Are We Sure the Cavs Shouldn't Trade LeBron James?

Ken Berger@@KBergNBAFeatured Columnist IFebruary 7, 2018

TALLAHASSEE, FL - FEBRUARY 3: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walks down the court during the game against the Orlando Magic at the Amway Cetnter on February 6, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. The Magic defeated the Cavaliers 116 to 98. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

Should they?

Would he?

How did we even get here?

Indeed, the discussion of whether LeBron James would waive his no-trade clause ahead of Thursday's NBA trade deadline has exposed just how far the mighty have fallen in Cleveland.

Yes, the Cavaliers are in such hopeless straits that trading James actually seems like a sane idea—or, at the very least, not a preposterous one.

But as Eagles running back Ricky Watters once famously said, "For who? For what?" That's always the question when it comes to trade speculation—speculation that James firmly squashed on Tuesday night after the Cavs' latest humiliating loss, 116-98, to the Orlando Magic.

"I owe it to my teammates to finish this season out no matter how it ends up," James told reporters. "I would never waive my no-trade clause."

To be clear, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert has not asked James to waive it, two league sources familiar with the situation told Bleacher Report.

"That request has not happened," one of the people told B/R.

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And that would be the first prerequisite for any trade that could possibly involve James, whether it happened in the next 24 hours, around the draft or during free agency, if James decided to exercise his $35.6 million player option for the 2018-19 season.

Why is this even a topic? Why are we spending time discussing whether or not the Cavs could, or should, trade LeBron James?

It's a long story, much of which we covered here. The decision to part ways with former general manager David Griffin…the failed pursuit of trades for Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Eric Bledsoe…the ensuing Kyrie Irving trade…and indications that Gilbert is in control of basketball operations have cast a cloud of uncertainty over where this reunion between James and Gilbert is heading.

A credible case can be made that it's heading for divorce…again.

With his player option looming and the no-trade clause in hand, James holds the power to determine his long-term future here. But Gilbert and GM Koby Altman hold the key to how James' second tour of duty in Cleveland ultimately will turn out.

Having lost 13 of 19 since Christmas, the Cavs roster clearly is in need of an upgrade. The question is whether Gilbert is of a mind to upgrade it and what that will cost.

General manager Koby Altman and owner Dan Gilbert have had talks about trading for George Hill and DeAndre Jordan but are reluctant to give up the Nets' pick they acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade.
General manager Koby Altman and owner Dan Gilbert have had talks about trading for George Hill and DeAndre Jordan but are reluctant to give up the Nets' pick they acquired in the Kyrie Irving trade.Phil Long/Associated Press

"They're old, they're slow and they can't run with these younger teams who are running up and down on them," a rival scout told B/R.

League sources confirmed that the Cavs have had exploratory talks about acquiring Sacramento guard George Hill and Clippers rim protector DeAndre Jordan. Both deals would be complicated and require one of two things to happen, if not both.

"If Dan Gilbert wants to improve the team, he can," a rival executive told B/R. "You know how? Trade the Brooklyn pick and take money back. Simple."

The Brooklyn pick is the unprotected first-rounder that the Cavs acquired from the Celtics, who acquired it from the Nets as part of the final breakup of Boston's Big Three. And while the Nets haven't bottomed out the way the Cavs may have hoped when they made the deal, it will nonetheless be a premium pick in what is regarded as a strong draft.

And it's a pick that Gilbert has demonstrated zero willingness to trade, multiple league sources told B/R. Frankly, without a commitment from James beyond this season, doing so would be a risky gamble. Lose James for nothing and give up the key piece from the Irving trade?

"That would set the franchise back 20 years," a rival executive told B/R.

Had Griffin been allowed to finalize deals he was pursuing in June for George and/or Bledsoe—which league sources told B/R were the two scenarios with the most traction when Griffin was let go—we wouldn't be having this conversation.

But Gilbert finds himself in precisely the same predicament he vowed to avoid in the wake of his infamous Comic Sans letter to Cavs fans after the "self-declared former 'King,'" as he put it, left the Cavs for Miami in 2010.

"The big lesson was if a player is not willing to extend, no matter who they are, no matter where they are playing, no matter what kind of season you had, you cannot risk going into a summer and having them leave in unrestricted free agency and get nothing back for it," Gilbert told Cleveland.com's Jodie Valade in 2012. "It's not the player's fault. That's on ownership."

Gilbert's right; it's on ownership to learn from past mistakes and to not repeat them.

When James left for Miami almost eight years ago, the Cavs were able to reconstruct the deal as a sign-and-trade arrangement that at least yielded some draft picks and pick-swap options. Even so, the Cavs were stuck in the lottery for four straight years while LeBron was going to the Finals in Miami.

Now, under a different collective bargaining agreement, sign-and-trades are much more difficult to pull off. For one, the team receiving a player via a sign-and-trade has a hard cap imposed at $6 million above the luxury-tax line. For another, James wouldn't be able to get the full five-year max in a sign-and-trade.

But to Gilbert's point, in virtually all circumstances since LeBron's first departure from Cleveland in which a team faced a superstar's looming free agency without a commitment from the player, the star has been traded. From Carmelo Anthony in Denver, to Dwight Howard in Orlando and Chris Paul in New Orleans, the blueprint has been established. The lone prominent exception was Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City. Even Kobe Bryant, who also had a no-trade clause, was almost dealt when he wanted out of L.A. in 2007.

James' situation, however, is unique.

"LeBron doesn't want to end his run with the Cavs being traded to whatever team under these circumstances," a person familiar with the four-time MVP's thinking told B/R. "That's not what he wants to do. I think you have to take into consideration the bigger picture of who LeBron is and his relationship with that team and that city. He's not Carmelo. He's not Kobe. And he's not ready to give up."

The real question is: What are the Cavs prepared to do? Attempt to appease James one last time by mortgaging the future in the hopes of giving him what he needs to save the season and make his eighth-straight trip to the Finals? Or hedge their bets with the Brooklyn pick and cap flexibility in the event James leaves again?

Either way, Gilbert may want to start picking out a new font for his next letter to Cavs fans explaining the outcome. It will soon become clear what, if any, lessons were learned.

        

Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.