Here's what it will mean to the teams vying for LeBron James if he either opts in to the final year of his contract, or opts out.
LeBron James’ decision as to whether or not to opt out of the final year of his contract is more than just a formality.
While it’s still unclear who James will be playing for next season, his choice – which must be made by midnight on Friday (EST) – will be telling of where he could potentially end up.
Here’s a look at what LeBron’s decision could mean, one way or the other.
What opting in means
On the surface, James opting into the final year of his deal – which will pay him $35.6 million for 2018-19 – seems like an obvious signal he’ll remain with the Cleveland Cavaliers. But that’s not necessarily the case.
While that route would technically commit him to the Cavaliers, it actually opens the door for James to go practically anywhere in the league. The reason for that is with James under contract, any team can theoretically trade for him and fit him into their payroll by matching salaries in a swap. It opens the door for teams that otherwise wouldn’t have enough cap space to sign James outright in free agency.
The biggest beneficiary of this scenario is likely the Houston Rockets, who are considered a potential LeBron destination but are strapped for cap space. Instead of general manager Daryl Morey needing to gut the team to sign James in free agency, the Rockets could trade for him and then go over the cap to re-sign Chris Paul and Clint Capela – a key figure to their contention hopes.
Houston basically did this last summer with Paul, who opted in with the Los Angeles Clippers to facilitate a trade to his preferred destination.
James’ decision to opt in could also mean he’s willing to play out another year in Cleveland, but if staying put is what he wants, it may make more sense for him to opt out and sign another one-plus-one deal with a player option on the second year. That buys James more flexibility and protects his earning potential from a potential serious injury.
James opting in would also give the Cavaliers more leverage. Instead of allowing James to find a trade partner, Cleveland could force him to play out the final year of his contract – although that type of hard-ball tactic, especially with someone as powerful as James, would be unwise and leave the Cavaliers with nothing to show for their troubles when he eventually walks out the door next summer.
What opting out means
James opting out drastically limits the field vying for his services. The only teams he’s been linked to that also have the necessary cap space to hand him his max contract are the Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers.
That puts the onus on the Lakers to get a deal done with the San Antonio Spurs before James’ deadline so LeBron can opt out and sign with Los Angeles in free agency. If he opts in, that would mean the Lakers would have almost no chance at landing both Leonard and James this summer, as one would require most – if not all – of their desirable trade assets.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for everyone involved and while James isn’t facing a deadline on his decision of where he wants to go, it could narrow down his options.