As ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported, James would consider meeting with the Warriors in the offseason if they were able to create a max salary slot.
However, the roster decisions involved in such a move are complicated. These are the three possible paths if the Warriors decided to chase LeBron (or any other max player).
Opting in for 2018-19
The summer of 2016 told us to never dismiss anything when it comes to the Warriors and their ability to land a superstar.
The difference between then and now will be Golden State’s inability to create space combined with the salary cap increasing only 1.9 percent. Two years ago, the Warriors were in position to sign Kevin Durant based on the cap increasing from $70 million to $94.1 million — not to mention that Stephen Curry had a salary of $12 million and Harrison Barnes was set to be a free agent. If LeBron does decide he wants to join Golden State, the maneuvers won’t be so simple.
Last June, Chris Paul notified the Clippers that he was not planning to sign with them as a free agent. Instead of the Clippers losing Paul for nothing, the point guard opted in to his $24.6 million contract and was sent to Houston for a package of players and draft picks. This scenario allowed the Rockets not to completely gut their roster to create cap space for Paul if he became a free agent.
For LeBron, the Paul scenario presents the best route if his desire is to play for the Warriors (or, possibly, the Rockets). When the season ends, James and his representatives can meet with the Cavs and let them know that he is not planning to return. Instead of losing James for nothing, Cleveland can take a proactive approach like the Clippers and ask James to opt into his $35.7 million contract (and waive his no-trade clause), with the understanding that he would be traded to a team like the Warriors. Of course, this scenario would need all three parties — Cleveland, James and Golden State — to agree.
The Warriors could put together a package that includes All-Star Klay Thompson, wing Andre Iguodala and draft considerations. The Cavs would receive a package of players that would keep them afloat in the East. Keep in mind that if James leaves as a free agent, Cleveland will have limited options in free agency based on being right at the salary cap.
With the trade, Golden State would be able to retain Curry, Durant, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell, Damian Jones and restricted free agent Patrick McCaw. This scenario also would not have an impact on Durant’s free agency. The All-Star could either opt into his $26.2 million contract or sign a max salary as a free agent.
While a one-year contract is not appealing, James would be eligible to sign a three-year extension in January, six months after the trade was completed. Here is what that James extension would look like:
The extension would be $6 million more for James if he were to sign with Golden State or another team as a free agent.
Sign and trade
Taking the sign-and-trade approach is similar to James opting into his $35.7 million contract, but it would cost him less in salary and subject the Warriors to the hard cap. The hard cap restricts the Warriors from exceeding the luxury-tax apron.
With the tax projected to be $123 million, Golden State would not be allowed to exceed $129 million. As currently constructed, the Warriors have $128.3 million in committed salary next season and that does not factor in their first-round pick and seven open roster spots.
Trading a combination of Thompson, Iguodala and Livingston has the Warriors with $124 million in salary (including the Durant option), $5 million below the hard cap. This scenario would force Durant to opt out of his contract and sign for a significant discount (think $20 million) and have Golden State fill the remaining nine spots with minimum contracts. The cap gymnastics have the Warriors with $127.9 million in salary, about $1 million below the hard cap.
While James, Durant, Green and Curry would be a lethal group, Golden State’s depth and shooting would take a significant blow.
Creating cap space
Including $26.2 million for Durant, Golden State is projected to have $128 million in salary next season, roughly $26 million above the salary cap. That doesn’t factor in the Warriors’ first-round pick, along with reshaping a bench that will have seven free agents (not including Durant).
Creating a $35.3 million max slot for James would see the Warriors tear down their roster. Green, Thompson, Iguodala and Livingston would have to be traded. Plus, after Durant already took an $8 million pay cut this season, he would have to take that same approach but with even more of a discount.
Here is what the Warriors’ roster would look like to make room for James signing as a free agent:
Durant would then have to opt out and shave $4 million off his $26.2 million salary for James to fit — or LeBron could sign for $4 million less than his max — and the Warriors would be limited to the minimum exception and $4.4 million midlevel exception to fill out their bench. It’s similar to 2016 when they signed Durant, but now they’d be without Thompson and Green. That’s unlikely to be appealing to Durant, James or Golden State.
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