Come Dec. 15, What If the Lakers Traded LeBron James?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
For a brighter future, the team’s best move might be to trade the free agent it’s been waiting for.
By Andrew Mentock and Sean Culligan
At the Los Angeles Lakers’ media day in September, LeBron James showed up to his first press conference with his new team wearing a gold jersey and a white armband. Asked if LA could beat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA’s Western Conference, James wasn’t optimistic. “We’ve got a long way to go to get to Golden State,” he replied. Despite the hype, his inexperienced Lakers have a steep hill to climb this season.
James also intimated that winning a championship is not the only way for this team to triumph. “There’s only one champion, but that doesn’t mean you’re not successful,” he said. With all due respect to King James, he’s wrong. The Lakers hang only their 16 championship banners from the Staples Center rafters — not those reflecting their 23 division titles and 31 Western Conference championships. In Lakerland, it’s championship or bust.
While the Lakers fan base was hyped to welcome James, maybe it should pump the brakes. The four-time MVP could serve the team better as a trade chip; come Dec. 15, that’s exactly what LA should look to do.
The Lakers haven’t been a hotbed for signing superstars in decades.
Under the current NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, only players who have been in the league for eight years overall and have spent four years with their current team can negotiate a no-trade clause. That means James is eligible to be traded in December. Later that month, he will turn 34 — near ancient in the NBA.
The franchise hopes James will once again make LA a destination for marquee free agents, but the Lakers haven’t been a hotbed for signing superstars in decades. Prior to James, Shaquille O’Neal was the last star player to sign with the franchise, in 1996 — before current Lakers Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram were born. Worse yet, current All-Stars on the market don’t seem overly keen on joining James in LA.
“It’s been a little strange seeing people consistently either turn them down or put other options on their list,” says Adam Fromal, founder and editor in chief of NBAMath.com, pointing to Jimmy Butler preferring the Miami Heat and others over the Lakers. “Maybe the LeBron effect isn’t quite as great as we thought it would be.”
Fromal says he still wouldn’t rule out James attracting a marquee free agent to LA — even Kevin Durant. But the Lakers’ odds of winning a championship one day might be better if the franchise trades James for promising players who could enhance the young core. What if the Lakers traded James, Isaac Bonga and Ivica Zubac to the Boston Celtics for Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier, a 2019 first-round pick and another first? Who says no?
The Celtics have so much depth, a move like that would still give them enough firepower, says Fromal. Boston is deeper and more balanced than, say, Philadelphia. “But then again,” Fromal adds, “poor Kyrie Irving in that situation.”
An unhappy Irving could be worth it to the Celtics to actually have a realistic shot of beating the dynastic Warriors in the finals, even if it causes him to leave in free agency. Boston also only hangs championship banners. The team’s death lineup would be a nasty combination of Irving, James, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford. Or, if the Celtics were loath to lose their star point guard for nothing, the trade could be adjusted to include a swap of Irving and the Lakers’ Ball.
Either way, thanks to restricted free agency, the Lakers could have a team of Tatum, Ingram, Rozier, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and maybe Ball locked up — assuming none were to opt for significantly less guaranteed money by accepting a one-year qualifying offer. While Fromal legitimately worries that making this type of trade would have a “crippling” effect on the franchise, partially because no free agents would want to sign there, Los Angeles could have an even stronger young core ready to ascend to its prime once the Warriors age out of contention.
The biggest obstacle here is the Lakers’ demonstrated philosophy. Eric Pincus, who studies salary caps for Basketball Insiders, points out that LA already showed how dedicated it is to its stars by continuing to pay Kobe Bryant more than $23 million long after his play declined. It’s unlikely LA would trade James at any point, but especially not when he’s still considered to be in his prime.
Another option could be for the Lakers to trade James to a team with quality young players that doesn’t have a robust history of championships. For as high as the Dallas Mavericks are on Luka Doncic, the team would have to consider trading him, Dennis Smith, Wesley Matthews (in the last year of his deal) and a future first-rounder for James and a supporting cast. That way, Dirk Nowitzki could go out with a bang, the Mavs would have four years of probable playoff appearances and the Lakers would get a few more young players with All-Star potential on restricted contracts.
The trade options don’t stop there. Plenty of teams could potentially make the Lakers a mutually beneficial Godfather offer. But moving James would also benefit basketball fans worldwide. Many were frustrated when they heard James picked the Lakers over better basketball fits like the 76ers, including Fromal. “We’re kind of being deprived of a year of championship contention from LeBron,” he laments. The very idea may be a nonstarter for Los Angeles, and yet, it would be better to see James on a team like the Celtics, competing against the Warriors for championships, while the Lakers bide their time with a hungry, young core.