For the third straight summer, LeBron James is a free agent, free and clear to sign with whichever team he wants. And for the third straight summer, James is going to sign with the Cavaliers.
James’s agent Rich Paul told ESPN that James will decline his player option for 2016-17, but this was always part of the plan: Since returning to Cleveland, James has always signed two-year deals with an opt-out, and has always opted out and signed the same contract—functionally, he’s been playing on year-to-year deals. The reason is to get the most money he can from the Cavaliers, though, interestingly, he isn’t getting as much money as he could from another team.
The declined option would have paid James $24 million this coming season. But with the rise in the salary cap comes a rise in the value of max offers, and by starting a brand-new deal, Cleveland will be able to pay him $27.5 million.
But the rise in the salary cap for this season will be so dramatic—projected to be about $24 million, thanks to the start of the NBA’s new TV contract—that the value of a max contract will outpace the raise the Cavs, who have no cap space, are allowed to give James. If James were to go to a team with the cap space for him, that team could pay him $30.8 million in 2016-17. James would leave three-plus million dollars on the table to stay in Cleveland.
James has said repeatedly he’s staying.
“I love it here. I love being here. I love my teammates,” James told cleveland.com, moments before he boarded a float at The Q for the Cavs’ championship parade through downtown Cleveland. “Obviously my agent will take care of all the logistical things but, I’m happy. I’ve got no plans to go nowhere at this point.”
Next summer will be the interesting one. The salary cap will rise again, significantly—the NBA is thriving financially—and there’s a good chance the league and the union will be far along with talks on a new collective bargaining agreement, which the NBPA says it will opt out of in 2017. The form of that CBA will determine a lot of free agent decisions. Two of the larger criticisms of the current deal are the high cost of the luxury tax and the relatively low cap on max contracts; if either or both of those figures are changed, it’ll be a very attractive time to be a max player.
There’s plenty of informed speculation that LeBron James is waiting until then to commit anywhere long-term, and it makes financial sense. (It’s not an exact analog, but Kevin Durant could stand to make an extra $100 million if he signs a one-and-one deal now, opts out, then signs a max contract next year.) So for all the money and the max players available when free agency officially kicks off on Friday, expect this summer’s signings to be a series of stopgaps. Next summer is when the real fun starts.