It may sound improbable in a vacuum, but trading LeBron James to a longtime rival on the East Coast may be the Los Angeles Lakers' best path toward rediscovering their glory years.
His star power alone seemingly increases the value of any organization by hundreds of millions, but 2018-19 was nothing other than an unmitigated disaster. Now, a reset could be in order, especially in the wake of Magic Johnson's sudden exit and the firing of Luke Walton.
Armed with the best player in the league and a core of developing contributors, the Lakers failed to contend for playoff seeding once again—their sixth consecutive lottery campaign during a stretch in which they've posted a 162-328 record. For context, the Lakers' previous record for longest playoff drought was just two seasons (1974-76).
Growing pains may be acceptable to a degree, but how the season was lost remains disconcerting. While many may point to LeBron's Christmas Day groin injury as the catalyst, the trade speculation involving Anthony Davis stands as the larger culprit for the team's disappointment. President Jeanie Buss distanced herself from the speculation by deeming it "fake news" and even sought to blame the national media for destroying the Lakers' season.
Buss has reportedly flirted with the idea of trading LeBron, according to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher, and his value seems to have lessened demonstrably in the past six months.
"He's not good enough anymore to take four cadavers and get to the Finals," an anonymous GM told Bucher. "Not in the West."
But would the Lakers have the courage to accept the difficulties of marquee free-agency pursuits, acknowledge the limitations of their young core and pull the trigger on a trade centered around James?
The deal wouldn't come without a degree of difficulty. James and his camp possess arguably more power than any current athlete and could look to stonewall a potential deal. But terms under the collective bargaining agreement kept him from earning a no-trade clause, and his maximum salary makes his 15 percent trade kicker less of a power play.
On paper, the Celtics seem likely to jump on a potential league-shifting blockbuster.
Kyrie Irving's discontent with the young players on the Boston Celtics roster has made headlines, and everyone remembers the parallel he drew to his time with James in Cleveland. Add the Irving situation to the Anthony Davis speculation, and we've got a partner that should be more than willing to unload everything possible in pursuit of both superstars.
The question then becomes: Do the Celtics have enough to satisfy both the Lakers and Pelicans?
New Orleans Pelicans Receive: Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams III, Sacramento Kings' 2019 first-round pick (from Boston), Los Angeles Clippers' 2019 first-round pick (from Boston), Boston Celtics' 2022 first-round pick
Boston Celtics Receive: Anthony Davis, LeBron James
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Memphis Grizzlies' 2019 first-round pick (from Boston, top-six protected), Boston Celtics' 2019 first-round pick
The Pelicans' Motivation
The Pelicans have long been tied to Tatum. The 21-year-old forward even acknowledged the rumors himself: "Yeah, I'd trade me too for Anthony Davis."
Tatum and Smart would join Jrue Holiday in what would become a dynamic defensive backcourt. Smart carries the NBA's second-best defensive real plus-minus among point guards, while Holiday sits fourth at the position in real plus-minus.
No longer would Holiday always have to spend his nights chasing opposing teams' best perimeter scorers. Smart is one of the game's best in that regard, and Tatum possesses the length to challenge the longer wings who have given Holiday and the Pelicans so much trouble in the past.
Williams remains a project, but New Orleans has seen firsthand just how effective a rim protector he can be:
The Pelicans would then use the Kings' and Clippers' first-round picks to acquire young talent late in the lottery and in the early 20s. Two names to keep an eye on in those respective spots are Oregon's Bol Bol and Virginia Tech's Nickeil Alexander-Walker.
Also worth noting: The Pelicans keep their own top-10 selection in this trade scenario. Should Texas' Jaxson Hayes declare, he becomes a name worth watching.
While Bol Bol's Greg Oden-esque nagging foot injuries remain a scary proposition, his extensive length (7'3", 7'8" reach), coordination and range make for an elite-level prospect if an organization has confidence in its medical staff.
Having Hayes as a fallback option in the top 10 won't hurt matters, either. He won't turn 19 until May 23, making him one of the younger players entering the draft. His guard-like navigational skills in the open court and finishing (72.8 percent from the floor) could make him an improved version of Clint Capela. Grooming him as the heir apparent to Davis with a slow but steady approach to Bol's rehab could be an interesting long-term move.
Walker has nice size for a combo guard (6'5") and brings an analytical mind to the floor. His combination of quick release and decision-making could make him an improved version of Frank Jackson and Ian Clark.
The 2022 pick is the crown jewel with which the Celtics may be loath to part, given that 2022 could become the first NBA draft in which high schoolers are once again eligible. That draft could be loaded with talent and become one of the most productive selection days since 2003.
The Celtics' Motivation
Why wouldn't general manager Ainge and the Celtics go all-in?
Isn't this the goal of the team's asset hoarding? One grand-slam attempt at building a superteam that is sustainable for at least several years?
James, when locked in, still transcends nearly every athlete in the NBA. He will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2005, but his offensive numbers still jump off the page on a nightly basis.
The only player averaging 27.4 points and 8.3 assists (to go along with his 8.5 rebounds per game), LeBron still performs with remarkable efficiency. His 56.0 effective field-goal percentage puts him seventh among small forwards, per TeamRankings.com. Among wings, he ranks in the 90th percentile or better in one-on-one, finishing, playmaking, roll gravity, post play and defensive rebounding, according to BBall-Index.
A team built around Irving, James, Davis and a healthy Gordon Hayward would become the Warriors' mightiest foe—even a perennial favorite if Durant leaves Oakland in the offseason.
The Celtics could dip into the luxury tax to re-sign Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris; otherwise, they could concentrate their efforts on fleshing out the roster with their mid-level exception and acquire veteran's minimum players such as Rajon Rondo with the promise of a playoff run as bait.
With the salary cap increasing to $109 million in 2019 and $118 in 2020, the Celtics would soon find room to pay all three superstars and build around them (especially if they can move on from Hayward).
The Lakers' Motivation
The Lakers can take on Al Horford's final season (should he opt in for $30.1 million) and acquire Jaylen Brown and a pair of first-rounders for their efforts. In this scenario, they would land the top-six-protected Memphis pick and Boston's own 2019 selection.
They could then seek to re-sign Horford one year later and attempt to establish his leadership in a young locker room or—the more likely scenario—find a separate destination for him in exchange for alternative compensation.
However, this swap becomes even simpler if the Lakers instead deal for Gordon Hayward's remaining two years at $66.9 million in his place (and the Celtics are willing to take on the small forward's 15 percent trade kicker or convince him to waive it).
Though slowly progressing from his gruesome injury, Hayward has come on since February, averaging 13.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 58.4 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three-point range. Could he be reverting back to his All-Star form even while playing on his sore ankle? If that's enough to sway the Lakers, the C's could then encourage Horford to stay with their new Big Three or let him walk and find another interested party—Ed Davis, for example—to take his place.
Meanwhile, Brown would give Los Angeles a backcourt defender to pair with Lonzo Ball.
While he may have struggled at the season's onset, he's come on strong as of late, scoring 14.2 points per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and a 42.4 percent clip from beyond the arc in March. His plus-14.2 net rating in January further showcases the level of impact he can carry on both ends of the floor.
The Lakers would use their top-10 pick, plus the one from the Grizzlies (should it convey), to reinforce one of the NBA's most exciting young cores with prospects such as De'Andre Hunter and Rui Hachimura in the upcoming draft. Then with Boston's 19th pick, they could be interested in Sekou Doumbouya.
Hunter's two-way big-game performance aside, he is the ideal switchable perimeter player with a jump shot who can create. His intensity would create quite the defensive force alongside Brown and Ball.
Another switchable player, Hachimura plays within himself, can use both hands and possesses exemplary shooting mechanics.
Doumbouya, 6'9", already possesses the size and athleticism of a small-ball 5, and staying in front of him in transition is a non-starter. He plays with intensity and could make this young squad the hungry, scrappy group that could make Lakers faithful proud. For an extensive look, check out David Gardner's piece.
Do the Lakers Have the Courage?
Lakers fans have anxiously awaited the return of a contender. But after Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart suffered substantial injuries—and Lonzo Ball didn't seem excited about a career in New Orleans—it seems downright improbable that the franchise would have a chance of acquiring AD unless it won the lottery and sent out Zion Williamson or Ja Morant.
General manager Rob Pelinka could pivot to Kemba Walker and DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, but would that be enough in the West?
Instead of bending to James' will, the Lakers could instead rid themselves of the toxic environment and focus on developing a promising young core akin to the Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers and even the Atlanta Hawks. This move would give them financial flexibility and a treasure trove of assets to grow together under the watchful eye of new management.
Buss has been clear in her distaste for the way this season has transpired, but does the organization have the courage to do the unthinkable?
The Lakers are not likely to part with one of the game's greatest ever. But should they entertain the concept, they won't find a more logical partner than their longtime rival.