OK, first of all, relax. I know you saw the headline and you’re ready to rip my face off. Just hear me out.
Everyone has assumed for a while now that LeBron James is leaving the Cavs after he becomes a free agent next offseason. We all figured that gave the Cavs one last shot with LeBron, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and their assorted veterans to avenge the Warriors (again) and win a second title before the LeBron Returns era concludes.
As the summer of NBA bombshells has worn on, we now know Kyrie wants out and that the Cavs are discussing Kyrie trades and preparing for a future without either of their stars. That makes it just a little bit tougher to go ahead and take one last run with the two of them.
If the Cavs are going to trade Kyrie, then here’s a fun question—you already know it, since you read the headline— could the Cavs consider making a preemptive move and trading native son and homegrown MVP LeBron Freaking James?
Bill Belichick always seems to cut players a year early rather than a year too late. The Colts released Peyton Manning. The Sixers once traded Wilt Chamberlain. Crazy things happen sometimes!
There are a few obvious caveats. First, LeBron has a no–trade clause and would have to agree to any deal. He is reportedly unwilling to waive it, which reportedly makes this whole exercise moot. Second is that LeBron will be a free agent after next season, so any team trading for him would know they probably get just one season with him. Third is that the Cavs might decide their best path back to relevance is to lose LeBron and Kyrie, bottom out and rebuild by landing a star [or two] through the draft.
But if the Cavs see a different path, and if they are already committed to building around the assets in a Kyrie trade haul, trading LeBron could accelerate that process.
So if we suspend our disbelief and imagine a LeBron trade for a one-year rental here’s the criteria for teams that should consider it:
1) They're not going to win a title with their current roster
The Warriors are so good. Like, so, so, so good. There are a ton of teams that just don’t have a chance to win a title in the next 2-3 years. About, say, 25 of them. That’s too bad because we live in a world that increasingly values rings over everything else in the way players and teams are judged.
Any team trading for LeBron has to be a team in the camp that says, “You know what, we’re not winning a title any time soon, let’s just roll the dice on one year with LeBron.”
2) They can give back All-Stars under team control
The Cavs can’t trade LeBron for scraps. Because of the personalities and the history involved, they need to “win” the trade as best they can. Dan Gilbert could trade LeBron out of spite, to win the second breakup, but he can’t get fleeced. He will need a player the Cavs' franchise can hang its hat on and build around post-LeBron. The Cavs also need that player under control for more than just this upcoming season. There’s no point in trading for one year of Paul George or Boogie Cousins.
The trade also has to center around one headline-type player instead of a package. The team that gets LeBron still needs to keep as many pieces around him as possible because it’s in the ultimate win now mode.
3) They need picks
You can’t simply trade LeBron straight up for another player. Nobody good enough to be considered in such a deal would actually be traded. Draft picks are an obvious return in a trade and key part of any rebuild—Your own picks, picks you’ve gotten in trades, protected picks, pick swaps. If a team has no picks to throw in, they can’t even place the first phone call.
Keep in mind that the 2018 first-round pick of the team trading for LeBron isn’t very valuable. They are acquiring him with dreams of a deep playoff run, which would mean a pick at the end of the first round. They could trade another team’s pick that they already own in 2018, and/or their own pick in 2019 after a potential post-LeBron swoon.
So with all that said, here are four teams that could theoretically go all-in and trade for LeBron. Right now. Put all your chips in pre-flop. Abandon your short-term and medium-term plan. Take one dramatic shot at glory.
The Wizards may have boxed themselves in by maxing out John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. They kept their best pieces when they had the chance, but still look to be short of true title contender status. Bradley Beal is not an All-Star, but is on SI’s short list to make the jump, especially if he is a bigger focal point of the offense on a no-LeBron-or-Kyrie Cavs.
The Wizards, who might not be true title contenders this season, could suddenly be the best team in the Eastern Conference with the LeBron-John Wall tandem. They’d definitely be good enough to compete with Boston for the coveted seat at the Finals table.
The Cavs would rebuild with the return on a Kyrie trade and Beal, who is signed through 2021. With Beal, the Wizards can add in their own firsts in 2019 and 2021, and Jason Smith to make the money work.
The Raptors bet on their franchise core by re-signing Kyle Lowry to a three-year deal this offseason. If you’re Lowry, would you rather have three more seasons with DeMar DeRozan or one season with LeBron? Pair LeBron with Lowry in Toronto, give the Cavs a three-time All-Star in DeRozan and suddenly the East looks very different.
Frankly, a team with DeRozan, Love and an incoming first might be a spot Kyrie would be willing to stay, but LeBron probably wouldn’t waive his no trade clause to give him that satisfaction.
The Raptors have already traded their 2018 first rounder to Brooklyn, which means they wouldn’t be able to give Cleveland a first until 2020. But with zero picks in the 2018 draft, they’ve already gone all-in. So why not kick the can down the road a little more? That 2020 pick is two years after Drake and LeBron lead a parade float across all of Canada anyway.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Wizards and Raptors have a clear path to the Finals if they trade for LeBron. For teams out West, the stakes are considerably higher. The road through the playoffs is fraught with very good teams, and if you go out in the second round then the Year of LeBron is a categorical failure.
The Blazers are on a run of consistently surpassing consensus expectations every year, with four straight playoff berths and two trips to the second round. The team has a very strong backcourt with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, but it’s hard to see this group going any further as currently constructed.
McCollum is not an All-Star in the crowded West, though he definitely could be if given a bigger role on an Eastern Conference team. Let’s pair LeBron with Lillard and watch them become instant contenders in a fun market. Give the Cavs back an elite shooter signed through 2021 in McCollum. Throw in Moe Harkless, and the 2019/2021 first rounders to make the deal work.
Bonus point: LeBron finally gets to play with Shabazz Napier! How could he say no?
The Wolves, everyone’s perennial sleeper pick, are in a good position. They have Karl-Anthony Towns, they’re about to re-sign Andrew Wiggins to a monster extension and they traded for Jimmy Butler in June.
Before the Minnesota deal was finalized, there were rumors about Chicago sending Butler to the Cavs. Well sorry, Jimmy. You’re going to Cleveland after all, but this time you won’t be playing with LeBron—you’ll be traded for him.
It would be easy for the Wolves to hang tight and be proud of themselves for the offseason they had, with a core locked up for multiple years. Or they could send Butler, Cole Aldrich and a 2019 first-round pick to Cleveland for LeBron. If you thought Jimmy Butler was the Wolves’ missing piece, wait until you see LeBron next to KAT and Wiggins.
You’d have to convince Tom Thibodeau to cancel the Butler reunion before it starts. But with Towns and Wiggins on the roster, the Wolves would be the best-equipped team on this list to survive the post-LeBron fall back to earth.
The Cavs don’t really get fair value back in any of these deals, mostly because it’s nearly impossible to get full value back for LeBron. But each of these trades gives them a chance to cut their losses, get as much as they can and smooth out the inevitable post-LeBron crash.
Trading for LeBron would be tricky. And risky. And also impossible if he doesn’t want to be traded. In most scenarios you’re also pairing him with one other star player, relying on additional tweaks to fill out the rest of the roster.
But anyway, sports are supposed to be fun and Internet heroes won’t respect you unless you win a ring. So why not get LeBron for a year, have some fun and take a run at it?
And if it backfires? The Warriors were probably going to win the title anyway.