NBA All-Star Game: Who on 'Team LeBron' Would Fit Best Next to James in LA?
"Isn't that tampering?"
If any moment of the first televised All-Star draft will become immortalized, it was that one. Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn't help himself, letting slip the playful but feisty jab after LeBron James chose Anthony Davis with his first selection of the reserve round.
Can you blame him?
At that point, the trade winds had only just stopped blowing. A few hours earlier, the Los Angeles Lakers officially struck out in their no-holds-barred pursuit of the New Orleans Pelicans superstar, and James selecting him for his All-Star roster fueled a fire that had been smoldering for weeks.
James had already used his first three picks to select Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom could become free agents and join the Lake Show this coming offseason. He'd go on to select Klay Thompson, who's on an expiring deal and could likewise wind up in Tinseltown this July.
Perhaps James wasn't trying to use the All-Star draft as a tamper-proof recruiting endeavor. He made claims to the contrary, via ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin: "It's all good and well and dandy, but for me, I picked according to my draft board, and I picked according to who was the best available. It just so happened that I had KD, who's a pending free agent, and Kyrie, who's a pending free agent. James [Harden] is under contract until 2030. Kawhi's a free agent."
But let's pretend he was doing his best John Calipari impression and recruiting at every possible opportunity. If that's the case, which of his All-Star teammates would be the best fit alongside him in L.A.?
Dwyane Wade (retiring), James Harden (under contract through 2022-23), LaMarcus Aldridge (under contract through 2020-21), Karl-Anthony Towns (under contract through 2023-24) and Bradley Beal (under contract through 2020-21) will not appear because they aren't—for now, at least—threats to throw on purple-and-gold uniforms. The same goes for Damian Lillard (under contract through 2020-21) and Ben Simmons (the league literally just stopped Magic Johnson from potentially tampering), despite James previously requesting a trade for the Portland Trail Blazers guard and Simmons' Klutch connection.
We're only worried about the five players who have realistic paths to joining James in the imminent future.
5. Kyrie Irving
We know the LeBron James-Kyrie Irving pairing works, as demonstrated over a number of years when both suited up for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not only did they win a championship together, infamously overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals against the 73-win Golden State Warriors, but they earned a 10.4 net rating in their 6,579 joint minutes from 2014-15 through 2016-17, per PBPStats.com.
Despite the ugly ending that resulted in Irving requesting out of Cleveland, the two superstars have since reconciled. Not only did Irving call his former running mate to talk about leadership and apologize for the past, but he's "genuinely interested in reuniting" with James, according to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher.
The point guard's placement at No. 5 isn't because the reunion is unlikely. It isn't because he's some lesser player, either. If anything, he's used the 2018-19 campaign to firmly establish himself as one of the league's top 10 players, exhibiting legitimate improvement as a defender and playmaker without sacrificing his scoring chops and handling wizardry.
Irving just needs the ball in his hands and doesn't often operate in spot-up situations. He's excelled in that scenario, but he's still taken only 3.8 catch-and-shoot attempts per game this season—69th leaguewide for a player who ranks 18th in overall field-goal attempts. And while he's an improved defender, he still lines up at the 1, which inherently limits his impact and makes him a liability in some switching situations.
He's a tremendous fit alongside James. So is everyone else featured here, except they fill roles of higher importance alongside a ball-dominant wing who can't always exert maximum energy on defense at this advanced stage of his illustrious career.
4. Klay Thompson
Though Klay Thompson may be inferior when compared to Kyrie Irving in a vacuum, he does exactly what teams rostering LeBron James should covet. He's a selfless contributor willing to operate solely in off-the-ball sets, and he tries hard on defense every night. In fact, he's often willing to take on tough assignments that have him aligned against the opposing team's leading backcourt threat.
"The best-case scenario for the Lakers is that they add Anthony Davis and then Golden State doesn't offer Klay Thompson a max contract. They try to get Klay to take a little bit less than the max," ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski said during a SportsCenter appearance (h/t Anthony Irwin of Silver Screen & Roll. "And if that happens, I'm told Klay's attention will be on the Lakers if they have Anthony Davis."
Though that scenario isn't likely to unfold, it also demonstrates why Thompson avoids the bottom of these rankings. He has self-awareness, demonstrating a tacit understanding that while he possesses max-contract value, he's at his best when operating as a third cog.
He might be able to score more if he gained control of his own franchise and the automatic green light that typically follows, but his best skill involves ceaselessly probing the perimeter for catch-and-shoot opportunities that stretch defenses to their breaking points. He doesn't need to play with offensive autonomy. He's already taking a league-high 8.4 spot-up shots per game in 2018-19, and he's knocking down 41.6 percent of them. Move back behind the three-point arc, and he converts his 6.1 attempts per contest at a 39.5 percent clip.
Only fellow Splash Brother Stephen Curry fires more catch-and-shoot treys.
Thompson detonates frequently on a Golden State Warriors squad brimming with offensive talent. The mind still boggles at what he could do with James—arguably the best passer in basketball—hitting him with cross-court feeds that unfailingly land right in the shooting pocket.
3. Kevin Durant
At some point, sheer talent trumps raw fit.
We've reached that point.
Kevin Durant and LeBron James have largely overlapping skill sets. They both love controlling the rock and scoring from all over the half-court set. They're selective defenders who can make monumental impacts on that end when fully engaged. They can function as primary playmakers, although James does so with far more frequency.
But even if having both might take away from the raw potency of either one by virtue of limiting touches, that sounds like one of them good problems. Stopping Durant or James is tough enough; making opponents pick between two of the sport's most lethal poisons would behoove the Los Angeles Lakers.
James presumably knows this, especially if Stephen A. Smith's reports from last offseason are accurate. You know, the ones in which James reportedly texted Durant about the possibility of them both joining the Purple and Gold in free agency. That obviously hasn't come to pass. It probably won't, as smart money remains on the two-time reigning Finals MVP either remaining in the Bay Area or jetting for the New York Knicks.
Still, imagine if it does.
Good luck getting yourself to stop dreaming about James-Durant pick-and-roll sets.
2. Kawhi Leonard
Of the five players featured here, Kawhi Leonard is the only one who's given us reason to believe he has zero interest in teaming up with LeBron James.
Last June, Yahoo Sports' Jordan Schultz reported Leonard "had reached out to LeBron James, informing the 33-year-old superstar that he wants to play alongside him, a source told Yahoo Sports. Leonard pitched James on his incredible defensive ability and how it would alleviate the pressure on James, the source said."
Weeks later, the winds had shifted 180 degrees. During an appearance on The Herd, The Athletic's Shams Charania (then with Yahoo Sports) shot down the notion of Leonard and James teaming up (via Travis Durkee of Sporting News):
"Around Kawhi, it's been made abundantly clear there's not an interest to go join a superteam. I don't think he's jumping for joy that LeBron James is in L.A. with the Lakers. If anything, that's going to make him look, maybe more, toward the Clippers because this is a guy that won Finals MVP against LeBron James. You think he's amped up and wants to join LeBron now? I think that's been overstated."
We've heard nothing to the contrary since. Back in November, ESPN.com's Tim Bontemps reported a number of league executives all believe the Los Angeles Clippers are a more likely landing spot for Leonard than the Lakers, should he leave the Toronto Raptors in free agency this summer.
But this is about fit, and Leonard's initial reported sales pitch still rings true. Even if he isn't universally perceived as a superior option to Kevin Durant—Bleacher Report's Dan Favale and I had Leonard and Durant at Nos. 7 and 6, respectively, in our midseason top-100 rankings—his defensive potency makes him an ideal candidate to serve as a James cohort.
The spot-up shooting is there. The go-to scoring is there. He checks all of the boxes, except he ticks off the lock-down one a bit more vigorously than his competitor from Oakland.
1. Anthony Davis
The trade deadline is now well behind us, and you're likely tired of hearing about Anthony Davis' unfulfilled desires to join the Los Angeles Lakers. We'll spare you the details of that failed pursuit, but the inability to get the Brow out of New Orleans doesn't make a Davis-LeBron James pairing any less appealing.
In fact, it remains perfect.
Davis is everything James could want in a teammate. He protects the rim with aplomb while flitting around the half-court set to wreak defensive havoc, and he thrives in both on- and off-ball scenarios when his team has possession. He can capably handle lengthy stints as a squad's go-to scorer and then easily settle into a cutting rhythm in which he keeps defenses honest with athletic bursts toward the hoop that almost invariably result in alley-oop jams.
As William Lou wrote for The Score before the deadline came and went, flexibility is key here:
"James and Davis would be unguardable in the pick-and-roll because they would have a counter against every coverage. Defenses could try to duck under and protect the paint, but James has quietly developed into one of the league's best pull-up three-point shooters. If the defense chased James off the line, it would become a two-on-one scenario where some helpless big is left to cover both James and Davis at the rim. Davis can also get an open jumper anytime he wants by popping to the perimeter.
"Defenses might settle on switching against James and Davis to limit penetration, but that creates more problems. James can easily get his shot off against a center—or, better yet, he could dump it down to Davis in the post and let him work the mismatch against a wing player."
Surround these two with even a few adequate shooters, and you'll be humming on offense. Let James take possessions off on defense or gamble excessively, knowing he has a pterodactyl wingspan behind him in either situation, and the team could grow even more potent while preserving the 34-year-old megastar for more important moments.
Davis may well be the ideal player to operate alongside the four-time MVP, even if we opened the floodgates and allowed James to choose from everyone currently on an NBA roster.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.