CLEVELAND -- If there was ever any confusion about where LeBron James stands in the pecking order of top NBA players, that changed on Sunday.
Scoring 29 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out 8 assists in an MVP performance, the Cleveland Cavaliers megastar reasserted his status as the top player on the planet in the NBA All-Star Game, leading Team LeBron to a 148-145 victory over Team Stephen [Curry].
Yet despite James playing with a new sense of enthusiasm and the Cavs laying claim to a revamped and reinvigorated roster, many are already looking past the second half of the season and toward July 1.
That, of course, is when James can opt out of his current contract and hit the free agent market. But while many are hopeful that the 4-time MVP will once again take his talents elsewhere, it's becoming increasingly likely that those wanting to see James in a new jersey next season will ultimately wind up disappointed.
It was merely a few weeks ago that each day seemed to bring a new LeBron 2018 rumor. First, it was the Lakers, then it was the Rockets, then it was the 76ers, the Clippers, the Spurs and even the Warriors.
In an effort to capitalize on the LeBron James free agency hype, ESPN ran a piece on Monday, which examined each of his potential destinations. But a deeper look at each suitor reveals that James' most likely decision this summer might just be to stay put.
Penned by Adam Reisinger, 'Destination LeBron' explains why James would choose each of eight potential destinations and how those teams could financially make doing so work financially. Should James insist on receiving another maximum salary (as he has in the past), however, it would seemingly eliminate the potential of him signing with three of those teams: The Warriors, Rockets and Heat, who would currently only be able to add James via a sign-and-trade, which the Cavs would likely be unwilling to do.
Two other teams -- the Spurs and Clippers -- would need to shed significant salary (and talent) to open a max free agent slot to sign James, thus making them less attractive destinations. That leaves three teams -- the Cavs, the 76ers and the Lakers -- with the ability to sign James outright as currently constructed.
The Sixers have already been touted by some as an intriguing landing spot for James, thanks to their pair of emerging stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. But while Philadelphia possesses plenty of upside, Embiid's health history lingers and the team would likely need to add more than just James to make leaving Cleveland worth the risk.
In the case of the Lakers -- who have been the team most often associated with James' impending free agency -- the idea is that they would lure not just James, but another superstar free agent to pair alongside him. But if that player isn't Paul George, pickings on the open market could be slim and Los Angeles' roster already took a hit earlier this season when it traded Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson to the Cavs at the NBA trade deadline.
That, of course, could lead to the delicious irony of the Lakers missing out on signing James due in part to their attempt to clear cap space to attract him in the first place. Such idea has already been broached by Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, who wrote a story on Monday suggesting James is now more likely to re-sign with Cleveland than ever before.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he stays in Cleveland now,” one high-ranking Eastern Conference team executive told Spears. “The Cavaliers put a really good team around him. The Cavaliers have made it really tough for him to decide to leave Cleveland again. The Lakers might have helped them keep LeBron.”
As James' current team, the Cavs wouldn't have to make any moves to re-sign their franchise player. And they still have the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick to help improve their roster with this offseason.
Plenty, of course, can still change in the months to come. But if you happen to catch yourself looking ahead, the forecast for Cleveland appears a whole lot brighter than it did just a few weeks ago.