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LeBron James had a clear goal in mind the first time he became a free agent. In the summer of 2010, the decision that led to The Decision was a pure basketball calculation. He wanted to win championships. The Miami Heat gave him his best chance to do so.

James had an even narrower focus when he became a free agent for the second time in the summer of 2014. The goal was no longer only to win championships, but to make sure he won at least one title for his native Northeast Ohio. There was no real decision here. It had to be the Cleveland Cavaliers.

James dipped his toe into the free-agent waters in 2015 and 2016, but only as a means to extract as many dollars and as much leverage out of the Cavaliers as possible. His third true foray into free agency came in 2018, and to this day, we know less about what motivated James in his choice to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers than we do any of his other moves. There was no television special or heartfelt letter announcing it. James was a Cavalier one day. He was a Laker the next. 

Did he move out West to make movies? It was a popular theory at the time. He's denied it, and his IMDB backs him up. Was it a lifestyle decision? It certainly would have been a justifiable one. James is perhaps the most iconic Ohioan who has ever lived, which surely made day-to-day living a bit of a chore in his home state. Los Angeles is friendlier to fame. It offered a simpler developmental pipeline for his two sons, who are both seemingly pursuing NBA careers of their own. If nothing else, the weather is certainly nicer. The Lakers offered basketball flexibility that the Cavaliers did not. He cashed those chips in for Anthony Davis and a fourth championship.

And that brings us to James' possible fourth foray into free agency, which could come this summer depending on whether or not he chooses to exercise his player option in Los Angeles for next season. In the past, we've either known explicitly what was motivating James or could at least propose a few reasonable guesses. But now? Well, we have no real idea what is motivating James because we've never encountered a free agent operating under these circumstances before.

James has already done everything there is to do as a player. Four championships. Finals MVP awards with three different teams (which nobody else has ever done). Four regular-season MVPs. A possible third Olympic gold medal this summer. A record 20 All-Star selections. One of those basketball-playing sons is already in college. The other is about to enter his senior year at Sierra Canyon. Their futures, while by no means settled, are largely their own to determine at this point. Lifestyle concerns don't need to be as meaningful to a player who is about to turn 40 and is likely operating on a shorter timeline for the rest of his playing days. He probably isn't planning to spend half of a decade in a new city. But a year or two? That's probably more reasonable.

Has a free agent ever had less to prove? Perhaps Michael Jordan in 1996, but his decision was fairly clear-cut. He was criminally underpaid for virtually his entire career. Bird Rights rules at that point allowed Chicago to pay him literally anything, so he wound up staying put for a $30 million salary that represented roughly 124% of the entire salary cap at the time. To put that figure in perspective, this would be like James re-signing with the Lakers for a projected salary of $176 million for next season alone. Once Dennis Rodman and Phil Jackson re-signed, the Bulls, coming off of a 72-win season, were obviously his best chance to continue winning. He'd spent his entire career in Chicago to that point, so it surely held the lifestyle advantage. All of Jordan's interests seemingly aligned.

But James? We may know what his interests are. We don't know which of them he is prioritizing. And they seemingly don't align.

Is he prioritizing finances? Potentially, especially if he plans to buy an expansion team in Las Vegas. The Lakers have far less of an advantage here than the 1996 Bulls did. Unlike most teams attempting to re-sign their own free agents, the Lakers won't be able to offer James a fifth year on his deal because of the Over-38 rule. He's instead limited to three years. A max deal with the Lakers could take two forms, as detailed by ESPN's Bobby Marks: a $162 million new contract that could include a no-trade clause, or an extension that pays him roughly $164.3 million without including one. That's a lot of money, but a max contract from another team in free agency would be similar: slightly less than $157.5 million with a starting salary at 105% of his current $47.6 million salary.

Lifestyle? Los Angeles has the clear lead. Weather, fame-friendliness and convenience for his off-court business interests aside, familiarity is a powerful force. James is already here. Los Angeles is the incumbent. He'd need to be pried out of it for some particularly compelling reason.

There's one that tends to follow him. "My motivation," James said in a 2016 interview with Lee Jenkins for Sports Illustrated, "is this ghost I'm chasing. The ghost played in Chicago." Whether he'll admit it or not, his legacy factors into everything James does. He wants to definitively surpass Jordan whether or not that is even possible. One could argue that the Lakers are his best path to doing that simply because he's already there. How many legends are strongly associated with four teams? Frankly, three is already somewhat unusual. Jordan spent all but his forgotten years playing for the Bulls. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan only wore one uniform in their entire careers. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wore two. Wilt Chamberlain moved around. You could argue it has impacted the way he is remembered.

Maybe a certain kind of movement would supersede sheer numbers. James flirted with the New York Knicks quite a bit earlier this season. He's done it several times in his career. Being the player to lead New York back to the top of the NBA after more than 50 years without a title would carry a significant historic cache. James' agent, Rich Paul, recently mended fences with former mentor-turned-rival Leon Rose, who currently runs the Knicks. New York has the draft capital to land Bronny if it wants to.

The logistics here are harder to solve. The Knicks won't be a cap space team this summer, so James would probably have to opt in and get traded to New York to avoid first-apron hard-cap headaches. What's the trade package that makes sense for the Lakers? They likely wouldn't want Julius Randle either for a rebuild or a revamp around Anthony Davis, but his $30 million salary would have to be in the deal. Where is the remaining $20 million or so coming from? Bojan Bogdanovic, whose money is currently partially guaranteed, is the easiest answer. He offers little value to the Lakers. Would New York give up one or more of the Villanova players that comprise its core identity? What about center Mitchell Robinson? How many picks would New York be willing to sacrifice? That last question is the key here. The Knicks have the capital to trade for almost anyone. Are they really going to spend it on a soon-to-be quadragenarian? It's a fun hypothetical, but it's just hard to imagine the Lakers and Knicks settling on a reasonable compromise here.

So we're looking for another legacy play. There isn't one quite as juicy as New York, but what if I told you that a similar market dealing with a similar title drought had a path to adding James outright while giving a significant coaching upgrade, two-star teammates, paths to viable role players and one of the most creative general managers in basketball? You'd likely at least hear me out, right? Well, let's check what's behind Door No. 2. If James' priority is to win in the near future, he should sign with the Philadelphia 76ers.

As of this moment, Philadelphia has only one guaranteed contract on their books for next season: Joel Embiid's. Paul Reed's guarantees if the 76ers manage to beat the Knicks in the first round, but let's assume Philly either loses the series or finds a way to trade that money if it needs to. With just Embiid's $51.4 million salary on Tyrese Maxey's minimal $13 million cap hold on the books, the 76ers are looking at practically limitless cap space. The exact figure would depend on a variety of factors, starting with the actual amount the cap itself lands on, but a rough estimate would have the 76ers at around $65 million in space.

This makes constructing a roster relatively straightforward. James would slot in on the wing alongside Embiid, a former MVP at center, and Maxey, an emerging young All-Star guard. Maxey is young enough and durable enough to ease LeBron's ball-handling load. James and Embiid would minimize the amount of shots the other would need to take in the regular season. Embiid has struggled in the playoffs. James, obviously, does not. At best, they'd alleviate so much pressure on one another that they'd both be able to play at their best in high-stakes moments. At worst, James likely at least solves Philadelphia's "what happens when Embiid goes to the bench?" problem. In his playoff career, the 76ers have lost the minutes they have played without Embiid by 217 total points.

Even a max contract for James would leave the 76ers more than $15 million in cap space as well as a revamped cap room mid-level exception that went for nearly $8 million last offseason. Philadelphia could use those resources to sign more free agents, but they could also use them in trades. Remember, the 76ers will have five tradable first-round picks this offseason thanks to their November trade of James Harden. Teams moving role players tend to prefer doing so in deals where they don't have to take back money, so the 76ers could cherrypick players on other teams with their draft capital and financial flexibility. Imagine Philadelphia reuniting James with former Lakers running mate Alex Caruso by overwhelming the Bulls with picks and absorbing his relatively affordable contract, for instance. Moves like that would be on the table. Daryl Morey has a proven track record of assembling contending rosters. He'd put that flexibility to good use. Nick Nurse has won a championship as a head coach. Odds are, whoever is coaching the Lakers next season has not.

Philadelphia isn't quite as title-desperate as New York, but it's been over 40 years since the 76ers last raised a banner. It's a similarly sports-crazed northeastern city, and given where the 76ers are in their contending cycle, they're likely to be somewhat more receptive to James as a conquering hero than the Knicks would be. Philadelphia has watched Embiid-led teams lose in every possible way in the postseason. Their fans know changes are needed. Knicks fans—justifiably—have practically deified Jalen Brunson. They love the version of the team that currently exists and might not be especially eager to break it up, even partially, for a short-term James rental. A New York title probably means more, but a Philadelphia title probably comes with more credit.

James would probably prefer to win in Los Angeles if possible. The "if possible" moniker there is key. Both the Lakers and the 76ers have injury-prone star big men. Embiid is the better of the two players. Davis, given his defensive versatility and comfort diving on pick-and-rolls, might be the easier fit. The Lakers don't have a Maxey-caliber guard, but they're reportedly trying to improve their backcourt this offseason. Perhaps they could trade for a player that functions similarly. They had one of the NBA's worst head coaches in Darvin Ham this season. They seem interested in upgrading next season. They lack Philadelphia's cap space, but they have a number of worthwhile role players already in place.

Two factors stand out that make Philadelphia appear more competitive than Los Angeles. The first is geography. The Lakers just finished eighth in the regular-season Western Conference standings, and that was with James and Davis combining to miss only 17 total games. What happens next season when that number comes closer to 30 or 40, and younger Western Conference teams like the Grizzlies, Rockets and Spurs make real moves toward contending? There's a changing of the guard out West, and the conference is impossibly deep. James knows from experience how much easier life in the Eastern Conference can be. The Celtics are the conference's only super team. James has beaten the Celtics in his last five series against them.

But there's a more pressing reason for James to consider such a move. James has now spent six years in Los Angeles. What exactly has the Rob Pelinka-led front office proven to him in that time? It managed to trade for Davis... but only because he scared off other suitors. It managed to build the 2020 championship team... but only because Kawhi Leonard strung them along in free agency and forced them to sign the 3-and-D role players that were left on the market when he chose the Clippers. Since then, their track record includes more bad than good.

They broke up the 2020 championship team for reasons that remain somewhat unclear. James may have pushed for the Russell Westbrook trade, but they signed off on it. They've continuously added excess ball-handling at the expense of skills proven to fit alongside James like shooting and ball-handling. They missed on the Ham hire. Right now, they appear primed to make a run at Trae Young, which feels somewhat similar to the Westbrook trade.

At no point over the past four years have the Lakers proven capable of building a winner around the two superstars who fell into their laps. At no point have they proven they even understand what it takes to win with James and Davis as a core. If they did, they might not have broken up the championship team they stumbled into. Time and time again, the Lakers emphasize raw points and name value in their acquisitions over skills that have proven to make sense alongside their best players. 

James might be complicit in those failures, but Philadelphia offers an attractive middle ground. Maxey's presence means they don't have to reach for extra ball-handling. Morey's presence suggests that spare resources will be allocated towards the right needs. Nurse's presence suggests that the players Morey adds will be used properly. There is a trustworthy infrastructure in place. 

If we believed confidently that James trusted the Lakers, well, we wouldn't be having this conversation. We wouldn't be reading reports from The Athletic about how he wants to see how their offseason goes before making a commitment. We wouldn't have watched him passive aggressively beg the Lakers to improve at the trade deadline.

Maybe none of this matters because, again, we have no idea what James actually wants out of this free agency. For all we know he's just trying to use it to leverage the Lakers into giving him a better chance to win in Los Angeles. He might be satisfied enough with his career's achievements that he decides to stay put regardless of what the Lakers do. There would be nothing wrong with that. He's maybe the greatest player in NBA history. He has nothing to prove. If he wants to live in his chosen city, retain stability for his family and never wear another jersey, well, that's his right.

But if any part of James is prioritizing winning at the highest level next season and beyond without sacrificing his enormous salary? His move is Philadelphia.