LOS ANGELES — Isaiah Thomas is nearing a return from a hip injury and the Cleveland Cavaliers (18-7) are gaining on the first-place Boston Celtics (22-4) atop the Eastern Conference standings. With their 101-95 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night, the Cavs won their 13th straight game.
Meanwhile, LeBron James has been simulating the Cavaliers lineup with Thomas via NBA2K, but then how many fans of the Los Angeles Lakers or Philadelphia 76ers have done the same with James in their team's lineup?
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LeBron said he uses @NBA2K to prepare for/visualize the return of Isaiah Thomas. #Cavs https://t.co/Ff7vNwvaK52017-12-6 16:30:42
On Thursday, the Lakers will visit the Sixers. The game's outcome isn't likely to impact James' future, but long-term, the two franchises may soon be battling for his services.
James is under contract for next season at $35.6 million, but he can opt out before July's free-agent period. While he may choose to stay in Cleveland, that won't stop teams from making sure they have the necessary cap room to lure away the three-time NBA champion.
The actual list of teams that project to be in the position to offer James a contract starting at $35.4 million is short.
Would he consider the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings or Chicago Bulls? How about the Dallas Mavericks or Indiana Pacers? The Utah Jazz, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns may near $25-26 million in space.
The two teams that seem best suited to build a team around James are the 76ers and Lakers. One NBA executive noted that if James leaves the Cavaliers, the Sixers make the most sense if the veteran forward wants to get back to the Finals. The Golden State Warriors aren't going anywhere anytime soon in the West.
It's the emergence of Philadelphia center Joel Embiid that has opened many eyes. After missing most of his first three seasons, Embiid is a Most Valuable Player candidate, according to a straw poll conducted by Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post.
"Embiid is something else," said a Western Conference scout.
Two years ago, the same scout said he liked the Lakers' youthful core of Julius Randle and D'Angelo Russell more than the Sixers' trio of mismatched big men (Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Embiid). Russell has since been dealt to the Brooklyn Nets, Noel was traded to the Mavericks and Okafor is on the outside in Philadelphia.
Now that scout is looking at what the Sixers are doing with greater admiration, especially with Ben Simmons (who missed his initial season with a foot injury) as the clear front-runner for Rookie of the Year.
Through 22 games played, Simmons is averaging 18 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists a game. While he hasn't hit a three-pointer yet, he's shooting a steady 50.3 percent from the field (but just 56.7 percent from the free-throw line).
They would join Brandon Ingram, taken second overall in the 2016 NBA draft behind Simmons, and the Lakers' most recent No. 2 pick, Lonzo Ball.
Ball has gotten off to a much slower start than Simmons this season, but Ingram has begun to emerge as a "killer" for the Lakers.
Ingram recently reached a career high of 32 points in a loss to the Golden State Warriors. He's averaging 16 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.9 assists a game while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 68.3 percent from the line.
Ball has shown flashes, but his shooting is a problem. He has 8.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists a night at just 31.3 percent from the field and 50 percent from the line.
Ingram has developed significantly since his rookie year. The hope is that Ball will follow suit.
Coach Luke Walton is a believer in both and has urged Ball to stay aggressive and keep shooting until he finds a comfort zone in the NBA. "I told him ... 'Zo, you're going to be one of the best point guards in this league. You are,'" Walton said. "'Embrace this challenge. If you're open and it's in rhythm [shoot the ball with confidence].'"
Just as Embiid and Simmons have quickly shown what they can do in the league, the Lakers need Ingram and Ball to continue to improve as the season progresses. Executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka have long touted the Lakers' unique ability to pay for two stars, but technically they only have room for one without some deft maneuvering, especially with Luol Deng's $36.8 million left on their books.
Los Angeles might lose players like Julius Randle, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez and Jordan Clarkson to achieve their larger goals.
The Sixers are in a similar position after giving both Robert Covington and Embiid extensions. The first step for Philadelphia is to let shooter JJ Redick go as a free agent. Then the team will need to clear another $8.5 million—which is almost exactly what Jerryd Bayless will make next season in the final year of his contract.
Philadelphia will have a much easier time getting out of Bayless' deal than the Lakers will with Deng.
The Sixers also have a wild card in Markelle Fultz, the lone player drafted ahead of Ball in June. Fultz has been sidelined for almost the entire season with a shoulder injury. Once Fultz finds his way back to the court, if he can show glimpses of what made him the 2017 top overall pick, the Sixers can boast a potential lineup of James, Simmons, Embiid, Covington and Fultz.
The Lakers would like to field something like Kyle Kuzma, James, George (or Cousins), Ingram, Ball and possibly Lopez.
Either team would flourish. James has a home in Brentwood, California, and an emerging production career in Hollywood, but the specter of the Warriors in the West may keep him in the East.
That's not to say he's a lock to go to the Sixers or anywhere specific. The Cavaliers are still hoping to return to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season, with a second title to encourage James to stay home.
Even at nearly 33 years old, James is one of the NBA's marquee players. He's still arguably the most dominant player in the league and will have plenty of suitors.
James is still weighing his options. In December, he doesn't have enough information to choose, and why would he when his focus should be on today's Cavaliers?
That's why teams will make moves through the February 8 trade deadline, and then after the season through July, to be at the table when James is ready to make his next decision.