Which teams could actually sign LeBron James?

In theory, LeBron could sign anywhere as a free agent. In reality, these are the teams that are most likely and/or capable to make a serious play for King James.

Technically, anyone can sign LeBron James as a free agent. The Miami Heat star and four-time MVP could theoretically take as little as the minimum to join whichever team he pleases. He'd still be rich.

But realistically, James will want something close to the maximum salary he can make, and only a handful of teams can actually offer him that. A maximum contract for James' 11 years of experience will pay him 35 percent of the salary cap in the first year, with 7.5-percent raises from there. The cap is expected to rise to more than $63 million, which would mean a first-year salary of a little more than $22 million.

(Note: it's actually more complicated than this, but the explanation is convoluted and not worth going into here. See footnote 2 here if you are curious.)

If LeBron wants to sign for the most money he can, he'll be limited to teams that can create enough space to pay him. Of course, he could also accept a slight pay cut, or teams could send certain players back to Miami in a sign-and-trade scenario should it become clear James wants to leave. But having significant cap space, even if not quite $22 million, is almost certainly a prerequisite for being in the LeBron sweepstakes. This means that only a few teams are seriously in this discussion.

(As always, a hat tip to Mark Deeks' excellent salary resource for these contract figures.)

The favorites

Miami Heat: As explained here, Miami could potentially have just one player (Norris Cole, at $2 million) under contract if Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and other Heat teammates exercise their options to become free agents. That would give the Heat some potential flexibility to add other key pieces if the Big 3 is up for taking pay cuts. Regardless, they certainly have the cap space to keep James. Even if they didn't, NBA rules allow teams to go over the cap to re-sign their free agents.

Houston Rockets: Daryl Morey's club is seen as a top contender for LeBron and will move aggressively to acquire him, but it has work to do to clear the necessary cap space. They must find teams willing to take backups Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin without sending any salary back. Each has a cap figure of $8 million, but will actually be paid a whopping $15 million thanks to a little-used CBA provision when they were signed. The Rockets are confident they will find teams willing to take on both players, but it still has to happen for them to even be in the picture. Will they find other owners willing to pay Asik and Lin $15 million next season?

Chicago Bulls: The Bulls do not currently have any cap space, but there are ways they can create it. Step one is to use the amnesty clause or trade Carlos Boozer, a move widely expected. That will free nearly $17 million and take Chicago's cap number down to just under $51 million. To clear the remaining space, Chicago will likely need to find a team willing to take Taj Gibson, a fine player who will make $8 million next year, without adding any salary. Chicago could also use other pieces to sign and trade for LeBron, but that's more unlikely. This is the same plan they have to woo Carmelo Anthony.

Also in the picture

Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers have just two significant players under contract next year: Kobe Bryant at nearly $24 million and Steve Nash at $9.7 million. (There are ways the Lakers can release Nash to save more money, but we'll gloss over those for the purposes of this discussion.) That gives L.A. plenty of cash to wave at LeBron and allows him to pick his running mates, but it also means the cupboard is bare.

NBA Free Agency

Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland's long campaign to bring the four-time MVP back home lost steam after a disappointing season, but they have just $47 million committed to the cap as of now, not including the salary for the No. 1 overall pick. The Cavs can shave $3 million off that number by waiving Alonzo Gee and his non-guaranteed contract, and another $5 million by letting go of Anderson Varejao and his partially-guaranteed contract.

Dallas Mavericks: As usual, the Mavericks will try to reel in another big fish. They have just $30 million in committed salary, but a chunk of that will go towards re-signing Dirk Nowitzki.

Los Angeles Clippers: The Clips do not have remotely enough cap space, but could theoretically offer DeAndre Jordan or even Blake Griffin in a sign and trade if James really wants to go to Los Angeles.

Have money, but aren't in the picture

Charlotte Hornets: Charlotte enters the summer with more than $41 million committed to eight players. The Bobcats' two first-round picks will add slightly to that total, but it's still a large chunk of cap space. Realistically, that money is going elsewhere unless James really, really, really wants to play for Michael Jordan. (He doesn't.)

Phoenix Suns: As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, the Suns are a great stylistic fit for James and have fewer than than $30 million in committed salary. But there have been no indications that James would seriously consider the Suns, and Phoenix also must save space to re-sign Eric Bledsoe.

Washington Wizards: Washington has about $47 million in committed salary, enough to at least make a somewhat competitive offer, if not enough for a LeBron max contract. But the Wizards also have key free agents like Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat, and James has given zero indication that he would even consider playing in D.C.

Nope nope nope nope nope

New York Knicks: This covers it.

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