People around the NBA reportedly believe LeBron James is already eyeing the Lakers for when he becomes a free agent in 2018.
Three years after LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers for a shot at redemption, his future is once again up in the air.
Last summer, James signed a three-year, $100 million deal with the Cavs with a player option for the third year in 2018.
Now, chatter over James' free agency that summer is picking up, and it revolves around his potentially leaving the Cavs to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
The talk recently surfaced when The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported that some people around the NBA thought James may leave Cleveland for the Lakers or the Clippers. James owns a house 30 minutes from the Staples Center (where both teams play) and has off-court interests that would benefit from his being in Los Angeles.
On Wednesday, Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski said on his podcast that James' championship in Cleveland in 2016 had "liberated" him to leave again and that many people thought he was "likely" to pursue one of the Los Angeles teams.
"Not only is there no guarantee he's coming back, I'm not sure there is an expectation he's re-signing there. I think within Cleveland and around the league they feel that he is very much in play to leave again and likely head out West to one of the two LA teams. The Lakers could very well be a target.
"I think the focus, a lot of LeBron's business interests, his Hollywood aspirations, his media ventures are based out there. And I wrote this last year and said it and believed it — the minute he won that championship in Cleveland, he was liberated to leave again. Now, if he had not won a title in Cleveland and left again, I think there would be tremendous backlash again."
Wojnarowski also said a reunion with Dwyane Wade in Miami, depending on the shape of the team, could be in play.
Of course, part of the impetus of this is the Golden State Warriors' foreseeable dominance. The Warriors are in position this summer to lock up their core of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston until at least 2019. The Cavs, meanwhile, have no cap space and little in the way of assets to improve their team.
After the Cavs lost to the Warriors in five games in the Finals, things look a little bleaker than usual in Cleveland. When asked after Game 5 how the Cavs could clear the hurdle that is the Warriors juggernaut, James was vague in his answer.
"I need to sit down and figure this thing out," he said. "And so I don't know as far as me personally right now. But as far as that team, they're going to be here for a while. They're going to be around for a while ... From my eyes, they're built to last a few years. So we'll see."
While James has not openly discussed leaving the Cavs, he has talked about forming another super-team with his friends Wade, Chris Paul, and Carmelo Anthony. James told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck in 2016:
"I really hope that, before our career is over, we can all play together At least one, maybe one or two seasons — me, Melo, D-Wade, CP — we can get a year in. I would actually take a pay cut to do that ... It would be pretty cool. I've definitely had thoughts about it."
It would take some salary-cap gymnastics for the Cavs to figure out a way to get all four players on the same team, and some believe Cleveland would not be the most appealing place for the four stars. Los Angeles then becomes a more viable option, particularly if Paul re-signs with the Clippers this summer.
The Cavs may have been bracing for a James exit. Since returning to Cleveland, James has signed only one-year deals, for both financial and motivational reasons. If the Cavs didn't build the team to James' liking, or if he felt the front office was getting complacent, he would have the ability to leave again.
As The Ringer's O'Connor notes, Cavs general manager David Griffin this year acknowledged the possibility of James leaving while he discussed how the Cavs had traded future draft picks for win-now players.
"It’s our job to win right now and everyone feels that. Ownership feels that, ownership invests in it. When you have that amount of clarity, it makes doing things like trading protected firsts make sense. It may not look good on the books moving forward and people may look at it and say, 'Oh my god, they've mortgaged their future.' Well, if LeBron and Kyrie [Irving] and Kevin [Love] are gone, and we become a lottery pick, we'll have those picks because they're protected."
For now, James is a Cavalier, and the team's offseason focus will be on finding the missing pieces needed to return to the Warriors' level. But James' future is once again a talking point, and it could linger over the Cavs for the next year.