Ranking LeBron James’ best options for free agency

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USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt discuss whether the West is in a league of its own in the NBA.
USA TODAY Sports

When LeBron James plays under the Los Angeles lights this weekend – on Friday against the Clippers and Sunday against the Lakers – it will be déjà vu all over again.

The chatter about him possibly leaving Cleveland in free agency this summer to head for Southern California will grow, just as it did at All-Star weekend last month. And as was the case on March 1, when #PhillyWantsLeBron billboards were installed near Cleveland, those new “LABron” billboards financed by a Lakers season ticket holder this week will surely be discussed.

Before you know it, someone from the Los Angeles Rams or Chargers will be campaigning for James to switch sports – just as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Juju Smith-Schuster did via Twitter on Tuesday.

Yet for all the silliness that has surrounded James’ future, there’s one substantive truth that gets overlooked: The best way to land LeBron is to create the best basketball team for him to join. The added bonus? It’s the only safe way to recruit him before July without fear of tampering charges coming your way.

With that in mind, we rank his realistic suitors based solely on their on-court efforts to this point.

Houston Rockets

If winning it all is LeBron’s first and last priority, it doesn’t get any better than joining soon-to-be MVP James Harden and his best friend/nine-time All-Star Chris Paul in Houston. As we detailed back in early December, the Rockets are a possible landing spot for James. Add in the fact they’ve won 17 games in a row and look capable of threatening the Golden State Warriors’ throne, and in-season recruitments don’t get much better than this.

Philadelphia 76ers

LeBron James alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons (who shares the same agent, Rich Paul, with James), Dario Saric and J.J. Redick sounds tantalizing and would automatically make the Sixers a favorite in the Eastern Conference. James also has been complimentary of Sixers coach Brett Brown’s work with the team.

Yes, the Sixers have salary cap work to do if they want to offer James a max salary, but it’s feasible to get there.

When considering James’ legacy, think about this if he decided to play for the Sixers, a proud franchise with history (Julius Erving, Wilt Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Moses Malone) and a passionate fanbase: The Sixers have won three titles but not one since 1983, and James would help revive the franchise, possibly bringing the Sixers another NBA title.

One of James’ favorite childhood TV shows was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Will Smith, who starred as the Fresh Prince (West Philadelphia born and raised), is a Sixers co-owner along with his wife Jada Pinkett Smith.

Here’s how the meeting should go between James and the Sixers. The team produces a video superimposing James into a Fresh Prince episode winning a title with Will as his teammate. Hey Sixers execs, we’re giving you the pitch. All we’re asking for in return is a small cut of ticket sales if James signs with Philadelphia.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Cleveland, Akron, northeast Ohio – it’s home for James, and it was enough to lure him back to Cleveland after leaving the Cavs for the Miami Heat in 2010. It’s also enough to keep him there.

James made clear at the beginning of the season that nothing has happened to change his stance that Cleveland remains the team with which he wants to finish his career.

But if competing for championships remains a primary goal, the remainder of this season, including the playoffs, will have an impact on James’ decision.

He is having another MVP season and is rejuvenated by the trade deadline deal that brought Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, George Hill and Rodney Hood to the Cavs. Getting to the Finals with this squad can have an impact on James’ future with the franchise.

Cleveland also has Brooklyn’s first-round pick in this June’s draft, and it will be a lottery pick likely in the top-10. That can be used to add a talented young player or turned into a trade piece that would net a quality NBA player.

Remember, there are good teams in the East, but there’s no Houston or Golden State. The path to the Finals is easier in the East, and that’s not lost on anyone.

Lastly, on a personal front, if James wanted any of his children, especially his two older sons, to attend Akron’s St. Vincent-St. Mary – where James went to high school – staying in northeast Ohio factors into his decision.

Los Angeles Lakers

If the greatest player in the game is going to join a team like the Lakers that didn’t even make the playoffs in the season prior, one of two things must happen – and preferably both. First, another top-tier free agent like Paul George must decide to join him. Secondly, the core that’s already there had better show some serious promise heading into the summer of The Decision, Part III.

And therein lies the reason the Lakers’ last two months have been so important.

Since Jan. 7, the Lakers (29-35) not only won 18 of 26 games but did so while giving us reason to believe the progress should continue. They have the league’s 10th-best defensive rating and the 12th-best offensive rating during that span. The most fitting part? The turnaround began on the day that LaVar Ball, father of rookie Lonzo, told ESPN that second-year coach Luke Walton had lost the team.

Apparently not.

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