Superstar LeBron James on Friday turned down his contract’s $35.6 million player option for this next season, which presents possibilities that could include a return to Cleveland or leaving for Los Angeles and the Lakers.
The NBA has danced this dance twice before, when the entire league stood still during its annual free agency’s opening days while all waited for James to decide his future.
This time around, that free-agency period begins at 11 p.m. Saturday. Teams can agree with free agents starting then but can’t sign players until a moratorium ends Friday.
In 2010, James announced himself Miami-bound, and in 2014 he declared his championship education at South Beach U over and returned home to Cleveland.
This time is different, at least for the Timberwolves.
This time he could end up in the Western Conference.
The Wolves already must contend with Golden State and Houston in a conference where eight teams battled for six remaining playoff spots and where Utah and Denver particularly are improving.
Now there’s a real possibility James could move East to West and bring a superstar buddy or two with him.
Whether he does or not, the Wolves must keep pace despite limited options to do so in a conference that grows better by the season.
“We have to be ready for the challenge ahead,” Tom Thibodeau, Wolves coach/president of basketball operations, told reporters Thursday before James’ decision. “As you guys can see, the West is not going to get easier. It’s only going to get tougher.”
After they drafted Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, the Wolves probably will need to fill five roster spots when free agency begins.
Their salary cap stretched with the luxury tax looming, they must be frugal. They’ll likely have a chunk of the $8.6 million midlevel salary exception and a $3.4 million exception as well with which to pursue Derrick Rose or other free agents such as Avery Bradley.
The Wolves drafted those two players to fill defensive and shooting needs on the wing and could pursue similar players in free agency.
“Versatility is sort of the buzzword now, “Thibodeau said. “You need guys who can play multiple positions and fit into a team.”
The Wolves could swap out essentially both of those salary exceptions if they sign Rose and Nemanja Bjelica back from last season.
Okogie and Bates-Diop bring the kind of salary “cost certainty” every NBA team seeks these days. The Wolves also could better utilize their G League affiliate — they’ve agreed with undrafted Rhode Island guard Jared Terell on a two-way deal.
Moreover, Thibodeau and General Manager Scott Layden must work to recruit veterans willing to play alongside stars Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins for a league minimum salary.
That could include players still looking for work when free-agent signings tumble like dominoes after James decides. It could include, too, players bought out by other teams as they remake their rosters. (Joakim Noah or Luol Deng, anyone, although neither has been bought out yet?)
“I think we have a lot to offer and I think it’s very attractive to players,” Thibodeau said.
To do so, they’ll have to convince veterans they can find a satisfactory role under a coach who’s often reluctant to play his bench.
Thibodeau lists location, culture, winning and money as the four factors that sway free agents.
“That’s the challenge for all teams,” Thibodeau said about finding proven players willing to play for the minimum. “Some players may not have the deal they initially wanted, but this may be the best opportunity in terms of the playing and the winning and then that sets them up for the following year.”
James could stall action across the league until he decides, although the Wolves might pursue a deal with Rose as well as a contract extension with Towns soon after free agency starts.
“I think that always happens,” Thibodeau said about the NBA waiting for James. “The top guys will be looking at their options and that will slow things down a little bit. But there may opportunities during that time to get a deal done, so we’re looking at all the possibilities and obviously as soon as we can. We’ll contact guys we think would be a good fit for us.”