Just before LeBron James announced he was taking his talents to South Beach in 2010, the Miami Heat were considered a long shot to land him; the Cavs, Bulls, Knicks and Nets all seemed like more likely destinations. After two championships and four straight NBA Finals trips, the King stunned the world a second time in 2014, when he announced to Sports Illustrated that he was coming home to Cleveland.
James will once again be a free agent in 2018, and we've learned our lesson: Be prepared for anything. It's time to start sketching the free agency possibilities now and try to map out where the next superteams will be.
So, who is most likely to assemble the next powerhouse to challenge the reigning-champ Golden State Warriors? Joining up with ESPN's Bobby Marks with an eye toward 2018 free agency, we look at the three primary models to building a superteam.
This list looks beyond current contenders Cleveland, Houston and Oklahoma City -- each of whom already has at least two superstars -- to the next generation of potential superteams.
And since it's never too early to look ahead, the 2019 free agency class could feature: Al Horford, Hassan Whiteside, Marc Gasol, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.
Where could LeBron land? And Westbrook? Who are the dark-horse superteams? Without further ado ...
The 2011 Heat model: Build through free agency
Ahead of a monster 2010 free agency, Pat Riley gutted the roster, freeing up the most cap space of any team heading into the bonanza. With only Mario Chalmers under contract after a stunning Michael Beasley trade to Minnesota, the Heat were able to absorb not just two stars, but three of them. As part of sign-and-trades with Cleveland and Toronto, the Heat sent out four first-rounders and a pick swap for LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Dwyane Wade returned to the Heat. Miami went to the NBA Finals four straight seasons and came home with two Larry O'Brien trophies.
The next '11 Heat: Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James and Paul George in purple and gold? Don't sleep on this one. (And if not James, maybe Russell Westbrook writes his "I'm coming home" ode to L.A.)
The Lakers could have as much as $70 million in cap space next summer, which would be good enough to fit two max-level stars to join Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Getting to that $70 million will take some maneuvering, but all indications from LakerLand point to that direction. The team refused to go more than one year on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's contract, and they already moved Timofey Mozgov's contract for Brook Lopez's expiring deal.
There's more work to do. The three-step process may have to wait until 2018 draft night: They have to stretch Luol Deng's contract ($36 million remaining over five seasons) along with trading Jordan Clarkson's remaining two years, $26 million. And lastly, they will have to find a taker during the season for Julius Randle or renounce his rights in free agency.
This should be doable because the Lakers can trade their 2019 first-round pick once the 2018 pick is selected (either by Philadelphia or Boston). League rules prohibit sending out first-round picks in consecutive years so the Lakers will have to wait until Adam Silver walks to the podium to announce their traded 2018 pick. After that, president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka can package the 2019 and 2021 first-rounders in any salary dumps.
The Lakers have the prestige, the budding stars and the cap space. But can Magic close the deal like his former coach Pat Riley did in 2010?
Runner-up: San Antonio Spurs
Could Gregg Popovich lure LeBron James and Chris Paul -- who already followed Tim Duncan's footsteps to Wake Forest -- to team up in San Antonio next summer? The path is there for the taking. The debate for the Spurs' front office is whether to target 2018 or 2019 free agency to build around Kawhi Leonard.
Like Miami in the summer of 2010, adding multiple stars through free agency is an aggressive and risky approach, but all things are possible with Pop running the show. LaMarcus Aldridge ($22.3 million player option), Danny Green ($10 million) and Rudy Gay ($8.8 million) could all opt out of their contracts next summer. Things get complicated if any of them opt-in, but the Spurs have picks to attach in deals. (For instance, if Aldridge opts in, they could send him to Brooklyn with a first-round pick. Remember, Nets GM Sean Marks is a Spurs University alum.)
With Leonard, Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White on the books, the Spurs could open up as much as $54 million if they go this route and stretch Pau Gasol. A band of $54 million isn't enough to get two stars at the max, but the Spurs have shown a propensity on selling no state-income taxes in Texas as a way to offset finances. The Spurs could wait until 2019 when more money frees up (as much as $62 million if Leonard opts in to his player option), but there's an outside chance they pull the trigger in 2018 instead.
Darkhorse: Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have essentially cleared the decks for the future. By trading Jimmy Butler and officially hitting the reset button on the Tom Thibodeau era, Chicago has only about $23 million in guaranteed contracts in 2018 and another $16.4 million in non-guaranteed money. Zach LaVine has a free agent cap hold at nearly $10 million, but the expectation here is they'll wait on extension talks until they see his recovery from a torn ACL. That would be the smart move.
The Bulls should have $52 million in cap space next summer and a big-time market to lure free agents, but unlike L.A. and San Antonio, Chicago lacks a magnetic star like Kawhi or Lonzo. Maybe Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen or LaVine can prove us wrong, but we're not betting on a star rising in Chicago anytime soon.
The 2008 Celtics model: Build using trade assets
In the summer of 2007, the Boston Celtics executed two blockbuster trades using young players and draft picks to bring in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen next to Paul Pierce. In June, Boston sent a package headlined by Jeff Green to Seattle for Allen and Glen Davis. Later in July, Boston received Garnett in exchange for a haul featuring Al Jefferson, two future first-round picks and role players. After opening the season 29-3, the Celtics won the title.
The next '08 Celtics: Boston Celtics
Yep, that's right. Part Deux. The Celtics are brimming with coveted assets: 19-year-old Jayson Tatum, 20-year-old Jaylen Brown and Jae Crowder's contract (he's owed just $22 million over next three seasons), along with Brooklyn's 2018 first-rounder, the 2018 Lakers/Kings pick, Memphis' 2019 first-rounder (top-eight protected) and the Clippers' 2019 first-rounder (lottery protected) -- in addition to their own first-rounders going forward. Deep inhale.
With the bundle of goodies, the Celtics can now set their sights on adding another star through trades after using cap space to bring in Gordon Hayward and Al Horford. They either passed on or couldn't get Jimmy Butler and Paul George. Who are they saving these assets for?
It could be one of the twin towers in New Orleans. Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins struggled to mesh last season, and the Pelicans need to make a decision soon on whether to keep them together. Cousins is an unrestricted free agent in 2018, and Davis has missed 75 games in five seasons through an assortment of injuries. Is one ripe for the picking? It's possible Boston didn't move for Cousins at the trade deadline last season because they figured the asking price might drop in February with free agency imminent.
It's not a bright situation in New Orleans. By signing a series of role players to swollen contracts, the Pelicans find themselves in salary-cap purgatory where they have $91.5 million in committed salaries for 2018 and little wiggle room to improve. Davis drew a lot of Garnett comparisons coming out of Kentucky, and his story arc in the NBA has followed a similar path. Expect Boston to circle New Orleans like vultures for either Davis or Cousins.
Runner-up: Phoenix Suns
Phoenix GM Ryan McDonough knows what it takes to get this done. The 36-year-old was an assistant GM under Danny Ainge when they brought in Garnett and Allen in 2007. The chest is full of assets in Phoenix. The Suns have four top-10 picks on the roster who aren't even of drinking age yet: Devin Booker (20 years old), Josh Jackson (20), Dragan Bender (19) and Marquese Chriss (20).
Not only that, the Suns have the Heat's 2018 first-rounder (protected Nos. 1-7) and their unprotected 2021 first-rounder to toss in a deal, in addition to their own first-round picks going forward. Assuming the Suns don't attach any of those long-term prizes in a deal for Kyrie Irving, the Suns are set to be prime candidates for a superteam via trade.
There's no doubt that the Suns will be lurking in case a disgruntled star makes noise next season. Like Boston, the Suns figure to keep a close eye on New Orleans, but Kristaps Porzingis, Blake Griffin and Klay Thompson are all names to watch down the line.
Dark horse: Philadelphia 76ers
The process is starting to turn into results. By signing JJ Redick and Amir Johnson to big one-year deals, Bryan Colangelo sent a clear message: overspend now but retain flexibility later. Philadelphia is set up for the future with $48 million in cap space to spend in 2018 while retaining a core of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, Joel Embiid and Robert Covington (the latter two's free-agent cap holds are factored in here).
Even with a max contract for Embiid, the 76ers would have $50 million in cap space for 2019 to go after Klay Thompson or Kevin Love. Of course, with all the young talent, they could flip their bundle of assets for ready-made stars, a la the 2008 Celtics. Colangelo isn't shy about fast-tracking a contender. Remember, in Phoenix, Colangelo in 2004 signed a 30-year-old Steve Nash to pair with a 21-year-old Amar'e Stoudemire and a 23-year-old Joe Johnson. And the rest is history.
The 2014 Warriors model: Build through the draft
Before Kevin Durant left OKC, the Warriors built an empire from scratch much like the Thunder did several years earlier. The Warriors drafted their core big three: Stephen Curry (the No. 7 pick in 2009), Klay Thompson (No. 11 in 2011) and Draymond Green (No. 35 in 2012). With a contender brewing, the team then added Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut through trades. After winning a title and breaking the regular-season wins record, Durant joined forces with the "organic" organization, as Pat Riley recently called it. With the base built through the draft, the Warriors have unleashed the winningest three-season stretch in NBA history.
The next '14 Warriors: Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets have quietly built an offensive machine in Denver. Fact: After Nikola Jokic joined the starting lineup in Dec. 15, the Nuggets -- not the KD edition of the Warriors, nor the LeBron-led Cavs -- owned the NBA's best offensive rating for the rest of the season (113.3 points pre 100 possessions). Yeah, that caught the rest of the NBA by surprise too.
And just like the Warriors, the Nuggets built an offensive juggernaut largely through the draft without needing a top-five pick. Like Draymond Green, Jokic was a gem found in the second round back in 2014. Talented guard Jamal Murray was the No. 7 selection in 2016, and Gary Harris was a sweet-shooting steal at No. 19 in 2014. Kenneth Faried was the No. 22 pick in 2011 during the Masai Ujiri regime.
Under the leadership of president Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas, the Nuggets have nailed their draft picks lately. And like Golden State a few years ago, they've begun adding from the outside. This summer, the Nuggets acquired their version of Andre Iguodala in Paul Millsap, a star team-first veteran who can anchor both sides of the floor.
And they may not be done. With some cap creativity, the Nuggets could have up to $45 million in cap space (good enough for a max player) to add to an already strong core of Millsap, Jokic, Murray and Harris. If Denver declines Jokic's team option, he would join Harris in next summer's restricted free-agent class, giving Denver more flexibility next summer.
So who would be the Nuggets' KD? Don't overlook Chris Paul as a target. Denver's head honcho, Connelly, was the assistant GM in New Orleans in 2010 while Paul was there. And the Los Angeles Times reported that Denver was on Paul's short list of planned free agency meetings this summer before Houston pried him away. No team may ever replicate the Warriors' success through the draft, but Denver could have the best shot of anyone.
Runner-up: Milwaukee Bucks
This is another stud core built through the draft. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker, Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker were all Bucks' selections, and only one (Parker) was a top-nine pick. (Milwaukee also traded for Khris Middleton after his rookie season in Detroit.) The Bucks have indeed hit the jackpot in the draft, but the Bucks' "own the future" slogan could be soon running on fumes.
Look at the cap sheet and you'll see that the Bucks in 2018 have $100 million in salary, just $2 million below the cap, thanks to some questionable long-term free agent signings in Mirza Teletovic, Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson (an extension, technically). A tough question for the retooled front office will be whether to pay up for Parker after two ACL tears when he becomes a restricted free agent.
As of now, it seems as if the only way to build a superteam is from within. The Bucks could be a tax team next summer if Parker's new contract commands a salary north of $20 million, limiting their options in free agency.
Still, if the core continues to develop like its has, the Bucks will be in prime position to take over the Eastern Conference when (if?) LeBron James heads West or begins to decline.
Dark horse: Sacramento Kings
Look, we can't believe we're mentioning Sacramento and Golden State in the same breath either. But the young core in Sacramento is tantalizing. Youngsters De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles represent a sky-high ceiling in Sacramento. With George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter presenting some much-needed veteran infrastructure, the kids could bring trouble to the rest of the NBA in a few years.
We're a long ways away from seeing if the Kings have something that resembles a playoff team, but the seeds have been planted. Look for the Kings to pounce in 2019 free agency with as much as $55 million in cap space with nine players under contract (all first- or second-round picks).
If they hit a couple home runs in the draft and manage the cap shrewdly, could they steal Klay Thompson in 2019? We like what's brewing up the coast in Sacramento.