Still hoping for a LeBron James-Heat reunion? Pay attention to Friday’s opt-in/opt-out deadline

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the second half against the Golden State Warriors during Game Four of the 2018 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 8, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

MIAMI — Before free agency begins Sunday at 12:01 a.m., LeBron James has an important decision to make.

James has until 11:59 p.m. on Friday to opt in or opt out of a $35.6 million player option in his current contract with the Cavaliers for next season. If the 14-time All-Star opts out, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent on Sunday.

For those still hoping for a James-Heat reunion, Friday’s deadline is important. Although the Lakers and Cavaliers look to have the best chance at James this summer, ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said earlier this week there’s an “outside chance” James could choose the Heat.

With Miami capped out and just a few million dollars away from the projected $123 million luxury tax threshold, the cleanest and easiest way for the Heat to acquire James is though a normal trade. In order to facilitate this type of deal, he would have to opt in to the final season of his current contract before Friday’s deadline and then convince Cleveland to trade him to Miami.

The Heat or any other team trading for James in this scenario would need to send out at least $26.5 million in salary for trade-matching purposes if the deal is done before July 1 or $28.4 million in salary if it’s done on July 6 or later, according to NBA salary-cap expert Albert Nahmad from the Heat Hoops blog.

But if James chooses to opt out and become an unrestricted free agent, it makes it difficult for teams without cap space to acquire him this summer. And again, the Heat are already over the cap.

Although very challenging, it’s not impossible for Miami to sign James in this scenario. It can be done through free agency or a sign-and-trade.

Here’s why those options are so difficult for the Heat, though.

Acquiring James as a direct free agent signing will be extremely tough for the Heat. Miami is already $18 million over the projected $101 million salary cap for the 2018-19 season — and that’s before dealing with the Wayne Ellington, Udonis Haslem and Dwyane Wade situations — and James is expected to sign a max contract with a starting salary of $35.4 million.

That means in order to create enough space under the cap to acquire James as a direct free agent signing, the Heat would need to clear at least $53 million off the books. That’s going to be really, really hard.

As for the sign-and-trade scenario, there’s one big challenge the Heat would face. Teams receiving the player in the sign-and-trade deal — in this case the Heat — can’t surpass the apron at the end of the trade. That means the Heat would be hard-capped at the apron, which is projected to be $129 million.

The Heat already have 10 players under contract for 2018-19 who are due about $119 million, and will be close to $125 million if they round out their roster with just minimum deals. This puts the Heat really close to the apron. Because of this, Miami would have to send out at least $31 million to take James’ $35 million salary back in a sign-and-trade.

James’ decision on his player option will be the first major hint he offers regarding his future. Opt in and he opens the door to many different possibilities, even forcing a trade to a team without cap space to sign him in free agency.

But opt out and the number of options James has to choose from decreases, realistically to teams that have cap space to sign a max player this summer.

Stay tuned …

2018 Heat Offseason Preview

[Monday’s question: LeBron James could be on the move again, do the Heat have a chance of bringing him back?]

[Tuesday’s question: Will Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem return for a 16th NBA season or retire?]

[Wednesday’s question: Will 3-point specialist Wayne Ellington return to Heat?]

[Thursday’s question: With no cap space, can Heat turn to trades to improve roster?]

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