When trying to sort out where LeBron James will sign this offseason, the first question that needs to be answered is whether the Cleveland Cavaliers even have a chance to keep him in free agency.
Despite coming off of an NBA Finals appearance, the Cavs’ chances to keep their best player ever are looking bleak. The Los Angeles Lakers are seen as the odds-on favorite to sign James, and it seems like the Cavaliers would need to make a huge offseason splash to have any chance of retaining their superstar.
According to Ken Berger of Bleacher Report, that’s exactly what the Cavaliers are trying to do:
The Cavs continue to explore the possibility of working a deal with the Charlotte Hornets for two-time All-Star Kemba Walker, two league sources told B/R on Thursday night. Their best chance at such a deal would seem to have involved the eighth pick in the draft, which didn’t happen. One person close to Walker said Thursday night that he still believes such a deal is “possible.”
Another league source pushed the notion of a trade for Walker one step further when it comes to the Cavs’ chances of keeping LeBron: Acquiring Walker, the person said, “is the only way LeBron stays.”
If getting Walker is actually “the only way LeBron stays,” then the Cavaliers’ chances of keeping him look pretty small. The Hornets have seemed to be in full salary dumping mode in recent weeks, but Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak also has said that he wants Walker to be “the focal point of this franchise going forward,” and then doubled down on that (via ESPN):
“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us -- not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”
Now, executives often talk out of both sides of their mouths on this stuff in order to build up leverage for a player in trade talks, but it seems unlikely that Kupchak would speak that glowingly of Walker and then unceremoniously dump his contract elsewhere.
And the deal would be a salary dump, because while the Cavaliers did just draft Collin Sexton with the No. 8 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, they don’t have many assets beyond him making a trade for Walker — or any other difference makers — unrealistic.
The Cavaliers could still pull off a miracle move. As they showed at the deadline, GM Koby Altman is capable of overhauling a team in short order. However, that might not matter, because one Eastern Conference executive that Berger polled made it sound like James’ issues with the Cavaliers go far beyond the roster:
Some rival executives are more dubious. Asked what it would take for the Cavs to keep James, an Eastern Conference exec told B/R, “Ownership of the team.”
Ouch. James’ uneasy relationship with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert could wind up being a deciding factor.
Things between James and Gilbert have seemed frosty since James came back to Cleveland, with awkward moments even in the wake of the title they won in 2016. That’s what a Comic Sans letter trashing the best player in franchise history will do.
But James’ issues with Gilbert and the Cavaliers may extend beyond that, all the way to the highest office in the land, as alluded to by Chris Sheridean of NJ.com:
The No. 1 reason why this is going to happen is because Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is a huge Trump supporter; LeBron is not.
Now, that should be taken with maybe two entire salt shakers full of salt, but it is worth noting nonetheless. And if James wants to play for an owner who doesn’t support Trump, the Rockets and Sixers won’t work, but the Lakers would.
Lakers owner Jeanie Buss is a longtime Democrat, and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson supported Hillary Clinton in the last election. Even LaVar Ball has publicly fought with Trump on social media, just like James has.
That might not be all that matters to James, but between the Cavaliers’ roster construction issues and the deeper, underlying problems James pretty clearly has with Gilbert, things might be shaping up nicely for the Lakers to swoop in and make a convincing pitch to land the King.
You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.