2018 NBA Draft-Night Trades for Every Team in LeBron James Sweepstakes
The handful of NBA teams in the running for LeBron James' services next year better get busy on Thursday. If last year's 11 draft-night trades are any indication, that's when roster reformation is supposed to happen.
Most teams angling for James need to make major changes to accommodate him (and the max salary he's always demanded).
Some of these will have to be trades that don't directly involve James, who has yet to make a decision on his player option for 2018-19 and is unlikely to do so before the June 21 draft. That means we need to engineer some runway-clearers—precursor moves that portend a James signing or make one more feasible.
As for the field, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor reported in March that James has only four teams on his list: the Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. We'll go with those as our main sweepstakes participants and add one more in the interest of thoroughness.
Perhaps James will drag out his plans well into July, but we could get an idea about his landing spot based on the moves we see during the draft.
Honorable Mention: Boston Celtics
Sorry, you're not even getting a half-cocked trade idea on this one because it isn't happening.
I mean, no way, right? No way.
James and the Boston Celtics have engaged in fierce playoff series repeatedly over the years. Going to Boston would also mean re-pairing him with Kyrie Irving, who forced his way out of Cleveland because he didn't like playing in James' shadow.
Unless Boston is also trading Irving in a separate deal—his return to Cleveland in a potential swap would seem to be a nonstarter—we have to put this one on the outermost fringes of feasibility.
The Celtics also would likely be giving up a young, cost-controlled future star (Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum) to make the opt-in-and-trade scenario work. And they'd be doing it for a rental since James would hit free agency again in 2019.
The Celtics are wildly ambitious, and they've pushed the right buttons for several years in a row. So it's probably unwise to completely rule them out. However, the hurdles are massive.
While no team is good enough to say "thanks, but no thanks" if James expresses interest, Boston is one of a few clubs with enough young talent and future flexibility to trust its plan B is nearly as good as any involving James.
Los Angeles Lakers
Los Angeles Lakers Get: Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio Spurs Get: Luol Deng, Brandon Ingram, 2018 first-rounder (via Cleveland)
The Lakers currently have the best odds to land James, mainly because they don't have to swing a deal to free up more cap space. They already have enough room to sign him to a max deal, so James just has to decline his player option and accept the Lakers' money. Team president Magic Johnson will gladly hand it over.
Still, the Lakers can pull off a trade before free agency to make themselves even more attractive to James. Key in that effort will be moving Luol Deng's contract, which would allow Los Angeles to sign James, add another max-level free agent and avoid renouncing the rights to Julius Randle, according to Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus.
But what if the Lakers could get rid of Deng and land a player that a) reportedly wants to be in Los Angeles and b) would catch James' eye?
If you're the Spurs in this scenario, you negotiate for more. Try to get Lonzo Ball or Kyle Kuzma, too. Try to get extra picks. Try to involve a third sucker team to take Deng's deal, even if it costs you an asset or two of your own.
But if the relationship with Leonard continues to deteriorate and the Spurs sense they're losing leverage, they may determine the offers for him aren't going to get better.
If the Lakers pull this off, sign Paul George and then land James...well, that'd be something, wouldn't it?
Those pining for the collapse of Twitter and the internet at large should be on board with this move. It'd break both.
Philadelphia 76ers Get: Cap relief
Brooklyn Nets Get: Jerryd Bayless, as many second-round picks as they want
The Sixers could stretch Jerryd Bayless and free up almost all of the cash they'd need to pay James the max. If they don't want to pay a player they no longer employ, they could also leverage a few of the seven additional second-rounders they own over the next four drafts.
Typically, it takes a first-rounder to offload bad salary, but Bayless' contract isn't that bad. He's owed only $8.6 million in 2018-19, the last year of his deal. A team with cap space to spare would likely absorb that modest contract with a few second-rounders attached.
If last summer is any indication, the Nets could be one such willing party. Last June, they used their salary-cap flexibility to absorb DeMarre Carroll's contract along with a first-round pick from the Toronto Raptors.
The mechanics of getting James are relatively easy for the Sixers. It's the fit issues with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid along with the potential loss of important free agents—JJ Redick would have to accept the room mid-level exception to stay in this scenario, for example—that Philadelphia has to consider.
As always, you get James if you can. But the 76ers need to understand there's risk involved.
Cleveland Cavaliers Get: Kemba Walker, Marvin Williams
Charlotte Hornets Get: 2018 No. 8 pick, George Hill, Ante Zizic
Walker is an All-Star point guard who'd immediately give James a "Kyrie Irving Lite" teammate to run the show and lighten the playmaking load. Cleveland needs two-way wings more than anything, and Walker doesn't address that, but it isn't as though the eighth overall pick is some gleaming asset capable of returning anything the Cavs want.
This might be the best deal the Cavs can scrounge up unless the San Antonio Spurs black out and somehow decide the No. 8 pick is enough to move Kawhi Leonard...which they won't.
Before moving the pick, Cleveland will need assurance from James indicating that he plans to opt in. Dealing for Walker, a free agent after the 2018-19 season, would otherwise be a pointless rental.
That gets us to the easy justification from Charlotte's perspective: Since Walker can walk after this season, moving him for a mid-lottery draft pick makes sense. The Hornets' expected return on a Walker deal diminishes as he creeps closer to free agency, making now the time to strike. (Actually, the time to strike was four months ago, but Charlotte stubbornly refused to get proactive.)
The Cavaliers and/or James may believe a player available at No. 8 can make an immediate impact. However, it'd be a mistake to assume Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, a pair of 2017-18 rookies who took over leadership roles for playoff teams, are the norm. Walker is a terrific player right now, and right now is all that matters if the James-Cleveland union continues.
This move couldn't be the only one Cleveland makes to convince James he can compete for a title. The Cavs would still need to swing another two or three deals to remake a stale roster.
Houston Rockets Get: LeBron James
Cleveland Cavaliers Get: Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, no fewer than two future first-rounders
If James knows he wants to play in Houston, he first must communicate to the Cavs that he's opting out unless they agree to send him to the Rockets. From there, Houston wouldn't have to gut its roster to make a deal work under cap rules. But putting together a package the Cavaliers might want in return is almost impossible.
An opt-in-and-trade to the Rockets could happen if the Cavs got desperate and have secondary landing spots in mind for the vets they'd receive. Cleveland would likely want to flip the players it receives from Houston as part of a larger rebuild.
This deal, far-fetched as it is, operates on the assumption that the Rockets can't figure out how to make it happen without including Anderson. There's a way to get the job done after the new league year starts, per ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton—one that'd send PJ Tucker, Nene, Zhou Qi, Aaron Jackson and Chinanu Onuaku with Gordon instead of Anderson. But to get something done on draft night, which falls in the current league year, Anderson and the $41.7 million he's owed through 2019-20 have to be involved.
The picks are what make the deal in any event, and they're a hard sell because the Rockets figure to pile up wins with James, Chris Paul, Clint Capela and James Harden—even if they'd have to fill out a good chunk of their roster with minimum salaries. Houston's first-rounders won't be worth much, so it's going to take several to get the conversation started.
The Rockets might also look into moving Gordon and/or Anderson in separate deals, but based on how general manager Daryl Morey dealt with Paul's similar situation last summer—trading directly with the Clippers—perhaps Houston believes adding a middle man is more complicated than it's worth.