LOS ANGELES — The San Antonio Spurs appear to be out of the LeBron James hunt.
On Monday, the franchise agreed to sign forward LaMarcus Aldridge to a three-year, $72.3 million contract extension. As part of the deal, ESPN.com reports Aldridge will opt into his $22.3 million salary for the 2018-19 season.
With Aldridge locked in, the Spurs have invested in the core of their roster for next season, which will include Kawhi Leonard at $20 million, Pau Gasol at $16.8 million and Patty Mills at $11.6 million.
San Antonio projects to have up to $18 million in cap space next July—not nearly enough to chase the Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star.
Would James walk away from a $35.6 million option in Cleveland to sign with the Spurs for half that amount?
That’s quite the reach.
Just to get to that (relatively low) figure, the Spurs would need both Danny Green ($10 million) and Rudy Gay ($8.8 million) to opt out of the final years on their contracts. The Spurs would then need to find a home for Gasol in trade, if they hoped to afford James at his full price.
Instead of derailing one of the best teams in the highly competitive Western Conference, the Spurs are choosing to stick with the core that has carried on at a high level since Tim Duncan retired in 2016.
On the Aldridge deal, a competing executive mused it seems like teams are simply battling for second place behind the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs may challenge the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, but Golden State remains the clear favorite and will continue to be the favorite through next year with a James-Spurs fantasy unlikely to happen.
Looking ahead to next summer, San Antonio is likely to stay over the NBA‘s projected $101 million salary cap like most of the league. The Spurs would then have their mid-level and bi-annual exceptions (at about $8.6 million and $3.4 million, respectively) to add quality (but not elite) talent like Gay, who joined this summer at a starting salary of $8.4 million.
Meanwhile, the Cavaliers still hope a strong season will keep James local. The team recently traded Kyrie Irving for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and draft considerations, while adding veteran guard Dwyane Wade to try and help the team get past the rival Golden State Warriors in June.
One positive for Cleveland: Few teams will have significant spending power next summer.
The Chicago Bulls can get to $40-49 million (depending on Zach LaVine’s status) but does James want to carry on his career with a rebuilding squad? The same could be said of the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers and several teams in transition who don’t quite have enough money, but may be able to get there with a few strategic trades (like the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and Sacramento Kings).
The Utah Jazz may be the only playoff-level team that can chase James, assuming they stay in the top eight after losing Gordon Hayward to the Boston Celtics this summer. If the Jazz let go of pending free agents Derrick Favors, Joe Johnson and others, they’d near $33 million in space.
A franchise’s best chance at luring James may be opening a second max slot for another All-Star, like Paul George of the Thunder who can opt out his contract before July.
The Dallas Mavericks may have the most money to spend if Wesley Matthews opts out (at $18.6 million) but at about $50.2 million, they’d need to make a trade to near the $65 million in space needed to land James and George.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has insisted the Lakers have the space to get two max stars but they’re currently projected to have $47 million in room. He’ll need to find a way out of the contracts of players like Jordan Clarkson and Luol Deng to get there.
Perhaps Joel Embiid, who recently signed a long-term extension, is enough to entice James to join the Philadelphia 76ers. They are about $3 million short of the $35 million for James but that’s certainly within range.
Given general manager Daryl Morey’s track record for creativity, the Rockets should be included as a possibility; although they’d certainly need to get out of the contracts of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon—and possibly Chris Paul as well.
Finally, it may be worth noting that the Clippers might be able to afford James in July, but that depends on the player options for DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers, Milos Teodosic and Wesley Johnson. James would get the Los Angeles experience and the chance to play for owner Steve Ballmer, but is Blake Griffin without Jordan a workable pairing alongside James?
The Lakers would seem to have the advantage over the Clippers in Los Angeles, but when James weighs his options next summer (options unlikely to include the competitive Spurs), Cleveland may still end up the favorite.
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