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June 04, 2024

NBA free agency: Could LeBron James really join the Sixers?

LeBron James will likely become an unrestricted free agent this summer. Is there a real chance he could join the Sixers?

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LeBron Embiid 6.3.24 Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Could LeBron James finish his storied NBA career in Philadelphia? Don't hold your breath.

Since the beginning of the 2023-24 Sixers season, reporting, on-the-record quotes and contextual clues have all told the same story: President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey has his sights set on acquiring another star-caliber player to the team's All-Star duo of Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey this summer. With the constant player movement that has helped define this era of NBA basketball, it may be impossible to guess who that third key cog will be for the Sixers.

Let's evaluate the likelihood as well as the pros and cons of the Sixers adding LeBron James this summer.

James, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, has a player option for the 2024-25 season with the Los Angeles Lakers worth just over $51 million — which he is widely-expected to decline. James would then become an unrestricted free agent for the first time since he left the Cleveland Cavaliers for LA in 2018.

Many have speculated that James could at least consider spending the remainder of his career — it is unclear if that means one year, two years or even more — with a team other than the Lakers. If a team other than the Lakers drafts his son, Bronny James — a guard prospect projected by many to be a mid-late second-round choice — those rumors will only escalate.

From everything I am hearing, James leaving the Lakers, coming to Philadelphia and joining the Sixers is considered very unrealistic. But James will be the best player on the free agent market and the Sixers will be the best team with enough cap space to sign him without making any trades.

At age 40, James is expected to take the same year-to-year approach contractually that he took during most of his 30s before signing a four-year deal when he joined the Lakers. As a player with more than 10 years of service under his belt, James' maximum salary in 2024-25 is $49,350,000.

In order to clear enough cap space to sign James, the Sixers would need to renounce the vast majority of their free agents. The optimal path to that $49.3 million is to renounce everyone other than Maxey, Kelly Oubre Jr. and one of Cam Payne or KJ Martin. That means the team would lose their Bird rights on players like Tobias Harris, Buddy Hield, Nic Batum, De'Anthony Melton and Kyle Lowry — who would then only be able to return for the veteran's minimum or on a salary cap exception; likely only a realistic option for Batum (if he chooses to play another NBA season rather than retire) or Lowry.

Sixers 'Stay or Go' series

If the Sixers signed James while hanging onto Maxey, Oubre and one of Payne or Martin, they would project to only have around $200 thousand in cap space remaining, not nearly enough to sign another player. If they only retained Maxey's cap hold but none of their holds on last year's minimum-salary players, they would project to have about $4.4 million in space -- likely enough for one decently-reliable rotation piece.

In addition to whatever cap space is left over, the Sixers would have access to the room mid-level exception — projected to be worth a hair over $8 million in 2024-25. Contracts signed using the room MLE can go for up to three years with annual raises of up to five percent — meaning this summer, it is worth a maximum of three years and $25,218,900. After they used that, they would be restricted to veteran's minimum contracts the rest of the way.

Some believe this method of roster construction can inhibit a team's depth, while others would point to players like Oubre, Payne, Patrick Beverley, Derrick Jones Jr. of the Dallas Mavericks and many others as evidence that contending teams can rely on minimum-salary players.

It sounds as if the Sixers are comfortable with the concept of this salary distribution roster-wide — Embiid, Maxey and a third player on maximum contracts, a few players (Paul Reed, for example) on medium-sized deals and a handful of pieces on minimum or near-minimum salaries.

Looking at this year's NBA Finals participants, it is clear that such a cap sheet is viable if the roster's headliners are up to the task: the Boston Celtics have six players on their roster who spent the full regular season on minimum, near-minimum or relatively minuscule rookie scale deals, enabling them to assemble a dominant but high-priced starting five of Derrick White, Jrue Holiday, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kristaps Porzingis — while the Dallas Mavericks have four of those deals, allowing them to pay Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving market value while also having four role player who make eight figures annually.

But the argument in favor of signing James is not about the back-end of the roster still being manageable, it is about the chance to add a player who is perhaps the greatest in the history of the sport, pairing him with a big-man better than any he has ever played with before in Embiid and a burgeoning young star in Maxey who already has a track record of thriving in any role, on the ball or off the ball.

Entering the 20th season of his NBA career, James would be able to pace himself over the course of the regular season without being the team's top scoring option. His sheer brilliance would be a massive boon for Embiid, Maxey and the Sixers, on top of his steady and versatile scoring and his still-excellent playmaking.

Do not hold your breath on James' NBA career wrapping up in Philadelphia. But it is difficult to not wonder what it could look like.