Aldridge: Is there a Summer of 2023 deal for LeBron James that makes sense? The art of the possible

The following is a thought exercise. Not only is it academic, but also it is, for this NBA season anyway, legally impossible.

The 2022-23 trade deadline is Feb. 9. LeBron James signed his two-year, $97 million extension with the Lakers in mid-August of last year. Under the NBA’s rules, he can’t be traded until at least six months after he signed. That date would be Feb. 14, 2023 – five days after this year’s trade deadline. So he’s not going anywhere this season.

But James has made clear his issues with the roster that surrounds him and Anthony Davis.

After the Lakers lost to the Warriors on opening night while making just 10 of 40 3-point attempts, James said “To be completely honest, we’re not a team constructed of great shooting. … It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.”

In December, he told our Joe Vardon and Jason Lloyd, “I’m still playing at an extremely high level. I’m not out there to f— around. What would I do that for? Me and (Tom) Brady. We’re the same people. We out there for championships.”

A week ago, the Athletic’s Sam Amick asked James during a brief interview how he felt about the front office’s handling of the roster. “Y’all know what the f— should be happening. I don’t need to talk,” James ultimately said. But in two Tweets Jan. 8, James clapped back on the tone of the piece, saying his patience “isn’t waning,” and that “my job isn’t the roster.” He leaned in on the Lakers’ improved play of late, which has them not only just outside the Play-In Tournament, but also within just a few games of sixth place in the West, which would avoid the play-in round altogether.

It’s possible that James has reconsidered the quality of his existing teammates and the clear coaching chops of Darvin Ham. Maybe he anticipates renewed potential when AD returns to the floor. Russell Westbrook seems to have found a role that fits, and Thomas Bryant has given the Lakers quality minutes at center. But that’s not the same thing as being on a legit contender. At 38, James knows his chances to add to his four NBA titles, to catch that ghost he’s been chasing most of his career, are dwindling.

As James nears Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record, it’s hard to find significant cracks created by time and wear on his body, much less dwell on them. There are striking parallels between James and the Washington Capitals’ 37-year-old Alex Ovechkin, methodically grinding his way toward Wayne Gretzky’s all-time NHL record for goals scored, and between James and the 45-year-old Brady, again in the playoffs with the Buccaneers and seeking an eighth Super Bowl title. Like them, James appears to be going nowhere.

But is that a literal sentence, or a figurative one?

Could James’ rings fixation lead to an amicable divorce from Los Angeles, where he moved his family almost five years ago? Would James leave the fulcrum of his post-playing career: the entertainment and business empire he’s creating in L.A.?

Unthinkable, right? Even though James is playing like he’s 28, not 38.

Entering play this week, he was averaging 29.1 points per game on 51 percent shooting, along with 8.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists. The latter is down from his best career figure, but, see James’ comments above: the Lakers were 23rd in 3-point percentage (.342) entering the week, and have few players who can finish on their own outside of Davis. James is 12th in the league in PER (24.64), ninth in usage (31.2) and ninth in’s Player Impact Estimate (16.8).

Maybe James isn’t the hands-down best player in the league any more, but he’s still in the discussion. With his game and his mind, he would help anybody. Anybody.

But even if James and the Lakers ever mutually decide it is time to move on – which, we say again, we know is the longest of long shots – is there even a deal out there this offseason that would make any sense?

LeBron James shrugs

If – IF – LeBron James wants a trade, which teams could acquire him? (Cary Edmondson / USA Today)

There would be 29 potential destinations. But that number, obviously, isn’t real under closer scrutiny:

Start by eliminating the obviously too-young-for-LBJ/Waiting-on-Wembanyama teams: Detroit, Orlando, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Houston, San Antonio. Teams left: 23.

Next, eliminate the title contenders who can get to a Finals without LeBron’s help, and would not likely be interested in a roster-gutting trade: Boston, Milwaukee, LA Clippers. Sure, LeBron would welcome playing for Tyronn Lue again, but there’s no way Jeanie Buss is going to plow the runway for Steve Ballmer to host a potential championship parade in L.A., or have James finish his career in Ballmer’s new building in Inglewood rather than hers downtown. Teams left: 20.

Eliminate the maybe-interesting, but far-from-contending squads, who’d have to give up too much of the talent they do have: Sacramento, Indiana, Utah, Portland, Toronto, Washington. Teams left: 14.

Eliminate the good teams that, while talented, probably wouldn’t go all-in on a James trade even for an improved shot at a ring: Memphis, and … James’ hometown Cavaliers. I know James told Lloyd last year that he wouldn’t rule out a third tour of duty in Cleveland at the end of his career, but it’s hard to see the Cavs moving any of their young guns for a third bite of the LeBron apple. Jarrett Allen isn’t enough by himself, and there’s no chance Cleveland would also mortgage Evan Mobley, Darius Garland and/or Donovan Mitchell. The same applies to the Grizz, who obviously would not part with Ja Morant, and wouldn’t be inclined to include a Jaren Jackson III or Dillon Brooks, either. Teams left: 12.

New York has the market, but not enough pieces. Minnesota has enough pieces, but not the market. Teams left 10.

Miami, where James won two of his four titles? You can’t categorically rule out a reunion someday, given the Heat’s eternal win-at-all-costs philosophy. There is enough quality on the Heat roster to make a deal with the Lakers plausible. But it seems unlikely. The details of why and how James left the Heat to go back to the Cavs in 2014 have not been forgotten by either camp. Teams left: 9.

Denver remains a Joker-centric shop for the foreseeable future. Ditto Dallas, with Luka. Teams left: 7.

Finally, while the Warriors want to keep Steph Curry’s window open as long as possible, I can’t see the Lakers being interested in any Golden State package centered around their young trio of James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and/or Moses Moody. Nor would the Lakers do anything to help their in-state rivals extend their dynasty.

That leaves six teams. Are any of them remotely plausible, even for one of the NBA’s all-time best players? Let’s explore each, along with a Possibility Scale (not “probability,” or even “plausibility”) from 1 to 10 – 1 being “why am I not doing my taxes right now?;” 10 being “get Rob Pelinka on the phone, stat!”

In alphabetical order:

Assuming the point of the Hawks acquiring James is to pair him with Trae Young, the Hawks’ All-Star guard is off-limits. But Atlanta, clearly a team in disarray, still has some intriguing assets.

Start with Dejounte Murray, acquired last summer from the Spurs. His fit with Young hasn’t been all bad, but it’s far from perfect. A 26-year-old All-Star lead guard under contract through 2024 is a good starting piece for the King.

John Collins has been available for a while. In this scenario, he could be L.A. bound or ultimately re-routed elsewhere in a bigger deal to bring in more assets for the Lakers. Would L.A. want Clint Capela to assure AD wouldn’t have to play the five indefinitely? Or, maybe Bogdan Bogdanović’s career 38 percent from deep would be more valuable going forward. While Atlanta sent three first-round picks (2022, 2025, 2027) to the Spurs for Murray, along with a 2026 pick swap with San Antonio, the Hawks still could include either their own 2024 first-round pick or the protected 2024 first they got from Sacramento in the Kevin Huerter trade last summer without violating the Stepien Rule.

Let’s say it’s Bogie over Capela.

The Trade Offer: LBJ and Patrick Beverley (via sign and trade) to Atlanta for Dejounte Murray, John Collins (for now), Bogdan Bogdanović’, Justin Holiday and the lower of Atlanta’s/Sacramento’s 2024 first-round picks.
Possibility scale:

The Nets were rolling with Kevin Durant playing at an MVP level before he suffered his MCL sprain. So maybe there’s a scenario where they run the table, win it all, and run everyone back next year, including Jacque Vaughn. But that still feels like a longshot. Assuming Kyrie Irving’s marriage of convenience with Brooklyn gets annulled by his pending free agency, the Nets surely would be in the market for another superstar.

Would KD want to stay if Irving walks? It certainly seems like Vaughn is more up KD’s alley than Steve Nash was, so it’s less likely the Nets’ superstar will again demand to be dealt. Even if he did, why would the Nets move him when they didn’t give in last summer, when he had a lot of leverage? Durant again is showing he’s still one of the best ballers in the league, would still have three years left on his current deal and has shown he can attract another superstar to join him.

The problem is the Nets don’t have much beyond Durant and Irving that would interest the Lakers. A Ben Simmons-centric package is not gonna get it done, even though Simmons might thrive more on a team where he’s more of a centerpiece. Since Irving and L.A. were all but canoodling with one another last summer, it’s much more likely that the Lakers would hold out for Irving to join James and AD in L.A. on a short deal next season, rather than send James to play with KD and/or Irving in Brooklyn.

The Trade Offer: No logical offer is visible.

The Bulls’ retool around DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine has hit a bumpy patch, but the front office has shown an ability to recalibrate on the fly. LaVine is six years younger than the 33-year-old DeRozan, so one guesses Chicago would be more inclined to hold onto him. Yet the Compton-born-and-raised DeRozan is still a viable, productive co-star, if not a leading man. DeRozan and the Lakers courted in 2021 before he agreed to the sign-and-trade deal with Chicago. DeRozan and Davis could create all kinds of pick-and-roll mayhem for opponents, getting the Lakers’ opponents into the free-throw penalty early and often.

One guesses L.A. would also love to reacquire Alex Caruso, who signed a four-year, $37 million contract with Chicago in 2021 when the Lakers, inexplicably, wouldn’t pay him the modest bump in salary he’d earned in helping them to the 2020 Bubble title in Orlando. He would slide right into the starting point guard spot next to DeRozan in a remade Lakers backcourt. Patrick Williams has yet to live up to being the fourth pick of the 2020 draft, but he’s still a bouncy forward who could help L.A. out on the glass and on defense.

Conversely, James, LaVine and a re-signed Nikola Vučević could be quite ornery in the half court. If Lonzo Ball ever did get healthy enough to join them, there could be all kinds of fun in the Windy City on cold winter nights, with James and Ball taking turns throwing oops to LaVine.

The Trade Offer: LBJ to Chicago for DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso and Patrick Williams.
Possibility scale:

Pelicans GM David Griffin had LeBron in Cleveland, built a strong relationship with him and shares his determination to not skip steps in building a championship culture. But with Zion Williamson playing out of his mind so far this season and the Pelicans storming near the top of the West even with Brandon Ingram injured, there’s little chance the Pels are gonna rock the boat now. There’s also not much of an on-court fit between James and Williamson, since neither spaces the floor and both do their best work deep in the paint.

Another reason a LeBron deal with New Orleans feels unlikely is that the Pels have the Lakers’ unprotected 2023 first-round pick – yet another bounty from the AD trade. If the Lakers crash and burn this season, New Orleans would add another lottery talent to its already stuffed roster. (If the Pels somehow get No. 1 and Victor Wembanyama, this spring … geesh.) It would be fiscally smarter for the Pelicans to add a big-upside rookie on a cost-controlled contract than take on James’ hefty salary.

On the other hand, James remains an expectations lifter who could be a great help to coach Willie Green, who has his own championship bona fides from his time as a Warriors assistant.

Also: the Pels desperately need and would like a new arena to replace Smoothie King Center. Will the city and state provide the public dollars needed to help finance a new building for the current team, no matter how good it is now or as high as its potential could be? I don’t follow Louisiana politics closely, so I don’t know. But would local jurisdictions be more inclined to pony up for a new spot if they knew they could watch LeBron anchoring a championship-ready squad in SKC for a couple of years while the new joint gets built, after which Zion would be the franchise/building draw for a decade? If LeBron helped Nawlins get to even one finals in an abbreviated stay there, wouldn’t that be worth it?

The logical centerpiece going to the Lakers would be Ingram, a prolific scorer in any system. It’s not a criticism of Ingram to note that since Nov. 25, when he went out with a toe injury, New Orleans has been a more than adequate enough 12th in the league in offensive rating – and 10th in defensive rating. The Lakers could also ask for the return of the 2024 first they also have to send New Orleans as part of the AD trade. With three ’24 firsts in their quiver, the Pelicans may want to get off of at least one of those, anyway, allowing the Lakers to add a young and inexpensive player to their rotation. L.A. would probably also demand another young player, like New Orleans’ 2022 first-rounder Dyson Daniels, or perhaps Herb Jones. The Pelicans would likely counter-demand that the Lakers kick rocks.

The Trade Offer: LBJ to New Orleans for Brandon Ingram, Devonte’ Graham and the reacquisition of the Lakers’ 2024 first-round pick.
Possibility scale:

Daryl Morey will make any trade at any time if he thinks it increases his team’s chances of winning by even a fraction of a percentage. LeBron alongside Joel Embiid and James Harden certainly does that. Yet there isn’t a logical mesh between James and Harden unless Harden committed to a full-time switch to shooting guard – if not a catch-and-shoot type, perhaps a curl and second-side drive type – and left James more of the ballhandling responsibilities. Could that happen? Sure. Would it? Hard to see it. But if the Sixers don’t break through and reach the Finals this season, all bets are off.

Philly’s Tyrese Maxey is precisely the kind of shooting + finishing player who would thrive with James, so he’d top the Lakers’ ask-for list. The 22-year-old quicksilver guard has future superstar written all over him and would be a great fit with Davis.

Tobias Harris would have to be included in the deal to make it work financially, but he wouldn’t be a mere throw-in. For all of the local moaning about his game, Harris is still just 30, capable of creating his own shot and a career 37 percent shooter from deep. He would help the Lakers space the floor for Davis and Maxey to do their things. Matisse Thybulle has seen his minutes cut in half in Philly this season, but if Ham can position Westbrook to be a more effective offensive player in L.A., imagine what he could do with the 6-6, similarly perimeter-challenged Thybulle – and how he could weaponize the two-time second team all-Defense honoree at the other end.

The Trade Offer: LBJ to Philadelphia for Tyrese Maxey, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle and the highest of the Sixers’ three 2023 second-round picks.
Possibility scale:

It’s no secret that James and Chris Paul have always wanted to play together. The Lakers, of course, would ask for Devin Booker as the key part of any package in return. The Suns, of course, would say no. But the Suns have other options that could get the Lakers toward yes, even if it kept James in the west.

It’s hard to see Suns center Deandre Ayton having a long shelf life in Phoenix, considering he still seems far from simpatico with coach Monty Williams. He’d be the logical target for the Lakers, giving them a monstrous front court with AD. (In the real world, the Suns might want to make it a three-team deal to ensure they don’t have to see Ayton three or four times a year for the next decade, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s keep it to Phoenix and L.A.). Including Mikal Bridges is likely a non-starter for the Suns, so it’s easier to see Phoenix being willing to part with Cam Johnson, who’s missed most of this season with a torn right meniscus, but brings elite shooting to the party.

But, Johnson will be a restricted free agent this summer, so including him in a potential offseason deal would be much more complicated, as he’d be subject to base-year compensation rules. (Trust me when I tell you you’d rather re-grout your tub right now than read through all the machinations of BYC.)

A cleaner inclusion would be Suns guard Landry Shamet, who’s become an almost exclusive shooter behind the arc, and a really good one (career .389).

Jae Crowder, who’s been seeking a trade all season and has been away from the Suns while they try to find him a new home, is an obvious person to include as well, since he’s a 3-and-D wing who could step in and play significant minutes immediately. But, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and would have to be signed-and-traded. (We are assuming neither Crowder nor the Lakers’ Thomas Bryant will find massive raises in the NBA ecosphere, and would re-sign with their respective teams at or near their current prices to facilitate a deal.)

The Trade Offer: LBJ and Thomas Bryant (UFA/S/T) to Phoenix for Deandre Ayton, Landry Shamet and Jae Crowder (UFA/S/T).
Possibility scale:

As noted throughout, it’s far more likely than not that James finishes his career in Los Angeles alongside AD, with the Lakers ultimately pulling the trigger to move one or both of their 2027 and 2029 first-rounders by next month for upgrades.

But it’s January. We’ve all made resolutions to get more exercise.

 (Top photo: Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)


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