Get Him Out of There: What If LeBron James Decided He Wanted to Leave Cleveland?

In this week's Open Floor, Andrew Sharp and Ben Golliver discuss what would happen if LeBron James decided he wanted to leave Cleveland before the end of the season.
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The dysfunction in Cleveland has been well-documented elsewhere and here at The Crossover, with Andrew Sharp capturing what was a crazy week for the Cavaliers. But, even with all the trade proposals being thrown around, there is one topic that remains untouched. The Crossover's Ben Golliver makes a trade proposal you won't want to miss in the latest episode of the Open Floor Podcast

Check out the full episode here and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. (The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity).

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Ben Golliver: This is a thought experiment. I'm not saying that this should happen, I'm not saying that this will happen, I'm not saying this is influenced at all by first-hand reporting. This is just a solo mission vision quest. I want to flip this upside down. Rather than us having this conversation about who needs to go to Cleveland to make them a contender, I want to have the conversation about who needs to leave Cleveland to create a contender. And there's really one name on that list, and it's a really big name, Andrew. It's LeBron James. I got a text message from one of our loyal listeners, she put it to me like this: What are the possible reasons LeBron would want to stay in Cleveland this summer? He's from there, he kind of has the Eastern Conference dominance. ... Once you consider all these other contracts, all the holes they're dealing with currently, how difficult it will be for them to upgrade their roster going into next season. It's a really, really hard argument to make, right?

There's already this developing idea that he's got one foot out the door. Here's what I'm saying: Why wait? Why wait until the summer? If you're LeBron, you have some great leverage. No. 1, you have the threat that you can leave. You can go into Koby Altman's office and you can talk to Dan Gilbert tomorrow and you can say, 'Look guys, I'm not going to come back next season, so go ahead and trade me, get something for me. And No. 2, you've got a no-trade clause, so you can pick your destination in terms of which team you want to get traded to a.k.a. you can pull a Kyrie Irving and give them a list.

But instead of having a terrible list like Kyrie had, which made no sense whatsoever, LeBron is in position to ask for the world—trade me to San Antonio, trade me to Houston. Figure out how to make the parts work. I want to go play for a contender, I don't want to waste a year of my prime, I don't want to waste an MVP-caliber season here trying to decide if Isaiah Thomas can get his body right. Why deal with that? Why not go to Houston.

So here's my thought, Andrew: If you were in LeBron's shoes, would you consider the idea of making a trade request and saying, 'Look, Dan, Koby, would you do right by me and send me to Houston so we can have the titanic showdown in the Western Conference finals? Let me get on a team with the prime MVP player in Harden, with one of my best buddies in Chris Paul. I'll have Houston send back whatever draft picks or salaries are required to match, and let's get this thing done. If you don't trade me, I'm leaving and you're going to be empty-handed again, and you saw how that went last time. And by the way, if you do trade me you can start a full-on tank. So you can trade Kevin Love if you want to, you can trade Isaiah Thomas if you wanted to get another asset. You can tear the whole thing down and before you know it Cleveland could have four or five first-round picks in this year's draft if they really went for it hard here at the trade deadline. What do you think here, Andrew? Would you do it if you were LeBron? 

Andrew Sharp: I applaud the audacity of this idea. I'm impressed that you raised it, but I don't think that it would work for a bunch of different reasons. You mentioned Dan Gilbert and Koby Altman trying to do right by LeBron. I don't think Dan Gilbert is trying to do right by LeBron at all at this point. I think that relationship is broken, and neither one of them trust each other. I've heard from people in Cleveland that Gilbert is pretty sure that LeBron is leaving, and obviously the report surfaced that Gilbert is going to try to sell the team because it was just that type of week for the Cavs, where everyone's losing their minds.

But I don't think they would ever do that move purely out of spite for LeBron, and I think that LeBron at this point in his career is playing the narrative game as much as anything. I just have a hard time believing he would ever risk the reputational hit that would come with demanding a trade at this point in the season. It would be really cool to force his way to Houston and put LeBron into Ryan Anderson's position and send Ryan Anderson's $60 million to Cleveland, and suddenly the Rockets would absolutely be toe-to-toe with the Warriors. But it's too hard to imagine that actually coming to fruition.  

Golliver: Good thing because I've got counters on both points for you, and we're going to keep working through this, OK? Let's start with the Dan Gilbert side. You're 100% right, I didn't lead with the best argument for Dan Gilbert. Asking him to do a solid was dumb. What if instead, he was doing a solid for himself. When LeBron is gone and all the players that he got paid are stuck on the salary cap and Gilbert is miserable and the Cavs are going nowhere, he would really wish he would have gotten those first-round picks to actually have a franchise, and not only that. Dan Gilbert, if there's one thing you love as much as winning a title with LeBron, it's trashing LeBron on the way out the door.

If you're LeBron, you say look, 'I know I'm going to take a hit on this trade public relations-wise, but I'm willing to do it because I want to win a title. So you trade me, I'll be the bad guy and you can say basically I had a gun to your head and you had to trade me and everyone's going to get it. They're not going to judge you for being the dummy that traded to LeBron, they're going to view you as the guy who was smart enough to get out in front of it and put himself in a better position for the future. That would be my pitch if I was LeBron.

And in terms of the PR hit, that's a very fair point. It's one that people who are close to LeBron regularly raise—the narrative thing. I'll tell you one really bad narrative: Getting smacked by Golden State in the Finals again. To me, this is a sweep. If they make it to the Finals—and I would still pick them to go to the Finals—they're getting swept by Golden State. That's a bad narrative. Also, Kevin Durant has already made the narrative so ugly; all LeBron would be doing is countering the KD move, right? So if KD goes and joins the second-place Warriors and they become champions, LeBron joins the second-place Rockets and they become champions. I don't think people are going to view LeBron as this horrible team-up artists in quite the same way that KD was because it was done already. LeBron was only doing what was necessary to secure his fourth ring. He can just play the card of chasing Mike and getting as many rings as possible by any means necessary. What matters is rings, and he can't get one in Cleveland. He could potentially get one in Houston. Don't you think that would play?  

Sharp: I do think that most fans would be fine with it—and even Cavs fans because LeBron came back and won that title—and I think there are elements of LeBron that are always making Cavs fans roll their eyes. Certainly, me watching this unfold over the last six months or so, I'm starting to roll my eyes. I think the reception would be a lot more charitable than some of the more paranoid people in his camp might think, but I do think that's a factor that he would consider. Let me ask you, though: How much research have you done into this? You don't ever really throw anything out, you're not a hot-take person. But have you actually looked at whether this trade could work? 

Golliver: You could make it happen. The problem is there is a lot of salary that would have to come back to Cleveland and that is where it would get tricky. So they'd have to do multiple deals where they're shedding salary in other places to do something like take back Ryan Anderson. Or Houston would have to do some three-way deal to sort of offload assets to get the kind of picks that Cleveland would want. This is mostly a thought experiment. I'm not saying there's any chance that this would happen. It's mostly just from the idea that if you're LeBron and you have all this leverage from taking these one- to two-year contracts the whole way, no one mentions that the leverage also plays for you at the trade deadline. If you're Dan Gilbert and you try to keep LeBron after he pulls the leverage play, image how ugly it could get in Cleveland if LeBron wanted to get traded and didn't get traded.

Sharp: You know, it's getting pretty ugly in Cleveland already. Can I say one thing? My LeBron take is that I'm worried about the next five years. I'm not worried about LeBron potentially forcing a trade. That would be an awesome curveball to add to the season. But watching this all play out, I can't imagine him going anywhere this summer where he actually builds a team that contend with the Warriors. And I think LeBron has this compulsive thing, where when the Warriors are dominating or when anyone else is in the spotlight, he sort of creates this drama around him to sort of remain at the center of the sport. And we've seen it year after year after year, and its just getting old. Granted, there are real structural issues in Cleveland that are still keeping the Cavs in the spotlight. I mean, you give up 150 points and that's an issue that everyone notices—basically All-Star level defense. Part of me worries that LeBron is going to become the Brett Farve of basketball, and there's going to be 24-hour coverage of this dude. I don't think he's the best player in the league now, especially with KD and Steph on the same team. He's going to have trouble beating them wherever he goes, and it'd just be a bummer if we don't get to see elite-level LeBron and instead he turns into this non-stop source of tabloid news. 

Golliver: Good news, Andrew, because my solution solves both those problems. If he goes to Houston, who's the biggest story in the entire league? The Rockets are now the center of the NBA: how they fit on the court, can they put it all together, are they better than Golden State? That is the story, and it's a basketball story. Secondarily, it's a personality story of can these guys make it work and who's going to have sacrifice money in the future. So why wait? If it makes sense in July, wouldn't it make sense in February?