Getty Images

LeBron James and his camp have done their best to dull the rumors that he might find a new team in the near future. He himself said he is "happy" as a Laker during his Sunday media availability and added that he hopes that continues. Rich Paul claimed that James is "committed to the Lakers" before praising their partnership with Jeanie Buss. By all accounts, James would prefer to retire as a Laker. By all accounts, the Lakers plan to try to be aggressive in improving the roster this offseason.

And yet the rumors just won't die. There are plenty of reasons for that. At a minimum, the following three things are true:

  • James has stated his desire to play with his son Bronny in the NBA. If Bronny remains in school, that's a problem to be solved later. If he enters the 2024 NBA Draft, the Lakers may not have a first-round pick. The Pelicans control their fate on that front, as they can decide to take the Lakers' 2024 pick or defer that obligation to 2025. The only second-round pick the Lakers have was originally from the Clippers and would currently fall at No. 57. That's 56 chances for a team other than the Lakers to draft Bronny in an attempt to potentially entice his father.
  • The Lakers will reportedly go star-hunting with three first-round picks at their disposal. That sounds like more ammo than it really is in a league in which the Nets, Knicks, Jazz, Spurs and Thunder all have between eight and 12 first-round picks to deal. If the Lakers are going to land a star, they not only need to find the right player, but they also need to hope that those other teams aren't interested.
  • James has a player option for next season. He has not publicly committed to exercising it. When he was last directly asked if he knew whether or not he would do so, he answered, simply, "no."

Right now, the signs are pointing to James remaining in Los Angeles for at least one more season. But these rumors have gotten louder than ever, and if nothing else, teams are reportedly starting to believe that he is gettable even if that isn't actually true.

So let's game this out. There are 30 teams in the NBA. Where do each of them rank on the "how likely are they to employ LeBron James on opening night of the 2024-25 season" scale? His possible movement could come through free agency, a sign-and-trade, or an opt-in-and-trade depending on what the circumstances of the specific team demands. We'll start at the bottom and work our way up.

Bronny would have to insist, and still probably no

30. Charlotte Hornets
29. Portland Trail Blazers
28. Washington Wizards
27. Atlanta Hawks
26. Chicago Bulls

Here we have five teams that range from "mostly uncompetitive" to "entirely uncompetitive." The only one slated for cap space this offseason is the Hornets, but that space only materializes if they renounce Miles Bridges, and he swatted away trade overtures at the deadline for the sake of preserving his Bird Rights. Only one of them plays in a marquee market, and that team, the Bulls, is the former employer of Michael Jordan. Odds are, James doesn't want to spend his twilight in Jordan's uniform. The only thing that could feasibly get James to any of these teams in 2024 would be Bronny, and honestly, the destinations are so undesirable based on James' past preferences that he'd likely just look at them and think "eh, I can do a retirement tour there a few years from now if I have to."

Interesting fit, inadequate market and assets

25. Indiana Pacers
24. Memphis Grizzlies
23. Sacramento Kings
22. Minnesota Timberwolves

These four teams present relatively interesting basketball fits, but check no other boxes. The Pacers could create significant cap space this offseason, but only if they lose Pascal Siakam. The other three teams will be fighting off tax issues. Minnesota is the only market of the four to rank in the top half of the league in terms of size, but it's so interminably cold that very few stars would ever willingly seek it out. Most importantly, neither the Pacers nor the Kings have first-round picks. The Grizzlies do, but it will be very high in the lottery. In other words, none of them are particularly well-suited to scooping up Bronny as a recruiting weapon unless Memphis is prepared to use a top selection on a prospect most grade as a second-rounder at this point. Minnesota does have its first-round pick, currently slated to come in at No 29 overall, so it tops this group be the slimmest of margins.

At least they have cap space

21. Detroit Pistons
20. Utah Jazz
19. Toronto Raptors
18. Orlando Magic

Look, if nothing else, these teams all have feasible paths to paying James a max salary. It's not much, but it's a start. James hasn't taken less than his max since 2014, when he mandated to all free-agent suitors that he would not leave money on the table any longer. If that's an absolute requirement, we should at least acknowledge the teams that could create the space to give him that money. But... yeah... James won't be a Piston in 2024. This list does give us a fun chance to reminisce on the moment in 2008 when there was real speculation that he'd choose the Pistons in 2010, though. For the younger crowd, the Pistons wound up spending that cap space a year early on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva.

Utah edges out Detroit here just for having a proven front office, a promising coach and a decent young roster. Toronto beats Utah because of the marketing opportunities that would come out of being Canada's only basketball superstar. Orlando takes the cake for its warm weather, burgeoning young roster and lack of a state income tax. But again, these aren't James destinations.

Better than above, worse than below

17. Milwaukee Bucks
16. New Orleans Pelicans
15. Houston Rockets

There's no easy way to categorize these teams, so here goes. Add James to the Bucks and they'd be instant championship favorites. They'd also be in one of America's coldest cities, a tiny NBA market that only has a minimum salary to offer. Not happening. The Pelicans are a bit more tempting. They're facing a salary crunch as well, but have younger assets to send to Los Angeles in a possible sign-and-trade (how does a Brandon Ingram reunion sound, Laker fans?) and more than enough draft capital to land Bronny. But New Orleans is the NBA's second-smallest market, and the Pelicans probably aren't too eager to go all-in for a soon-to-be-40-year-old anyway, so they're out. The Rockets are absolutely the sort of team that would make a major push for James on the basis of fame alone. They're supposedly star-hunting, but they're too far away at the moment to realistically get James back into the title picture next season, and if he wasn't gonna go to Houston in 2018 when they had Chris Paul and James Harden, odds are, he won't be interested now. 

There's (probably) too much bad blood

14. Boston Celtics
13. Denver Nuggets

If all that mattered was basketball fit, these might be our winners. You know who would solve Boston's late-game shot-creation issues in the playoffs? LeBron James. You know who would love to play alongside a basketball genius in Nikola Jokic? Another basketball genius: LeBron James. He could sleepwalk through the regular season and still rack up rings on these teams. If hunting for championships was all that mattered, the Nuggets and Celtics would be near the top of the list.

Of course, there's far more going on here. Yes, they are hampered by the fact that they will both only have minimum salaries to offer for the foreseeable future, but there is also quite a bit of bad blood here. James' rivalry with the Celtics goes back nearly two decades. He's faced them in seven different playoff series. The Nuggets rivalry is newer but nearly as fierce. Both sides have beaten the other in the Western Conference Finals. James and Denver coach Michael Malone exchanged some jabs after Denver's recent championship parade. He might want more rings, but not like this. 

Right place, wrong time

12. Brooklyn Nets
11. Phoenix Suns
10. Los Angeles Clippers

Remember when Brooklyn was LeBron's "favorite borough?" There's a certain appeal to going to New York, but forging your own path away from the world's most famous arena. There's a reason Kevin Durant tried it, after all. But the Nets are still a year away from cap space (thanks Ben Simmons), and while Mikal Bridges is the sort of role player that tends to work well with James, there isn't another marquee star here yet. They're just too far from winning to make a real push yet, and considering what it would cost to trade for James, they might not have the assets leftover to go get that plausible co-star.

Phoenix has all of the star power it needs, Durant included. What it doesn't have is cap space and assets. The Suns spent all of that landing Durant and Bradley Beal. The Suns would gladly take James for the minimum, but that obviously isn't happening yet.

The Clippers are a nice option to have if James ever gets truly desperate to leave the Lakers. They won't share an arena next season, but at least they share a city, and even if they somehow lost James Harden and Paul George in free agency, they still have Kawhi Leonard under contract to play with James. But the Clippers are happy with their team and should be a luxury-tax team for years to come. This is another "minimum only" destination, and that's not going to be enough.

Small-market sleepers

9. San Antonio Spurs
8. Oklahoma City Thunder

Both the Spurs and Thunder have the capacity to create significant cap space this offseason. The Thunder are already a contender. Based on the rate at which Victor Wembanyama is developing, the Spurs will be soon enough. James has shared his admiration for the leaders of both figures. He once called Thunder GM Sam Presti "the MVP." His respect for Gregg Popovich, after three Finals battles, runs deeper. "Pop is definitely one of my all time favorite people that I've crossed paths with in my life," he said in 2018.

Should we expect James to suit up for either of these teams? No. But both of them theoretically check every box except for market. They can pay James. They have more than enough picks to maneuver for his son. And perhaps most importantly, they can win with him.

The best friends club

7. Dallas Mavericks
6. Golden State Warriors

Kyrie Irving tried to recruit James to Dallas last summer. Draymond Green may or may not have tried to get James to Golden State within the last month. The appeal on both fronts is obvious. Not only would James be joining possible Western Conference contenders, but he'd be uniting with players he has relationships with. His partnership with Irving gave Cleveland its only championship. Green and Stephen Curry faced James in the Finals four different times, and James has spoken openly about how much he'd love to play with Curry. James thinks Luka Doncic is so promising that he tried to develop a Nike offshoot similar to the Jordan Brand based around him.

The hangups here are about acquisition more than fit. The Mavericks are down to two tradable first-round picks this offseason and lack enticing young talent beyond likely untouchable center Dereck Lively. Would the Lakers want to take back a bunch of pricey role players on multi-year deals? Because that's the matching salary Dallas has, and they'd need to shed plenty of it to make this trade legal under the new second apron rules.

The Warriors could entice the Lakers with Jonathan Kuminga... but Green himself shot that idea down during the All-Star Game. Would the Lakers take Brandin Podziemski and a package of future picks? Would they accept the long-term contract of Andrew Wiggins in the deal? Because he'd be necessary for salary matching purposes. And what kind of roster would James be joining? Warriors owner Joe Lacob has said he hopes to get below the tax line this offseason. They'd likely make an exception to land James, but Klay Thompson and Chris Paul are both free agents James would probably want to play with. Would Golden State go deep into the tax (but again, below the second apron due to the rules) for his sake? Maybe. Probably. But constructing a trade without Kuminga seems unlikely.

Neither of these teams have first-round picks, so the Bronny route would be difficult for them. Combine that with the acquisition concerns and they're on the outside of the top five looking in.

I'm not flirting, you're flirting

5. New York Knicks
You all saw the Knicks towel. James is not subtle. While he was likely trying to put pressure on the Lakers to make a trade, there's an undeniable fit here on just about every level. Brooklyn may be his favorite borough, but New York is his favorite city (or at least was back in 2008). He's a well-known Madison Square Garden devotee. The off-court benefits of the NBA's biggest star moving to  the NBA's biggest market have been discussed for years.

Constructing a trade would be simple enough. Julius Randle is, at worst, inoffensive matching salary that the Lakers could probably flip elsewhere for something. The Knicks have nine tradable first-round picks. They have dedicated shooting (Donte DiVincenzo), perimeter defense (OG Anunoby), rim-protection (Mitchell Robinson and a possibly re-signed Isaiah Hartenstein) and ball-handling (Jalen Brunson) to put around him. It may not be quite as star-studded as his best rosters have been, but it would probably be the most balanced overall roster James has been a part of. Getting Bronny wouldn't be a problem considering their draft capital. The lengthy feud between James consigliere Rich Paul and Knicks head Leon Rose has seemingly been squashed.

If there's a way to dismiss the Knicks here, it would be on their end, not LeBron's. They've spent years accumulating these assets. It's possible that they'd prefer to spend them on someone younger. But if James is at all open to a move this offseason, the Knicks are almost certainly going to be on the shortlist.

I'm coming home

4. Miami Heat
3. Cleveland Cavaliers

Look, it's common sense. Instinct usually pushes us in familiar directions. James has already returned to Cleveland once and hinted at interest in doing so again. Pat Riley has claimed he "would leave the key under the doormat" for James should he ever want to return to the Heat. Both have traded away multiple future first-round picks... but notably held onto their 2024 selections. Neither will have cap space for the foreseeable future, but neither will need it.

Cleveland has the assets to make a trade, it's just a matter of whether or not they'd be willing to. They'd have to give up Donovan Mitchell or Darius Garland to match dollars. Would that be the worst thing? They know what's going through Mitchell's mind better than we do, but there's been plenty of reporting suggesting that he'd prefer a bigger market. New York might be at the top of his list, but how would he feel about Los Angeles? If he wants to stay in Cleveland, might James be a better fit next to him than Garland? The Cavaliers just went 15-4 during Garland's 19-game absence, so there's an argument suggesting that splitting up the two smaller, offense-centric guards might make sense. If nothing else, imagine a scenario in which Mitchell makes it clear he wants out. Would Cavs fans prefer a package of Knicks or Nets picks... or LeBron James?

The Heat don't have quite the same caliber of centerpiece to send back, but they can offer a deeper package. Tyler Herro and Jaime Jaquez would both surely appeal to the Lakers. Miami will still have two tradable first-round picks this summer as well, and the Heat are so good at developing cheap depth that a top-heavy balance sheet would appear to be a solvable problem. All a James-Jimmy Butler-Bam Adebayo trio would really need is shooting.

The Heat and Cavaliers are in the same position as the Knicks. If James is set on the Lakers? There's nothing they can do. If he's considering other options? They're in the hunt.

They have everything they need

2. Philadelphia 76ers

New York, Miami and Cleveland are ultimately passive observers here. They can do nothing until James indicates to the Lakers that he's considering other teams, and they'd all need the Lakers to cooperate in a trade. But the 76ers? They can be the aggressors, and that's a role Daryl Morey knows all too well.

He's known to have pursued James at least three times: as a free agent in 2014 and 2018 as well as recently at the 2024 trade deadline. Odds are, he's done so several more times. He's just never been better-positioned to actually land him. Unlike the Knicks, Heat and Cavaliers, his 76ers are set to have well beyond a single max slot's worth of cap space this offseason. They can generate that space with Joel Embiid, a better player than any of the other serious suitors can muster, and Tyrese Maxey, an ascending star that would fit with James like a glove, still in place. The James Harden trade gave them more than enough draft capital to go and get Bronny if needed. Philadelphia may not be a glamour market, but it boasts a storied enough history to be viable for James.

I've covered Philadelphia's possible fit for James in more depth here. Barring a surprise run to the Finals with their current roster, you can bet that Morey's goal this summer will be adding a third head to his superstar hydra to replace James Harden. James will be one of the targets, and if any general manager is creative enough to lure him out of Los Angeles, it's Morey.

The favorite

1. Los Angeles Lakers

I told you from the start they were the favorite. We don't know by quite how much yet. They might be 95% favorites or they might be 70% favorites. The answer likely depends on how well the end of the season goes for the Lakers and how the offseason star market shakes out. James is probably staying put, but the Lakers can clinch it in a variety of ways.

The easiest would probably be drafting Bronny. They are reportedly open to the idea. Of course, if the Pelicans have their first-round pick, that might be out of their hands. Klutch can try to help their cause. James is one of the few draft prospects for whom a threat not to sign might be feasible. His father is a billionaire, after all, so it's not as though he needs the income. There's no telling how the NBA would respond to rumors of a prospect and agency attempting to ward off 29 teams. There would surely be complaints.

There's a reasonable chance someone takes the plunge anyway. It might not even be one of the top teams on this list. There are owners all across the league willing to risk a draft pick on the tiny chance it eventually lands them an all-time great. That's not even a basketball proposition. The financial ramifications of hosting a possible James retirement tour would be enormous.

Bronny might not be an immediate necessity if the roster is suitably upgraded. That's going to be trickier than it seems. D'Angelo Russell, currently playing the best basketball of his career, has a player option for next season. That makes him significantly harder to trade, and the Lakers can't afford to lose the asset for nothing. The rest of their matching salary is probably more valuable to them than the market. Austin Reaves will have plenty of suitors on his below-market deal, but Rui Hachimura, Gabe Vincent and Jarred Vanderbilt are all niche players on multi-year contracts whose value is uncertain.

Who is the viable star here? Certainly not Mitchell. The New York teams have far more to offer. That's not a bidding war the Lakers can win. Trae Young appears slightly more realistic. His stock around the league is lower. But all it takes is one asset-rich team to take him off of the market. The Spurs hold a major advantage if they are at all interested in that they can give the Hawks their own first-round picks back from the Dejounte Murray trade. In a rebuild, no picks are more valuable than your own. Are there sleepers here? Possibly. Remember, only one team hoists the Larry O'Brien Trophy in June. That leaves 29 teams disappointed. Some of their stars will get restless. Maybe there's a surprise name we're not thinking of yet.

Do the Lakers need to pursue another star? Honestly, they might be better off rounding out their supporting cast, especially if Russell can maintain his current play. Three first-round picks take you a lot further on the role-player market than they do in big-game hunts. The Lakers haven't had a truly reliable 3-and-D wing since... Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? Wouldn't someone like that be nice? They could solve the backup center problem permanently, ideally with a shooter that can defend a bit. There are simply more options available here. The Lakers are known for star chases. Realistically, they should be preparing to go the role player route. James and Anthony Davis, at least today, remain a championship-caliber duo.

For all we know, James has already decided to retire a Laker and has only allowed these rumors to fester to prove a point. As a possible free agent, he has the leverage to dictate roster moves. Maybe he's trying to do so in a way that will make the end of his career in purple and gold more to his liking. We're still months away from knowing his plans for certain. The Lakers are out front today. They probably will be in June as well. But the league believes James is gettable, so until he isn't, it's worth wondering who might try to steal him away.