LeBron James isn’t getting traded, but it’s time for Lakers to think about how his time in L.A. will end

LeBron James isn’t getting traded, but it’s time for Lakers to think about how his time in L.A. will end

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LeBron James has never been traded, but on Thursday, he was subject to some of the loudest rumors of his 21-year NBA career. For the time being, there’s very little reason to believe those rumors are going anywhere. The reporting did not come from one of the seasoned NBA news breakers you’d expect, and it has not been corroborated by any follow-up reporting. Rich Paul, James’ longtime agent, shot down the rumors on Friday by telling ESPN’s Brian Windhorst “LeBron won’t be traded, and we aren’t asking to be.” For now, it seems safe to assume that the greatest player of his generation will remain a Los Angeles Laker one week from today when the 2024 trade deadline passes.

And yet… the rumors gained ground among fans and on social media in a way that no previous James rumblings ever really have. James himself hasn’t exactly helped matters on that front. Tweeting an hourglass after an embarrassing loss to the Hawks that dropped the Lakers below .500 doesn’t exactly scream “I’m happy where I am.”

James has a player option after the season. The Lakers, as presently constructed, don’t look close to championship contention. They’re currently out two first-round picks thanks to previous trades, and while they’ll have three to trade over the summer, it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to compete for a third star in a bidding war against teams like the Knicks, Nets and Thunder. They may not have a first-round pick this season to use on Bronny James, which might be a necessity in securing his father’s signature on a new contract. Their coach has had a colossally disappointing sophomore campaign in which he’s given the starting five that led him to the Western Conference finals last season a grand total of 32 minutes of playing time.

James is a Laker today. He’ll probably be a Laker in a week. But we’ve seen him jump off of sinking ships before. The Lakers are either at the end of their championship window or soon will be, and even if that isn’t true, James is 39 years old. He’s probably not going to be a Laker for very much longer simply because he probably isn’t going to be an NBA player for very much longer. Thursday’s rumor caught on because it hinted at a reality we all know to be true. Eventually, LeBron James is no longer going to be a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, and it’s time for both sides to start preparing for that eventuality.

So why isn’t it going to happen at the deadline? James doesn’t have a no-trade clause, but he does have an “I’m LeBron James” clause. What… you’re going to send perhaps the best basketball player that has ever lived to Sacramento just because they offered one extra first-round pick? No. James is a player of such stature that his mere existence serves as a de facto no-trade clause. If he doesn’t want to go somewhere he’d simply retire. If the Lakers tried to move him without his consent they’d forever be branded as the team that traded LeBron James. Any future star considering a move to Los Angeles would think to themselves “if they’d do that to LeBron, they’d do it to me.” The Lakers have sold themselves as a star-friendly organization. They’d never risk the damage to their reputation that trading James would ensure.

Could the two sides come together to find an acceptable trade? Potentially… but there’s not exactly an obvious fit out there. The Lakers wouldn’t send him to the Clippers even if they had anything left to trade. A return to Cleveland doesn’t make much sense at this stage either. Evan Mobley, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen are too young to justify moving for a 39-year-old. A Donovan Mitchell-for-James swap makes some sense if Mitchell would agree to stay in Los Angeles long-term, but how much appeal would the Cavaliers hold to James without Mitchell in place? The Knicks are frankly playing too well to make a change of this magnitude. Why trade for James now when you’re rolling and have the assets to get someone much younger later?

Golden State has the contracts to match money, it’s a deceptively difficult deal to reverse engineer. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are presumably off-limits as franchise icons. Would the Lakers take on the Andrew Wiggins contract? Would James demand they find a way to keep close friend, Chris Paul, by far the easiest matching salary Golden State has? And would a 20-24 Warriors team sacrifice the assets needed (Jonathan Kuminga? Brandin Podziemski? Multiple unprotected picks?) to try to save what might already be a lost season?

There are a few more possible reunions out there. Miami could easily match money with Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, and the Heat have two first-round picks to trade. Kyrie Irving has reportedly already tried to sell James on a partnership in Dallas. The Mavericks currently have only one tradable pick, but they could match money with several of their mid-tier salaries. Dereck Lively II probably isn’t on the table, but other youngsters like Josh Green, Jaden Hardy and Olivier-Maxence Prosper probably would be.

Do any of these deals sound all that enticing to the Lakers? Maybe the Heat trade, provided James is amenable to a second go-round in Miami? The overarching point here is that there’s not some bounty awaiting the Lakers if they strike first. The sort of teams James would want to play for are relatively light on assets even before you account for the fact that they’d be trading for a 39-year-old.

It’s even fair to wonder if James would want to be traded in any scenario, even to the perfect destination. He’s never been dealt before. Even if he helped launch the era of player empowerment, he’s never asked for a trade. He’s always fulfilled his contractual obligation before moving on. Maybe that’s incidental. Maybe that’s intentional. There’s no way of knowing, but LeBron’s history of moving through free agency shouldn’t be taken for granted.

It’s still the far likelier mechanism for him to find a new team, even if it comes with other drawbacks. James took a discount to join the Heat in 2010. He hasn’t done so since, earning a full max salary every year since the 2014-15 season. If he intends to keep making that much, the only real contender poised to offer it to him is Philadelphia. We’ve covered that fit in more depth here. If he’s eyeing any team besides the 76ers, he’d need the Lakers to cooperate on a sign-and-trade.

That’s trickier than it sounds. The Lakers probably don’t want to take back negative salary to send James to a new team, so the deal would have to be agreeable to them. The team in question would also need to be able to absorb a max salary without going above the first luxury tax apron, as sign-and-trades trigger a hard cap at that figure. That’s tougher than it sounds. Right now, eight out of the 30 teams are above that line for this season. Most of them are the sort of contenders James might be interested in: the Warriors, Clippers, Suns, Bucks, Celtics, Cavaliers, Nuggets and Heat. Many will be able to duck below the line when contracts expire this offseason, but staying below it with James incoming is another matter.

Someone would be able to figure it out if necessary. The right contender would make the sacrifices needed to land even a pushing-40-year-old LeBron James. If that means moving some other salary and spending a first-round pick on his son, so be it. Front offices might be skeptical, but ownership groups would push for it. Basketball value aside, there’s an organizational cache that comes with employing an all-time great.

The Lakers know that well. They’ve had plenty of them, and they’re probably already wondering how they’ll get their next one when the James era ends. Superstars, at least in their prime, rarely move through free agency anymore. That makes their history and their market less powerful than it’s been in the past, when they used it to lure James and Shaquille O’Neal on the open market. They could potentially trade for that player, but again, their asset base is somewhat uninspiring at the moment.

Game this out to the extreme and you could argue LeBron leaving this summer is the best-case outcome for the Lakers. That has less to do with James than Anthony Davis. His trade value will probably never be higher than it is right now. He turns 31 next month. He’s having one of his best and healthiest seasons. James may not net a significant trade return… but Davis would. Pair whatever they’d get in a Davis trade with the picks they already have and suddenly the Lakers are back in business. Spend a few years at the bottom, add some young talent and then dive right back into the superstar trade market with the chips needed to land LeBron’s heir.

That’s the sensible approach, but is it one the front office could stomach? The Lakers spent half a decade in the wilderness the last time a legend aged out of stardom. James saved them, but he didn’t save the Mitch Kupchak-Jim Buss front office. Are Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis prepared to bet their jobs on a quick turnaround? Or would they hold onto Davis and take the middle-ground approach of trying to stay competitive with him while opportunistically seeking out a longer-term solution?

Neither James nor the Lakers have the answers to these questions right now. That’s one of the many reasons they’re unlikely to split within the next week. Extricating an all-time legend from a legendary franchise is a delicate process, but it’s one that is becoming increasingly necessary. It might happen this summer. It might happen in the years that follow. But eventually, James is going to leave the Lakers, and the longer this season goes without a surprise turnaround, the sooner that split is going to become necessary.

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