NBA superstar LeBron James decided Friday against staying with the Cleveland Cavaliers and chose instead to become an unrestricted free agent, setting up a scramble among several teams expected to vie for his services.
James, 33, had one year remaining on his three-year, $100 million contract with the Cavaliers. The four-time NBA Most Valuable Player had a player option for the 2018-19 NBA season, meaning that he could have chosen to “opt in” and play for the Cavaliers for $35.6 million, or “opt out” and hit the open market.
He waited until Friday, his last day to make the decision, to chose free agency.
Friday marks the league-wide NBA deadline for players and teams to decide whether to exercise their contract options. James is the most visible name in a free agent class that should include Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George and Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, each of whom are expected to opt out of their contracts as well.
The Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets and Miami Heat are all expected to join the Cavaliers in pursuing James’ services now that he has chosen to be an unrestricted free agent.
The Cavaliers have an advantage over other teams in their pursuit of James: The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allows teams to pay their own free agents more money than other teams through the Larry Bird exception, named for the Boston Celtics legend.
Known as “Bird Rights,” the rule allows the Cavaliers to sign James for a larger percentage of the overall salary cap than other teams. Cleveland can offer James a five-year contract worth $205 million, while other teams can only offer a four-year deal worth about $152 million.
ESPN had reported that the chances of James returning to Cleveland were “murky” after the Warriors soundly defeated a depleted Cavaliers roster in the NBA Finals.
After starting his career with the Cavaliers in 2003, James famously spurned his hometown franchise in a televised announcement before the 2010 NBA season and signed with the Heat. After four years in Miami, James returned to Cleveland before the 2014 season.
James has earned more than $230 million in salary alone during his NBA career, according to Spotrac.