-- What is No. 1 free agent LeBron James really worth?
For the third consecutive summer, James is the NBA's best free agent. Yet it's Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, owner of one MVP to James' four, who is getting all of the attention as the clock counts down toward the start of free agency at 12:01 a.m. ET on Friday.
That makes sense, considering Durant will take meetings with other teams, while James is a free agent in name only. He'll surely re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as he confirmed to reporters at the team's championship parade last week -- just as he did quietly last summer.
James has to keep opting out in order for his salary to keep pace with the rising salary cap. As Brian Windhorst has explained, by next summer, James should finally be able to sign a long-term deal in Cleveland and maximize his earnings.
The complex plan is necessary in large part because the NBA's collective bargaining agreement limits individual players to making a set amount based on the cap and their experience level. It's clear James' ability to seemingly guarantee a spot in the NBA Finals for his team would be far more valuable on a truly open market.
How much might James be worth in that scenario? Could it be as much as $100 million per year?
Projecting LeBron: Will he remain the NBA's best player?
The first step in determining James' value in terms of salary is to determine his value in terms of wins on the court.
Though James bounced back last year, his recent regular seasons have generally trended downward, as you'd expect from someone in his early 30s -- past the typical age-27 peak for NBA players. Here's how that looks in terms of James' individual win percentage, the percentage of games I estimate James and four average players would win if they were capable of playing the entire game.
When we add in the playoffs, however, a different picture emerges.
Capped by one of the greatest NBA Finals performances in league history, James' 2016 postseason was his best individual win percentage since 2012 -- his first title run with the Miami Heat. As a result, James' win percentages have been relatively flat over the past four playoffs. The lone exception is 2015, when James was playing heavy minutes and carrying an extraordinary offensive load for a short-handed Cavaliers team.
During the regular season, the consensus developed that back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry had surpassed James as the best player in the NBA. Based on regular-season performance, that was certainly reasonable. Curry's past two regular seasons have been far better than James' past two. But James' 2016 playoff run was better than any in Curry's career, complicating the question.
My SCHOENE projection system pegs Curry as the better player in the 2016-17 regular season. However, the multiyear predictive of ESPN's real plus-minus (which takes into account playoff performance) offers a different perspective. James is No. 1 in the league by a wide margin, with Curry slipping to fourth after his injury-marred 2016 postseason.
Though younger stars such as Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and perhaps even Karl-Anthony Towns loom on the horizon, Curry and James figure to be the league's best two players for the next few years. My multiyear projections, which incorporate both SCHOENE and RPM, peg Curry for approximately 55 wins above a replacement-level player (WARP) over the next three seasons, followed by James in second with 52. Nobody else in the league is projected for more than 48 WARP.
Projecting value: What's a win worth?
Now that we have an estimate for how many wins James will provide a team over the next few seasons, we need to determine how much each win is worth. The short answer is a lot more than in past years because of the expected 34 percent increase in the cap from last year's $70 million to a projected $94 million in 2016-17. The long answer is that because of the jump, teams are going to have to spend a lot of money this summer.
Counting non-guaranteed contracts, dead money and salaries for first-round picks, teams have about $1.8 billion in salary committed for 2016-17. Just for each team to reach the projected $94 million salary cap would require teams to spend a billion more in free agency. (That's billion with a B.)
To spend the same amount relative to the cap as last year means about $1.5 billion in contracts for free agents.
(Keep in mind that NBA players collectively are guaranteed to get -- and are capped at -- a fixed percentage of the league's income. But in the case of individual players like James, we are estimating how much he would be worth if a team could pay him his true value within that system, which would cap team salaries but not individual salaries.)
Based on my projections for free agents, those figures mean each extra win a free agent provides next season will cost between $3.3 million and $5 million above the minimum salary. Last year, each projected win cost a little less than $2 million. That figure will almost certainly double this summer.
Adding it up: How many zeros in LeBron's paycheck?
Because we won't know the exact cost of a win until the end of free agency, I'm using an estimated $4.5 million in my projections. That would translate into teams spending about $102 million each -- more than the cap but far less than the projected $114 million luxury-tax threshold.
At that price, James' projected 17.5 WARP next year would be worth nearly $80 million, and at similar prices his production over the next three seasons would be worth almost $250 million -- two and a half times the $100 million or so James figures to make over that span if he opts out again and re-signs for the expected max next summer.
If anything, that figure is probably conservative. For one, we haven't accounted for James stepping up his game in the playoffs. If that remains a consistent trend in his 30s, James could be much more valuable than his regular-season WARP suggests because he's better when it means more to winning additional championships.
Then there's the matter of the value James creates above and beyond his own play. That includes making Cleveland a desirable spot for other players to play. Richard Jefferson's choosing to sign for the veterans minimum last summer might ultimately have made the difference between winning the title and coming up short.
That also includes James' immense financial impact off the court. According to Forbes' valuations, the Cavaliers' franchise has more than doubled in value from $515 million to $1.1 billion since 2014, and while franchise values are appreciating around the NBA, the magnitude of that jump can be attributed almost entirely to James deciding to return to Cleveland.
Given all that, in a world without limits on player salaries, the Cavaliers could easily justify offering James $100 million a year -- more than the entire current salary cap. While that's obviously far more than any other team could pay, there is precedent for such a thing. In 1996-97 and 1997-98, the Chicago Bulls paid Michael Jordan more than the salary cap at the time to ensure he'd stick around to win championships number five and six.
And it's not completely unthinkable it could happen again. National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts has publicly indicated her displeasure with limits on individual salaries. With stars such as James, Curry, Carmelo Anthony and NBPA president Chris Paul on the executive committee, max salaries could be a major negotiating point in talks on a new collective bargaining agreement, which already have begun in anticipation of one or both sides opting out of the current CBA at the conclusion of next season.
If the NBPA gets its way, we might find out soon what James would truly be worth on an open market. And the answer could potentially reach nine figures per year.