLY the Spurs, can offer him a five-year, $219 million deal this summer. That's not a bad chip to have in your back pocket, if you can smooth over hurt feelings.
As for the Rockets, with James and George now off the board, chances are they roll back the same nucleus next season, with Paul and Capela on new contracts, and a few new bench pieces. They will still effort to dump Anderson, if for no other reason than to save owner Tilman Ferittta ungodly amounts of luxury tax.
But for you Houston LeBron dreamers, don't shoot the messenger. The dream appears to be over. Instead, you'll have to settle for bringing back a 65-17 team that nearly made the NBA Finals last season. That's not so bad — ask about 28 other NBA fan bases.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.