LeBron James has been rumored to have interest in leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers since last year, but his motivations for doing so have never been totally clear. Why would he use NBA free agency to move West when this year has shown how he can simply will a team to the Finals in the Eastern Conference?
Such questions may not be totally answered until July, but it sounds like if James does decide to don the purple and gold this offseason, it won’t be for the oft-repeated reasons of him having a house(s?) in Southern California, or for his burgeoning entertainment industry interests.
According to Tania Ganguli of the L.A. Times, if James leaves Cleveland, it will be because the place he’s heading to gives him a better chance to win (emphasis mine):
In 2010 there were rumblings that James was planning to leave Cleveland long before he announced his decision to sign with Miami. In 2014, too, people around him could see his move back to Cleveland coming before he announced it.
Rather, James’ singular focus has been on seeing through this season and understanding his current team as well as possible as he heads into the summer.
The only rumblings have been this: that James’ decision will be entirely about basketball and he will go where he can have the best chance for a championship.
Are the Lakers the place James has the best shot for a championship? As currently constructed, no. The team’s young core is as promising as any in the league, but the players already on the Lakers’ roster aren’t enough to catapult James past Golden State.
The key words there are “already on the Lakers’ roster,” though. The Lakers have the most cap space in the league, enough to sign two max free agents and keep restricted free agent Julius Randle if they get some luck and use good timing during free agency, as outlined by the peerless Darius Soriano of Forum Blue and Gold:
Getting back to the math of it all, Deng is set to make $18 million next summer. Finding an avenue to trade him without taking any salary back would give the Lakers that same amount in additional cap space. When combined with the amount saved from trading Clarkson and Nance + renouncing the rights to Thomas and Frye + adding in the (estimated) cap hold for the 1st round acquired from the Cavs, the Lakers would open an addtional $31.1 million in cap space — bringing their total amount of cap room to (roughly) $65.7 million (without adding smaller roster holds, but with Randle’s cap hold on the books).
Per the previously linked Pincus article, the Lakers will need (roughly) $66.3 million in cap space to sign a 10-year max free agent (aka LeBron James at 35% of the cap) and a 9-year max free agent (aka Paul George at 30% of the cap). A trade of Deng, then, would leave them only $600K short of having the space they need (but closer to $3 million with the smaller roster holds added in). The Lakers could get to that number pretty easily by waiving one or both of the non-guaranteed deals of Ivica Zubac or Thomas Bryant.
If the Lakers can mange all of that (adding James and George, plus keeping Randle) while also keeping most of their young core in place, they would have an incredibly promising win-now roster in place for James, one with enough young contributors to outperform their cheap deals and give James the types of role players that JR Smith’s debacle and Jordan Clarkson’s existence have demonstrated he’s severely lacking in Cleveland.
But keeping those players isn’t necessarily a guarantee. If Kawhi Leonard’s extension talks go poorly and his future with the Spurs continues to look murky, then the Lakers could theoretically flip some combination (read: not all of) Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma for Leonard, which would give the Lakers one of the most dominant wing rotations the league has ever seen and a switch-everything team factory-made for the modern NBA.
That is the best chance for the James to win, and the best case the team can make, but it’s also a lot of “ifs.” If (there’s that word again) Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson can sell James on that vision or a similar one, however, then James might just go ahead and pick them for basketball reasons, if that is indeed his primary objective.
If not, the Lakers can surely show him some nice beaches or get Adam Levine to wear James jersey and scream for a picture again. Whatever gets him to join up.