LeBron is almost certainly not going to get traded this summer. It doesn’t mean we can’t imagine what a possible return for James might look like.
Is there even an appropriate analogy for how quickly the Lakers’ season has spiraled out of control?
As the obituaries start getting pumped out, there will be comparisons made to sinking ships and flaming dumpsters to go with memes of dogs in houses ablaze and tanks rolling over cars. What has transpired in LA since the trade deadline was made for the internet, which simultaneously drove the bus and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the calamity.
At the center of it all is the man who’s been the most important player in the league since before he even entered it. Not coincidentally, since his reign began the NBA has become the premier league in terms of off-court drama. It draws more interest in events and possibilities that exist outside the lines than every other major sport combined.
As such, with the embalming of the 2018-19 Lakers officially underway, fans will immediately jump to wondering about the most sensational possible outcome that may now transpire. That would be Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka doing the unthinkable and trading the greatest player of his generation.
That, of course, is not going to happen for a million reasons, the most important of which Tom Ziller detailed in his recent spot-on piece for SB nation. In short, the Lakers brass would effectively be signing their own pink slips with a trade, and no team would take the risk of giving up major assets for a player who has the gravitas to upend an organization if he so chooses.
Still, it brings up an interesting discussion. For most of the last 16 years, LeBron James has carried with him more trade value than any player in the sport. Some may still think he’s close to the top, including, it seems, Ziller himself:
Imagine the trade value price for three years of James, even in his mid-30s. It’s super steep. Like every possible pick plus a blue chip prospect or two. It’s three future firsts, the rights to Zion Williamson, and Lauri Markannen (plus contracts to meet NBA match requirements). It’s Karl-Anthony Towns, two firsts, and a fresh water pipeline from Minnesota to SoCal. It’s a price so incredibly steep you can’t even come up with anything viable for most other NBA teams unless they land Zion in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Tom is awesome, and while he’s clearly being a little facetious here, it’s fair to ask whether his overall assessment is a little off base.
Let’s take the Zion question for starters. It’s tough to see any lottery team trading the rights to Zion Williamson without some bad money attached. For example, should the Wizards land the top pick, would they package it with John Wall for James and salary filler? They’ll be able to get to max cap space this summer with some creativity, and a core of James/Beal/Player X might be enough to make a run at a ring for one or two years.
Is a 10 or 20 percent chance at a title over the next two seasons enough to give up potentially nine years of the closest approximation to LeBron since the man himself came along in 2003? Seems dubious.
Go through the potential lottery teams. There’s no one who jumps out as one that would make the trade off with the possible exception of the Knicks, but even that doesn’t make complete sense. If Kevin Durant wanted to team up with James, he could just do so in LA. Even if they were to sign Irving to re-up the Cavs partnership, it’s tough to see that combo even coming out of a new-and-improved East.
So no, “Zion plus stuff” probably isn’t realistic as a return for the King. The more interesting discussion is who would he net amongst the current crop of players.
There are four somewhat related complicating factors here. First, James has a player option for the final year of his contract, so any team trading for him would be guaranteed his services for two years, not three. Second, as Ziller touches on in his piece, LeBron is not likely to take a trade kindly, and would likely begin plotting his exit from any destination he deemed unworthy the day he arrived. Third, as we’ve seen, James isn’t always the easiest fit on the court, especially with other players who need the ball to be successful. Finally, we’re seeing a version of James that can no longer exert max energy during a season, and this may just be the beginning of him succumbing to the injuries he’s thus far managed to avoid.
All together, this isn’t “just add water” and watch multiple Finals appearance sprout from the ground. If nothing else, this season has made that much abundantly clear.
Would anyone swap another top-10 talent straight up? Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Steph Curry and James Harden are all off the table. All of the top pending free agents, including Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyrie Irving aren’t available to be dealt. The Pelicans dealing AD for LeBron simply moves the clock back on the ticking time bomb. Paul George has been better (and cheaper) than James this season and seems to love OKC.
Looking at the second tier of guys, there’s no chance the Wolves trade five guaranteed years of Karl-Anthony Towns for two years of James, at most, to go with a roster that isn’t otherwise very good. Damian Lillard has already expressed a desire to retire in Portland (and backed up those sentiments recently), which is a privilege the Blazers aren’t likely to give up, especially when LeBron wouldn’t put them over the top. Oladipo’s injury takes Indiana out of consideration.
Going through the best players on rookie deals is where things get interesting. Luka Doncic is a nonstarter. Sacramento would be crazy to give up D’Aaron Fox in his second year especially when LeBron doesn’t make the Kings a title contender and isn’t hanging around longer than he needs to. Ditto for Trae Young in Atlanta and Jaren Jackson Jr. in Memphis.
Imagining James on Utah in place of Donovan Mitchell, in Quin Snyder’s scheme, is interesting. If KD leaves Golden State this summer, are we sure that Jazz team couldn’t make the Finals and potentially steal a ring? Maybe the better question is whether Utah — perhaps the most conservative, stable organization in the sport — would willingly introduce the type of drama that always seems to follow James around, and give up a 22-year-old Mitchell for the right to do so? Hard pass.
LeBron in Celtics green would be…weird. Things in Boston are so out of sorts at the moment, and who knows if acquiring James for a package centered around Tatum (and Hayward for salary purposes) would make Kyrie Irving more or less inclined to stay. If it’s the former, Ainge might just pull the trigger. Would it be the best deal for the Lakers though? Hold that thought.
We know Denver tried desperately to get a face to face meeting with James this summer, to no avail. The obvious ask would be Jokic, who is at the core of everything the Nuggets do. He’s also a player with question marks about how far any team featuring him as their centerpiece can go. It’s hard to imagine Denver shipping him to LA for a player ten years his senior but it can’t be ruled out.
The notion of trading away Russell Westbrook — the good son, the one who didn’t go away for college, instead choosing to stay home and care for grandma while she entered her twilight years — would be fraught with karmic peril for OKC. From a basketball standpoint though, the Thunder would have to pull the trigger. Would the Lakers? There has to be something better…
Which leads us to the deal that makes the most sense. Ben Simmons is not only KLutch Sports client, but he has a game very similar to LeBron’s, to the point that Philly wouldn’t skip much of a beat if they made the deal. The Sixers would have to renounce the cap hold of either Butler or Harris to make the money work, but it seems like Jimmy’s ship might already be sailing anyway.
A core of James, Embiid, Harris and Redick (assuming they can re-sign him) might be enough to win multiple rings and would allow LeBron to age gracefully as he passes the lead-dog role onto The Process. There have been murmurings for a while now about how long the Embiid/Simmons partnership will last, so why not cash in your chips while you can if you’re Philly? For the Lakers, this deal would easily trump anything else on the table.
So there you have it. If we transplanted to an alternate universe where LeBron actually was put on the table, his trade value would be nowhere near what it once was, but LA would still be able to get a damn good return.
Not bad for a 34-year-old on a minutes restriction.