Nothing captures just how much damage this season has done to a player some still consider the league’s best than the reaction to the idea of trading for him—unless it’s the reaction to the idea of his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, swapping him. No spit takes. No foreheads smacked. No questions about anyone’s soundness of mind. Maybe the parade of shocking moves across the league in recent years has made “never say never” a wise mantra. Maybe the Lakers’ downward spiral in the season’s second half has made the unthinkable thinkable. Rest assured, no matter the reason, the idea of trading James has been contemplated in NBA front offices as well as on talk shows.
“Hmmm,” pondered one Eastern Conference owner when asked if his team would trade for James if given the chance. “At this point, probably not, given where we are. I wouldn’t want to gut the team for a player that isn’t committed and is toward the end of his career.”
A Western Conference owner said he would consider dealing for James but with conditions. “Depends on what I’d have to give up,” he said. “I wouldn’t roll up the truck and give more than one protected first[-round pick].”
To be clear, the Lakers have given no indication that they are considering what former NBA coach and current ESPN broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy is credited with first publicly suggesting: that to rebound from what looks to be a sixth consecutive losing season and sixth straight trip to the lottery despite James’ addition last summer, the Lakers should “explore” trading the four-time MVP. While the Lakers advertised his arrival as only the first step toward building another title contender, oddsmakers had them comfortably making the playoffs with a 13- or 14-win jump from last season’s 35. Instead, they are 31-36 and 6.5 games out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with 15 contests left. At their current pace, James’ addition will result in a three-win improvement.
The subject of moving James, however, was contemplated by the Lakers, a team source said, weeks before Van Gundy aired it. When rumors engulfed the team at the February trade deadline that it was willing to trade anyone other than James to acquire All-Star forward Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans, James’ agent, Rich Paul, was widely accused of spreading those rumors because Davis is also one of his clients. Paul denied to B/R that he leaked the Lakers’ interest in Davis, but Buss suspected otherwise and was furious. The idea of terminating the franchise’s relationship with Paul by moving James at least crossed Buss’ mind, the team source said, and Paul was made aware of that. That prompted Paul to reach out to Buss to clear the air, and whatever ill will existed supposedly dissipated. At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few weeks later, Buss blamed the media for making the rumors public.
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
One Western Conference GM said he would be interested in trading for James to contend with the defending champion Golden State Warriors, but he wouldn’t swap his best player for him because it would defeat the purpose. Translation: James can’t single-handedly lead a team to title contention, especially in the Western Conference. He needs a fellow star next to him, along with the right coach and supporting cast.
“He’s not good enough anymore to take four cadavers and get to the Finals,” the GM says. “Not in the West.”
James does not have a no-trade clause in the four-year, $153.3 million contract he signed last summer, league sources say, but he does have a 15 percent trade kicker—his contract’s value increases 15 percent and the raise has to be accounted for in making the deal work under salary-cap rules—which complicates, but does not preclude, moving him.
“I still think you could get a decent package for him from a bad team,” one Western Conference assistant GM says. “A first-round pick and a good young player. But it would’ve been a lot more a year ago, for sure.”
One former GM questions if the Lakers could afford the fallout of trading James even if they received a superstar in return. “Even if it’s the right thing to do as a franchise, I don’t know how you’d do it,” he says. “LeBron would eviscerate them. The question goes beyond what you could get for him to: How do you explain that away? How do you go to the next free agent and say, ‘We really want you,’ and have him believe you after you had the face of the league for six months and then traded him away?”
Several league executives would not be surprised if the Lakers at least explored their options. One Eastern Conference vice president of basketball operations wondered if the Milwaukee Bucks, in their effort to keep superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, would consider pairing him with James. Another suggested the Boston Celtics could offer a combination of young talent and draft picks and still have the requisite talent to contend, but that would require Buss and her team president and Lakers legend, Magic Johnson, to put aside a decadeslong rivalry with the Boston franchise, which is hard to imagine.
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press
There’s also the intracity rivalry with the Clippers to consider. The prospect of seeing them with the biggest star in town, however, would be hard to stomach. “They can’t sit in that market, egowise, and see either LeBron playing for the Clippers or see the Clippers get Kawhi with LeBron someplace else,” the Western Conference GM says. “They sell ‘star’ like no one else.”
This, by the way, is not a place most teams expected the Lakers to be. The owner who wouldn’t deal for James now would have a year ago. “If we could have traded for him and knew he would sign long term, it would be hard not to do it,” he says. “He took his team to eight straight Finals!”
The Western Conference GM speculates that more owners than executives see value in James at this point, largely because the latter have seen how their colleagues’ jobs have entailed catering to James and dealing with Paul, who is not popular with more than a few front offices. “Even if you’re solid in your job, you know that anywhere LeBron goes you’re suddenly under the gun,” he says. “Your only choice is to give him the keys and let him run it. And even if you didn’t want that, your owner might. Because he doesn’t have to deal with what comes with it.”
The element that has done the most to lower James’ value this season is not another example of the turmoil and hyper-scrutiny he seems to bring to every team—along with, at least in the past, unprecedented success—but the groin injury that forced him to miss 17 games and some have suggested is still impacting his play. The suspicion is that, at 34 and already holding the record for most playoff minutes and ranking 15th all-time in regular-season minutes, James is finally succumbing to Father Time.
“The injury changed things more than anything else,” the Western Conference owner says.
For now, the expectation is the Lakers will look for James to get healthy and during the offseason acquire the kind of high-IQ role players, veterans and outside shooting that have provided the template for James’ success elsewhere.
“I don’t see him being able to raise a bunch of young pups,” the Eastern Conference VP says. “It’s going to be all about familiarity with LeBron. They’ll ask him, ‘What it’s going to take?‘ He will say, ‘This, this and this,’ and they’ll get the band back together.
“The wild card is Jeanie Buss. She could…ask LeBron, ‘If you’re not with all this, tell us where you want us to send you and we’ll make it happen.'”
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.
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