The new odds are out and the Sixers remain unchanged at 7-2 which, after adjusting for bookmaker profit, suggests that Philly is around 18-20% likely to be welcoming the King. As we might have guessed, the Cavaliers being swept has massively reduced the forecast chance that leBron stays in Cleveland, as the Cavs are now at +3000, suggesting only a 2-3% chance James stays with his current team. Here are the complete odds:
- Los Angeles Lakers +200
- Philadelphia 76ers +350
- Miami Heat +500
- New York Knicks +750
- Houston Rockets +1000
- San Antonio Spurs +2000
- Cleveland Cavaliers +3000
- Golden State Warriors +5000
- Boston Celtics +5000
- Chicago Bulls +7500
- Oklahoma City Thunder +7500
- Washington Wizards +10000
- Field (Any Other) +1000
The other big loser here is Houston, now showing at 10-1; meanwhile the Lakers have taken over the top spot. A few things happened last week that hurt Houston’s chances while helping LA:
- Chris Paul said he will not take a pay cut to play with LeBron. Of course he could change his mind, but if he doesn’t that cuts off some of the most attractive LeBron-to-Houston scenarios.
- Marc Stein floated the idea that since Paul and James are both free agents, they could both sign with the Los Angeles Lakers, who have room for two max-level additions under the cap.
- Finally, word seems to be spreading that a sign-and-trade from Cleveland to another team is exceptionally unlikely unless a complex three-team deal can be worked out. A sign-and-trade is the only way LeBron could come to Houston if both he and Paul require max salaries, as now seems likely.
Let’s dig into that third point as it helps explain why not only the Houston possibility, but also the LeBron-to-Boston scenario recently floated by Jonathan Tjarks at The Ringer, have such long odds. Backers of these plans make a seemingly-compelling argument. It goes like this:
- Suppose LeBron really, really wants to go to a specific team — let’s say Boston.
- And let’s suppose Boston wants to add James and is willing to part with high-quality, high-paid talent in order to make it happen.
- LeBron approaches Cavs management and says “look, you know I can walk away and you’ll get nothing. But Boston will give you some stuff — say, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, and maybe a valuable draft pick too, if you trade me to them after I agree to another year at/around the max.”
- Cleveland would rather have something than nothing, and Boston would prefer the superb LeBron to the merely-excellent Hayward, so both teams say yes
- LeBron then gets to stay in the East and play on a team with Kyrie Irving, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, plus a fine bench and a terrific coach; an easy path to the Finals and a potential dynasty, so why wouldn’t he do this?
- If Kyrie objects, either tell him to shut up and play, or trade him for a similar player like Kemba Walker.
Sounds plausible! So why does Vegas think Boston is well below 2% to get James? Part of it is that Brad Stevens and Gordon Hayward have a very close relationship. But Hayward isn’t the only guy who could be included in such a deal. No, the real story, I believe, is that Cleveland’s salary cap/luxury tax situation makes a deal like this insane for them. And the same goes for all the Houston scenarios I’ve seen. Houston and Boston are over the cap. So they can only participate in a two-team sign-and-trade for a max-paid LeBron if they give back $35M or so in salary.
But if Cleveland keeps their current team, or keeps that team except they replace LeBron with players who earn the same amount, they will not only have a $150M payroll, they’ll also owe around $150M in luxury tax due to the dreaded “repeater tax” provision. Here’s an ESPN piece laying it out.
Now, if you’re billionaire Dan Gilbert, and you can keep LeBron, make some trades to upgrade the roster, and probably go to the Finals again, maybe that’s worth it. But for Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris? Putting those guys together with Kevin Love, Larry Nance, George Hill, etc. — you’re not going to make it out of the second round. Just a few years ago the Sixers were purchased for less than $300M; is Dan Gilbert going to spend that much to buy an early playoff exit? I don’t know Dan Gilbert, but I say there’s no way he will make that choice. And that’s why the bookmakers see it as so unlikely James will end up on an over-the-cap team like the Rockets or Celts.
Now, there is, I believe, a workaround. I say “I believe” because the salary cap is plenty complicated and I don’t pretend to understand all its vagaries. So maybe what I’m about to suggest can work, maybe for some reason it can’t. And maybe there’s some other way that Daryl Morey or Mike Zaren can cook up that I am not aware of. With those disclaimers in place: a third team could probably make a deal possible. Let’s use the Sixers as the third team, just because we all know the Sixers’ cap situation. Suppose LeBron says his first choice is the Rockets, second choice the Lakers, and we are, sadly, out of the running. Houston calls and says: “Look, Brett, you can’t get LeBron, but you can still win here. Let’s do a three-way deal where We, Houston, get LeBron, Cleveland gets some Houston draft picks, and Philly gets Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker.” I’m oversimplifying; maybe Houston needs to dump a third player to make the numbers work, maybe Philly needs to give Cleveland a second-round pick so it’s not something-for-nothing, maybe Cleveland demands more. But basically, we’d be getting a terrific and underpaid shooting guard in his prime in Gordon and a fine, arguably underpaid 3-and-D forward in Tucker, and giving up nothing but cap space. Would we do that? Perhaps not, it’s an interesting question as it probably takes us out of the superstar-signing market. But if we wouldn’t, perhaps some other team with cap space would. It only takes one!
So it’s not impossible. But, three-way deals are awfully hard to put together. So that’s why Boston and Houston are such unlikely destinations.
It’s understandable that the Lakers are considered the most likely team. LeBron has two houses in the LA area. He has long-term interest in the entertainment industry. LeBron says his family’s needs will be central; reports were that his wife liked the Miami move and didn’t want to return to Cleveland; if that’s true one might imagine she’d prefer LA to Philly on lifestyle/weather grounds.
From a basketball perspective Philly seems preferable, at least to a Sixers believer like me. But Chris Paul is really an exceptional player; if you believe on-off statistics, as I do, he’s worth perhaps double what a normal excellent player like Paul George is. So while I viewed a Laker team with LBJ and PG added as probably too weak to compete in the West, with Paul it might — might! — be a different story. And remember, the Lakers can trade young talent for veterans. What if they could trade Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and the Cleveland pick they got in the Jordan Crawford deal, plus cap stuff, for Kawhi Leonard; then you have LeBron, Kawhi, and CP3 together with Lonzo Ball, Julius Randle, Josh Hart and more. Or maybe Kawhi is out of reach, but, look, despite his shooting woes Lonzo still has significant trade value and, together with the Cleveland pick, could easily fetch a quality vet or two to flesh out the roster.
So, yeah, LA has a real shot. As to the relatively high probabilities associated with the Knicks and Heat, I don’t have any great insights to share. Obviously LeBron knows Miami, knows the coach, etc., but that seems like a completely hopeless situation; they aren’t anywhere near good enough to compete and their cap status leaves them very few options. And the Knicks would seem to have little to offer other than being a famous team in New York; the owner is bad, the players are bad except for the good-but-overrated Porzingis... presumably there are some rumors or something that make this scenario more plausible but I don’t yet see how James to the Knicks could make sense.
I do think the Sixers are looking awfully attractive at this point, attractive enough that I was surprised and disappointed to see us at only 20% or so. Perhaps Philly is being underestimated in the way we are all so used to! Or perhaps the Colangelo mess has hurt our chances. Or maybe Vegas has the inside word on LeBron’s thinking and it’s not as pro-Philly as I’d have expected. We shall see. But for now, this is the information we have.