Greg Cote

LeBron James Sweepstakes: Four teams have shot at prize, but will the Heat be one?

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, seen earlier in the 2018 playoffs, will become a free agent soon after the NBA Finals end. Even if he doesn't win the championship, might he still win the summer?
Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, seen earlier in the 2018 playoffs, will become a free agent soon after the NBA Finals end. Even if he doesn't win the championship, might he still win the summer? AP Photo

We had 48 minutes to pretend as a nation that this was an up-for-grabs NBA Finals, right up until Game 1 went into overtime, and then Game 2 reasserted Golden State's dominance over Cleveland. Unbreakable rule of thumb: If you can't win getting 51 points from LeBron James, you can't win, period. So with the series 2-0, it is time for a quick pivot on sports' big question of summer:

Now that we can safely say LeBron won't be winning the championship in June, we turn to who'll be winning LeBron in July.

Why wait? Not even NBA players are. Phoenix's Jared Dudley, Minnesota's Jamal Crawford and Portland's C.J. McCollum were chewing over James' future in a Twitter back-and-forth during Game 2 Sunday night. In another couple of weeks the whole hoops kingdom will be thinking of little else as LeBron, pending free agent, ponders where he'll be taking his talents this time.

This will be the last summer for LeBron, at age 33, to be the Grand Prize, the Undisputed and Coveted King. It will be his last big play at going out in a flurry of rings as he lays final claim to his goal of being the G.O.A.T.

Four teams have a legitimate realistic shot at James.

Miami is not one, sorry. It might only appear so, peripherally, if LeBron is in a mood to toss a bouquet at his old BFF and make it seem that Dwyane Wade has the juice left to broker a South Beach reunion. Or maybe LeBron will be in a mood to use Pat Riley again, as he did when all of this happened four years ago.

The Heat is not in a position to offer James a sufficient supporting cast, especially because, to get him, Miami would have to find trade partners with salary-cap space to take on the likes of Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters. With what's left, LeBron would be hard-pressed to envision another parade along Biscayne Boulevard.

The front-runners for James, by my estimation:

1. Houston Rockets (35 percent likelihood): Forming a triumvirate with James Harden and close friend Chris Paul would give James and Houston the firepower to challenge Golden State. Paul also is a pending free agent but would re-up in a heartbeat to finally play alongside his buddy. Who knows, LeBron might even fill up the old Banana Boat by bringing over his friend D-Wade from Miami. The one negative: LeBron would be leaving the relative comfort of the Eastern Conference and wandering into the Warriors' lair. No more free rides to the Finals.

2. Philadelphia 76ers (30 percent): James would form a nucleus with rising superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons that would instantly elevate Philly to an East power above Boston. And Simmons, like Paul in Houston, would be the playmaker who would free LeBron to play off the ball more, which he wishes to do in his career's winter. A negative: This current Twitter embarrassment involving Sixers president Bryan Colangelo.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers (20 percent): Surely there is a sentimental factor that makes James not averse to staying with his hometown, but not without an indication the Cavs would add enough pieces to stave off Boston and Philly in the East and close the gap with the West powers.

4. Los Angeles Lakers (10 percent): LeBron has a home and a Hollywood production company, so the locale would be appealing. But are Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball enough top-grade help to help LeBron think championship in the short-term?

5. The field (5 percent): Does LeBron have in him the dramatic flair to shock everybody? Fans of the Spurs, Clippers, Knicks, Heat and [your team goes here] will be waiting to find out.

No matter the decision (no capital letters, please), it's a good bet the buildup to it will have more suspense than the NBA Finals.