CLEVELAND — LeBron James flew back to Los Angeles from a family vacation in the Caribbean. He could be there longer than usual.
Hours before NBA free agency opened with the three-time champion as its most coveted prize, James returned Saturday to Southern California, where he has two homes and a film production company. The Lakers are hoping they can persuade him to sign with them and return them to glory.
Los Angeles is among the teams in the mix to land James after his agent told the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday that he will not exercise his $35.6 million contract option for next season. At 11:01 p.m. Saturday night, James will be an unrestricted free agent, and agent Rich Paul is expected to contact several teams with the Lakers and Cavs atop his list.
By declining his option, James positioned himself to be able to choose where he’ll play next, and Cleveland, just up the road from his home near Akron, remains a strong possibility. But there are at least three other teams — and maybe an outsider or two — with legitimate shots at landing James, who made it clear following this year’s NBA Finals that he’s still driven to win championships.
While every team dreams of being ruled by King James, only a few have a legit chance of signing him.
Here are the cases — for and against — the leading contenders:
WHY: Home; money.
James came back four years ago to a hero’s welcome, something that seemed unimaginable when he left in disgrace four years earlier for Miami. But he vowed to do everything he could to deliver a title to championship-starved Cleveland. He delivered in 2016, erasing past sins and raising James to a worshipped level few athletes in any sport have experienced. His family is comfortable here and it’s where he has complete control.
The Cavs can also offer him the most lucrative package, a five-year, $209 million contract.
WHY NOT: Flawed roster; blemished relationship with owner Dan Gilbert.
Last summer’s stunning trade of guard Kyrie Irving left the Cavs without a quality running mate for James, who was forced to carry a heavier offensive load throughout the regular season and playoffs. Cleveland has deep salary-cap issues — partially caused by James’ failure to commit long-term — and the Cavs currently lack enough talent to unseat the champion Golden State Warriors.
Gilbert and James mended some fences for his return in 2014, but they remain distant other than a shared commitment to winning. Gilbert has gone above and beyond financial barriers to appease James, but the well could be running dry.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
WHY: Salary-cap space; business interests; iconic franchise.
With some savvy moves, the Lakers are poised to potentially add two superstars — James and Paul George and maybe Kawhi Leonard — to a team featuring up-and-coming talents like Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, who is reportedly dealing with a knee injury. James loves the Hollywood lights, and with two homes in the Los Angeles area as well as a film production company, he has already established some roots in the land of movie stars and slow-moving traffic. The appeal of playing for one of the league’s most storied teams is another allure.
WHY NOT: Youth; the Western Conference.
There’s little doubt James has some quality years ahead of him. But does he have enough time to let a group of unproven players with no postseason experience develop into a title contender? And if he jumps conferences for the first time in his career, the path to the Finals is far more treacherous.
WHY: Rising team; staying in the East.
In Sixers guard Ben Simmons, James sees a younger version of himself and he’d relish the chance to play alongside the 21-year-old while mentoring him. The Sixers also have center Joel Embiid, 24, projected to become the game’s next dominant big men. Philadelphia would instantly vault from conference contender to favorite with James, who could make a strong run at his ninth straight Finals in Year One.
WHY NOT: Too young; front-office dysfunction.
Much like the Lakers, the Sixers lack postseason experience and James would be surrounded by players who have barely tasted the postseason. General manager Bryan Colangelo’s resignation following an investigation into whether he created Twitter accounts to criticize his own players, has given the impression that the team isn’t operating in concert and then would turn off James quickly.
Houston: While the Rockets once seemed a good fit, James declining his option all but eliminated the chances of him joining up with close friend Chris Paul and MVP James Harden. If James had opted in with the Cavs, they could have worked out a sign-and-trade with Houston.
San Antonio: James reveres Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, but living in Texas doesn’t seem appealing to the star’s family and the Spurs are still trying to figure out what to do with Leonard, who can become a free agent after next season.