The notion of any NBA team fortunate enough to employ LeBron James, the most dominant player of the past 20 years, considering peddling his services in a trade sounds ludicrous. But if circumstances around James’ current team, the Lakers, continue on their current path, that could be the next step for James.
According to executives around the league, multiple teams are at least preparing for the possibility that James will seek to force a trade this summer as he, having just turned 38, looks to finish his career in a winning environment. And unlike this past offseason, in which teams were blindsided by the trade demand lodged by star forward Kevin Durant on the eve of free agency, front offices around the NBA will be prepared for James’ potential move.
“It’s in the background, if you think you have a chance at him. There are preparations being made, just in case—you have to make them, like the Boy Scouts used to say, ‘Be Prepared,’” one general manager told Heavy Sports. “It will not be an easy thing to do, and there are a lot of factors. There’s still a chance the Lakers make a trade this year, or that something clicks and they go on a run. You can’t count that out. And they will have a chance to do something that (James) likes in free agency this summer, something that could change the outlook there.
“But since he went to L.A. (in 2018), there has been this certainty that he was going to finish up (his career) in Los Angeles, that he wanted to be an entertainment mogul and that he needed to be in Hollywood for that. He is realizing that he is only going to get one shot at how he finishes his basketball career, though, and that the movie stuff will always be there. He doesn’t want his time playing basketball to end missing the playoffs every year for the Lakers.”
LeBron Trade Could Dominate NBA Offseason
Another Eastern Conference executive pointed out that James has been disappointed in some of the dysfunction he has found with the Lakers, as he has pushed to have the team trade away its two top assets (first-round picks in 2027 and 2029), while ownership has resisted that move, fearful of selling out the team’s future.
Maybe free agency can change James’ view on that. The Lakers could have more than $30 million in cap space to work with, unless there is a blockbuster deal ahead of next month’s deadline.
“That is the big hope there,” the executive said. “They want to hold onto those picks, they want to get everybody healthy, they want to let all their bad contracts expire, they want to get someone in free agency that they can get LeBron excited about—unless they can make a miracle happen at the trade deadline and bring in a big name that way. If that does not happen, they will be in position in the summer to get Kyrie Irving or Draymond Green, or maybe both if they make the numbers work.
“The problem is, they could miss out on all the guys they’re thinking about in free agency. Then, they have to think about, ‘All right, LeBron, where do you want to go?’”
Amazing to think that in six months, that could be the question dominating the NBA. Because of the timing of the extension James signed last summer, he can’t be traded ahead of this year’s trade deadline, though as veteran NBA reporter Ethan Skolnick said this week, “I honestly believe that if he could be traded before the trade deadline, which he can’t be, he might be pushing for that behind the scenes right now.”
That would have to wait till the offseason. Given James’ age, his salary (he is slated to make $50 million next year), and his expressed desire to win now, there are only a handful of teams that could potentially make a trade for James. And it should be noted that any trade for James is decidedly complicated, because he is an all-time great who could push a team to championship contention, but is only likely to play two or three more years.
Adding to the complication: The Lakers would surely give James the respect of helping to pick his trade destination, severely limiting the trade-partner pool. Still, James on the trade block remains possible.
Potential LeBron Landing Spots
How much would a team give up to take a swing like that? We asked three league executives for their thoughts.
Eastern Conference exec: “That is the most likely thing, if he wants it all to end on a good note. Go back to Cleveland one last time. It is a good team, you can win, and it is where it all started. No one’s going to hate him for going to Cleveland again. The trick is getting the numbers to match up, if you could do something with Kevin Love’s contract, that could be the key.”
Potential deal: James going to the Cavs would be an elegant way to wrap his career, but it probably would require the Cavs to give up All-Star center Jarrett Allen, as well as Isaac Okoro, the No. 5 pick in the 2020 draft. If Love gets a contract extension, he could be the added piece to make the numbers work.
Eastern Conference GM: “They’re in the right position to make a deal like that. It did not end great between them (when James left the Heat as a free agent in 2014), but the hatchet has been buried enough. There could be an issue with, if you get LeBron and you get Rich Paul and all the Klutch (Sports, James’ agency) stuff, that is not going to mix with Pat Riley in Miami. But if he wants to win in a place he likes being, the Heat would take him back.”
Potential deal: The Lakers would have to be willing to take back the contracts of either Kyle Lowry ($29 million for next season) or Duncan Robinson ($37.5 million over the next two seasons with a partial guarantee in 2025-26) to make a trade work. But the prize would be Tyler Herro, whose four-year, $120 million extension kicks in next season. A package of Herro, Robinson and, if the Lakers need sweetener, a first-round pick or forward Nikola Jovic might be the best the Lakers could do for James.
Eastern Conference executive: “If he is going to play Old Home Week, then there is the very strong connection he has with (Suns GM) James Jones and (point guard) Chris Paul. But it is an easy deal to make if you’re the Suns. They need a kickstart here.”
Potential deal: It would be a simple trade for both sides, the Lakers getting back 24-year-old center Deandre Ayton, along with Landry Shamet for salary ballast, and the Suns taking on James.
Golden State Warriors
Western Conference executive: “If there is a bidding war going on at some point, the Warriors are in a great position because they can give you the young guys—(James) Wiseman or (Jonathan) Kuminga or (Moses) Moody, or (Pat) Baldwin, whoever the Lakers want. But you have to add either (Jordan) Poole or (Andrew) Wiggins, and that’s not easy. But if they want to win now, you can give up Poole if you are getting back LeBron, right? If they keep Draymond (Green) and come back with Steph (Curry), Klay Thompson, Draymond and LeBron, that would be a fun, fun team to watch.”
Potential deal: Poole’s extension, worth almost $140 million over four seasons, starts next year, and could prove to be a good deal if Poole (who is 23) can rediscover his shooting form. The Lakers can look to the future by adding Wiseman and Kuminga to the mix.
Western Conference executive: “They’d be a darkhorse for me in this just because they have Zach (LaVine) and he could be a star for the Lakers, even if they would not be that good of a team. LeBron has always had a soft spot for Chicago, so it could work, and he could play with (DeMar) DeRozan, maybe Lonzo (Ball) if he is healthy. It would be an interesting mix.”
Potential deal: LaVine, who played collegiately for UCLA, would be the draw for the Lakers, but would the Bulls be willing to add Patrick Williams to the package? The Lakers would surely ask. If that does not work out, a LaVine-Alex Caruso package could work as a return for the Lakers.
Western Conference executive: “LeBron would have to be interested in playing with Kevin Durant. Both of those guys, at this point of their careers, they have been such great competitors and both of them want to finish out their time in the NBA strong, want to change the narrative a little bit on the way the last few years have gone. They have never been very close as friends but they have a lot of respect for each other. But, do you trade Kyrie? Probably, if they wanted to do a trade, they’d move Ben Simmons to L.A. but Simmons is a Klutch guy so you’d have to see how that plays out.”
Potential deal: Simmons, Day’Ron Sharpe and Cam Thomas for James. There would have to be some trepidation about adding Simmons, given the way his last two seasons have gone, but it is a high-reward gamble for the Lakers if Simmons can get back some of the confidence from his early NBA days.
Eastern Conference GM: “Well, we know Masai (Ujiri) is willing to take a big risk if it gives him a chance at a championship, and if you drop LeBron in with Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes, you’d have to like their chances to win the East, depending on what else Toronto does. It worked with Kawhi (Leonard) and if there is a real chance at getting LeBron, it could work with him, too.”
Potential deal: This is where things get tricky for the Raptors, with two of their top trade chips—Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr.—holding player options next summer. There is a chance both or one could opt into the final year of their respective deals, but the expectation around the NBA is that both will opt out, which puts the Raptors on shaky ground in completing a deal for a contract like that of James. The Raptors have OG Anunoby as a starting point for an offer, but would need to get either VanVleet or Trent (or both) to agree to opt in for 2023-24 as part of a deal to send them to L.A. That means a lot of moving parts, but there’s still some cache when to comes to playing for the Lakers, and maybe that would convince VanVleet and/or Trent to keep his current contract in place. A package of Anunoby, VanVleet and, say, Chris Boucher would be a good one for the Lakers.