The NBA Draft was overshadowed today when news broke that LeBron James will be opting out of his contract with the Miami Heat. The four-time MVP had been rumored to be leaning towards opting out, but today his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Management, confirmed that LeBron informed the Heat of his decision.
Unlike four years ago, LeBron no longer shares an agency with Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade. Today LeBron James is his own entity, and having endured a turbulent period in which his image suffered as a result of ‘The Decision,’ LeBron is now wiser — and more importantly, a two-time champion.
The significance of LeBron’s decision is that it comes early enough that all the teams in the NBA wishing to make a play for him can make the necessary moves. Ultimately, the the suitors will be culled and there will be a short-list of realistic contenders for LeBron’s services. Miami is perceived to be the frontrunner based on four straight appearances to the NBA Finals, but having only won two titles and the major decline of Dwyane Wade has to concern LeBron and makes re-signing long-term with the Heat a dicey proposition.
The Chicago Bulls are often mentioned because of the current roster makeup and stability of the organization. Armed with two first- round picks and the ability to amnesty Carlos Boozer, the Bulls have to be considered. Los Angeles…..both the Lakers and Clippers will be in the mix, but the Lakers need to unload Steve Nash to free up the space for LeBron and other pieces to surround him and Kobe. The Clippers, with Doc Rivers at the helm and no Donald Sterling, which hasn’t happened yet, might be a more realistic option, especially with Chris Paul.
The Rockets can explore things with LeBron but would struggle to blend James Harden and Dwight Howard with him. Could a return home be in store?
I think the Cavs — armed with the first pick, young assets, and cap space, can be a very real player for LeBron. Having left Cleveland without winning a title, a return to his hometown would be an amazing story.
Make no mistake, the Cavs are seriously pursuing LeBron and will explore pairing another star, such as Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony, to entice a LeBron homecoming. With that said, LeBron James has injected himself into the conversation on draft night and every pick and deal made will be analyzed with a potential pursuit of LeBron in mind.
According to my sources, the Cavaliers organization is split between Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. Ownership prefers Parker because of his ability to contribute right away and because there is a sense that Parker would be the preferred by LeBron James if he returns to the Cavs. GM David Griffin will ultimately make the decision but most, including myself, believe that Wiggins has more upside and the potential to be the best player in the draft down the road. Also, don’t rule out Joel Embiid if the Cavaliers trade down or acquire an additional lottery pick.
If they can get Arron Afflalo, the No. 4 and the No. 12 pick from Orlando, that might just be the deal that goes down.
Trade talks are heating up as well. The Lakers are now offering any team willing to absorb Steve Nash’s contract the 7th overall pick after hitting an impasse with the Warriors over Klay Thompson as part of a three-way deal for Kevin Love.. The Celtics are discussing deals ranging from moving Rajon Rondo to potentially moving up for Embiid, if he slips on Thursday. The Sacramento Kings, with Rudy Gay opting in, are exploring deals for PGs and are willing to part with the 8th overall pick.
Of course, most of the trade rumors have involved Cleveland dealing the first overall pick and the list of suitors includes the 76ers, Magic, and Jazz. With just about 48 hours until Adam Silver walks to the podium, I expect things to get even wilder.
Here is how I see the draft going:
1. Jabari Parker, SF, Duke, 6’8″, 235 lbs
Once again, I am going with Parker to the Cavs. According to several sources I spoke with, the Cavs have Parker slightly ahead of Wiggins based on ownership preferences, but it is a fluid situation. As of this moment the Cavaliers – if they make this pick – will be only considering these two prospects. The decision of Parker over Wiggins is based on Parker being more NBA-ready, having an versatile offensive repertoire that could mesh with both Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters and a certain four-time MVP who could be opting out of Miami this summer. The Cavs will remain open to trading the pick up until the draft, but if they stay put, I expect them to tab Parker.
2. Andrew Wiggins, SF, Kansas, 6’8″, 200 lbs
Philadelphia is hot for Wiggins and would be devastated to see this shake out, Milwaukee prefers Parker but will not pass on Wiggins if he is there at 2. Bucks GM John Hammond needs to show improvement right away under new owner Wes Edens, who has already said the team will be happy with either Wiggins or Parker. Wiggins is a lockdown defender who will be excellent in transition. Combined with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Larry Sanders, Milwaukee would have one of the fiercest defensive lineups in the league. If the Cavs opt for Wiggins, then the Bucks would happily rush the podium to grab Parker.
For the fourth straight Mock I have Exum going to Philly if it doesn’t trade up to get Wiggins. Exum had an excellent workout in Philadelphia according to reports and may be the perfect fit alongside Michael Carter-Williams. Exum is the top international prospect in the draft. Any team looking for help at point guard surely will be intrigued by his size, athleticism and basketball IQ. Exum has the length and athleticism to also slide over to shooting guard, which should add to his value. Exum was the top prospect to appear at the combine and has shown the athleticism and polish necessary to secure his position as the top prospect of the second tier. I see the 76ers choosing between Exum and Marcus Smart, if they don’t move up.
4. Joel Embiid, C, Kansas, 7’0″, 250 lbs
There is a chance Exum going to the 76ers could create a run on point guards, and the Magic do like Marcus Smart. However, Rob Hennigan can’t pass on a player with Embiid’s potential to pair with Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo. There is a slight chance Embiid could slip past here if doctors are concerned with his foot, but I feel strongly that this is his spot as of now. Smart is very much in play here for the Magic. No player’s stock is as volatile right now as Embiid’s. The Magic are a possibility to trade up with Cleveland and have the assets with the 4 and 12 picks and Arron Afflalo.
Only 19 and blessed with excellent size, length and good athleticism, Vonleh is a prospect who is moving up boards after an impressive NBA combine in which he showcased special skills as a big that can play inside or out and handle the ball. Still raw offensively, Vonleh has the physical measurables that teams salivate over. While Vonleh is still raw, he has flashed enough potential that it will be hard to pass for many teams. While Smart is a possibility, I think Vonleh is the choice. Pairing him alongside Favors would be wise as they could play well off of one another. There are rumblings of the Jazz willing to move up to grab Parker.
6. Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma State, 6’4″, 220 lbs
One year ago, Smart might have been the top pick in the draft but opted to return for a disappointing sophomore season, highlighted by an embarrassing on-court incident when he shoved a fan in the middle of the game. While most scouts I have spoken to said it’s a teachable moment for a young man, there will be some who might have reservations about Smart’s maturity. As a basketball player, Smart is physical, athletic and a competitor. The Celtics will be active and could try to move up to get Embiid if he slips, but with their attempts to trade Rajon Rondo in the past, grabbing Smart would be wise. Aaron Gordon is a possibility as well.
7. Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky, 6’9″, 250 lbs
After an impressive freshman campaign highlighted by the Wildcats’ run in March, Randle is right on the cusp of the top five. Executives around the league continue to ask about Randle’s shot selection, as he tended to make questionable decisions at times as a freshman. Randle still needs to be coached up, but if he is, he could reach his potential, comparing favorably to Zach Randolph. While Randle’s biggest wart is ball security, that can be easily fixed, and it’s hard to imagine a team passing on him. Playing alongside Kobe Bryant could be great, and Randle could be the first post-Kobe building block for the Lakers. If the Lakers move this pick along with Steve Nash and get no live bodies in return, it has to be seen as an avenue for them to pursue two of these three players: LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and/or Greg Monroe.
Looking at Gordon, it’s hard not to get excited about his potential as he is an athletic and explosive forward. From a size standpoint, he is an undersized 4, but as teams start to open up offensively they can create mismatches with Gordon’s athleticism. Gordon reminds me a lot of Blake Griffin, and I can see some team in the high to mid-lottery falling in love with his highlight reel dunks. Others see a Shawn Marion type of super-athletic forward that can be a matchup nightmare. Coming from a family of athletes, Gordon has an impressive basketball IQ and is savvy beyond his years. The Kings are said to love Gordon and covet him but a trade for a point guard is possible with this pick, and Doug McDermott is gaining traction here. I see Gordon’s upside as too hard to pass on.