If LeBron James' goal this offseason is to join the team that gives him the best chance of knocking off Golden State after back-to-back losses to the Warriors in the NBA Finals, his best hope may be joining the Houston Rockets — who took the Warriors the distance in this year's conference finals.
Is such a scenario possible? Let's look at how it might happen.
James opts in for 2018-19
LeBron James alongside James Harden and Chris Paul could wreak havoc on the West.
If LeBron wants to play for the Rockets, it would probably be necessary for him to go the same route Paul did a year ago: passing on free agency to set up a trade to Houston.
Why? Because even if the Rockets were to pull off a sign-and-trade deal for James as a maximum-salary free agent, doing so would hard-cap them at the luxury-tax apron, estimated at $128 million for next season.
unless James or Paul is willing to take a massive pay cut — unlikely given their leadership roles in the National Basketball Players Association (Paul is president, James is first vice president) — LeBron opting in is the way to go.
A trade would allow the Rockets to re-sign any of their free agents, including Capela, Paul and also starting small forward Trevor Ariza, with new owner Tilman Fertitta's willingness to pay a giant luxury-tax bill the main issue from Houston's standpoint.
The trick here would be finding a workable trade between the Rockets and Cavaliers.
Searching for an Anderson taker
One key to a LeBron-to-Houston deal is finding a suitor for Ryan Anderson and his $20.4 million salary in 2018-19.
Ideally, Houston would match James' salary in large part with the $20.4 million owed Ryan Anderson in 2018-19. However, with two years left on Anderson's contract (he'll make $21.3 million in 2019-20) and with him falling largely out of the Rockets' playoff rotation, that's a tough sell.
Dealing James for a package centered on Anderson would likely push Cleveland deep into the luxury tax next season, so that idea is probably a nonstarter. Any trade involving Anderson would require a third team with cap space to take on his contract in exchange for future picks, allowing the Cavaliers to cut their payroll.
Instead, the Rockets may have to live with Anderson on their books and find another trade package for James.
Building a LBJ trade without Anderson
Matching James' salary without involving Anderson is possible but more painful for Houston, which would have to give up key parts in return.
Assuming the Rockets are limited to players currently under contract — sign-and-trade rules would also be challenging on the Cavs' end of the deal — Houston would have to trade basically everyone besides Harden and Anderson.
Of course, there are many important variables before the two teams could even begin talking trade. First and most critically, LeBron has to decide Houston is the next place he's taking his talents, and to do so before the June 29 deadline to pick up his player option.
If that happens, however, there appears to be a path for James to join the Rockets.