LeBron James, the four-time MVP on a run of seven-straight NBA Finals appearance, might actually have minimal trade value.
While James said on Tuesday he would never waive his no-trade clause and there are no signs the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ front office would even approach him on this subject, the reality is that there would not be a massive 29-team bidding war for his services even if both sides wanted to make a deal. Trading LeBron may sound like a plausible solution for owner Dan Gilbert and the Cavs to get out of their mess with James about to hit free agency and the team sliding. It isn’t.
Yes, James can transcend an organization like he did in Cleveland and Miami, but a staggering number of teams would not be willing to gut their roster for four months of his service. And even if there were such a team, it’s almost impossible to find a deal that Cleveland (wanting good young players plus future assets) and LeBron (wanting to win now) would also approve — a necessity, given the no-trade clause in his current contract.
The contract, and the challenges
Even if James were willing to waive his no-trade clause, the $33.3 million contract presents a challenge. Because Cleveland only can take back up to 125 percent of any outgoing salary, putting together a package of contracts is a hurdle. Entertaining offers for James would also signal that Cleveland is ready for a rebuild, and taking back long-term salaries that would ruin future cap flexibility is not desirable.
Plus, James will likely opt out of his $35.6 million contract and become a free agent in July. That eliminates a whole host of contenders and lottery teams from potential deals.
For example, the Suns are not trading Devin Booker for three months of James. And if he really wants to go to the Lakers, then L.A. can just wait and sign him as a free agent without touching any of its young nucleus.
Assuming the 14 teams headed toward the lottery are out, let’s run through the possibilities for the other 15 teams — and who would say yes, no or maybe to the best possible deal for all sides.
A LeBron reunion with his old friend Kyrie Irving is not happening. Even without James, this Boston team is on top of the Eastern Conference. His addition could get the Celtics past Golden State or Houston in an NBA Finals matchup, but it would cost GM Danny Ainge the players and assets he has patiently assembled. Besides, the Celtics would have to give up one of their prized free-agent acquisitions in the past two summers, Al Horford or Gordon Hayward, to make the money work. The Celtics’ front office has its eyes out for the next big superstar (think Anthony Davis) and not four months of a LeBron rental.
GM Kevin Pritchard already experienced a headache last June when dealing with the future of Paul George.
There is no appetite for the Cavaliers to take on a combination of James Johnson, Dion Waiters and/or Kelly Olynyk in a potential deal, and the Heat would do this deal only if they could hold onto most of their starters. Plus, Miami cannot trade a first-round pick until 2023.
Would the Bucks do it? Maybe
Would the Cavs do it? Maybe
Would LeBron do it? Maybe
A Khris Middleton, Mirza Teletovic and Thon Maker combination could make sense for the Cavaliers. Middleton is a top starter on a manageable contract through the 2019-20 (player option) and Maker is a developmental project, but the Eric Bledsoe trade from Phoenix restricts the Bucks from trading a first-round pick until 2023 at the earliest.
Would Bucks ownership take a swing for the fences? If it got them to an NBA Finals, definitely. But the case for the Cavs and LeBron is dicey.
Would the 76ers do it? Maybe
Would the Cavs do it? Maybe
Would LeBron do it? Maybe
Why give up draft picks and young players if you can just go out and sign James as a free agent this summer? Yes, Philadelphia could put together a package of JJ Redick, Dario Saric and Justin Anderson, but the thought of losing Saric as a throw-in just to have James in a 76ers uniform makes no sense.
If James opted into his contract as part of the deal, that’s a different story.
This is not an indictment against Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but Cleveland does not have a need for either veteran in a rebuild. Even if Toronto had second thoughts about DeMar DeRozan, swapping both All-Stars would leave the Raptors with a glaring hole at shooting guard without cap space to replace James if he left in free agency.
Take John Wall and Bradley Beal off the market and the Wizards’ only desirable player would be Otto Porter Jr. But Porter can veto any trade this season, and going from a playoff team to one that will be likely in the lottery for the next few seasons is not an attractive option.
Why would the best team in the NBA (without James) go down the path of gutting their own roster when they know an NBA Finals appearance is likely already on the horizon? To make a deal work, a thin Warriors bench would become thinner by losing Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala — and All-Star Klay Thompson from the starting lineup.
This is the wild card of the group of 15, but Houston would be best off playing out the season and following the Chris Paul model from last June by having James go to Cavs management once the season ends and express that he will not return. James could then opt into his $35.7 million contract and have the Rockets send back a package of players and draft picks.
The problem for Cleveland: What Houston players have any appeal other than shooting guard Eric Gordon? Ryan Anderson duplicates what Kevin Love can do (and Love is a better player) and the Cavs would have to inherit the remaining $41 million of his contract. Also, free agents like Trevor Ariza cannot be traded. Does a deal of Anderson, PJ Tucker and draft picks have appeal for Cleveland? Unlikely.
There is no question that Gregg Popovich would love the opportunity of coaching James. The question comes down to, what player outside of Kawhi Leonard and Dejounte Murray would the Cavaliers want in return. The new extension of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge eliminates the power forward from the conversation. Outside of all three players, the list dwindles to veterans Pau Gasol, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Tony Parker. Not quite appealing for a team looking for building blocks.
Cleveland would do cartwheels if Andrew Wiggins or Karl-Anthony Towns were available. Unfortunately, the Wolves are not including them with All-Star Jimmy Butler. Outside of the core three and Jeff Teague, there are no players who would fit the Cavs’ criteria.
Unless Anthony Davis is headed to Cleveland, there are no players on the Pelicans’ roster that the Cavaliers would have interest in. Even if there were, hard cap restrictions based on the size LeBron’s contract would make any trade unrealistic. Plus, the Pelicans are low on valuable draft picks.
In a perfect world, James would join Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Steven Adams and Carmelo Anthony to rival Golden State. But we don’t live in a perfect world and there is no feasible deal that would interest all sides here.
GM Tim Connelly has methodically built this Nuggets team through the draft and is not going to trade his good young players (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic) for a short-term shot at James. Of course, if Cleveland would want a combination of Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur and a first-round pick, there could be a deal here, but that is way too lopsided.
How does Evan Turner look in a Cavaliers uniform? The answer for Cleveland management is not very good. The $17.8 million and $18.6 million hits left on his contract for the next two seasons have no appeal. Outside of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, any Portland contract that could match salaries wouldn’t be appealing to Cleveland.