On LeBron James’ birthday, what’s the trade destination to present if the Lakers don’t move to improve?
LeBron James is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. “I’m a winner, and…
LeBron James is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. “I’m a winner, and I want to win,” James said after his Los Angeles Lakers fell to 14-21 on Wednesday. “And I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships.” Right now, that isn’t happening with the Lakers. Despite his offseason promise to be a “caretaker” of LeBron’s legacy, Lakers president Rob Pelinka has not yet traded the team’s two available first-round picks to surround James with talent. When a reporter asked James if the recent injury suffered by Anthony Davis would make the team less likely to do so, he told that reporter to ask Pelinka.
You don’t have to read between the lines to see that James is unhappy with the direction of his team. He’s perfectly justified in that frustration. James signed a contract extension with the Lakers over the summer. What was or wasn’t promised in those negotiations is not clear, but it seems unlikely that James would commit to any team that wasn’t willing to make a similar commitment to him. If there’s any part of him that feels Pelinka was being dishonest about his plans for the team during those discussions, well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Pelinka claimed to be aligned with James and Davis about not making a move at the 2022 trade deadline. ESPN’s Dave McMenamin quickly reported that wasn’t true. An anonymous agent infamously told Brad Turner of the Los Angeles Times in 2019 that “no one trusts” Pelinka. James might be learning why.
There’s no telling where this ends. James is still under contract for next season. So is Davis. The Lakers still have time to make an in-season trade. They could use their cap space this summer to buy their way back into contention. They could replace Pelinka with a James-approved executive. None of these options appear particularly likely at this point. James turns 38 today. He doesn’t have many prime years left. Still, the Lakers are the first of James’ teams to appear less interested in their time with LeBron than the era that will come after he’s gone.
The extension James signed prevents him from being traded until this offseason. While James himself has given no indication that he would like to be moved, we have to acknowledge his interests no longer appear to be aligned with the team’s, and that both parties would probably be better off going their separate ways.
That’s still easier said than done. James has never been traded. His stature complicates any traditional bidding war. He’s LeBron James. You’re not going to send him to Detroit. He’d just retire. James is the standard-bearer for player empowerment. He also happens to play for a franchise whose organizational identity revolves around players wanting to leave their original teams to come and play for them. You can bet that every single superstar in the NBA that might one day want to change teams is watching how the Lakers are bungling the end of LeBron’s prime. If they try to send him somewhere that he doesn’t want to go, or even drag their feet on the right trade, their already fragile reputation shatters. If they’re willing to mistreat LeBron James, they’re willing to mistreat anybody.
All of this gives James an inordinate degree of control over the process should he choose to pursue a trade. He can’t quite pick his team for reasons that we will get into shortly, but he’ll be able to steer talks towards his preferred destination(s), and there isn’t much the Lakers can do to stop him. As such, he’s probably not going to net as much in a trade as a player of his caliber might warrant. These are not traditional trade negotiations. So let’s go through the league and try to figure out which teams those might be if James decides to seek out a new home. We’ll be ranking all 29 remaining teams using the following criteria:
- Roster appeal
- Roster fit
- Market appeal
- Assets to send the Lakers
- Salaries to send the Lakers
- Likelihood that they will be able to draft Bronny James in 2024
Our first category is the biggest simply because, well, James isn’t casting a wide net here. So let’s breeze through the bottom of the barrel before considering the real contenders.
Tier 7: Not without Bronny
29. Charlotte Hornets: Remember when Tyrion Lannister chastised his nephew, King Joffrey, by remarking that “we’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king?” That’s basically the Hornets. There are cheaper teams than the Lakers and there are teams that are more poorly run than the Lakers, but the Hornets are the league’s only double whammy, the vicious idiots that save the Lakers from “worst organization in basketball” status.
28. Detroit Pistons: Something tells me James isn’t all too eager to team up with Isaiah Stewart.
27. Utah Jazz: James would have to be really comfortable with the idea of Lauri Markkanen as his co-star because he’s never recruiting anyone else to Utah.
26. Indiana Pacers: Indiana should be higher on this list in pure basketball terms. Tyrese Haliburton is awesome and Benedict Mathurin could net quite a bit in a trade, but this is one of the NBA’s least desirable markets and the Pacers are run by arguably the league’s cheapest owner. Billionaire Herb Simon isn’t opening up the wallet for billionaire LeBron James.
25. Orlando Magic: Many of the same basic principles apply to Indiana. This is a fun young team, but it’s not in a great market and it has owners in the DeVos family, an orbit that James probably would prefer to avoid. (But Orlando gets the nod over Indy because Florida is warm and there’s no state income tax.)
24. San Antonio Spurs: James holds a deep respect for Gregg Popovich, even calling him the greatest coach of all time in 2017, but that’s the only arrow in San Antonio’s quiver here. Maybe they could pitch him on trading for a co-star, but their pool of picks isn’t as deep as a few of the teams we’re about to cover.
23. Sacramento Kings: The Kings could keep James in California, and if they miss the playoffs this season, he might enjoy the challenge of leading them back into the postseason. Otherwise? There’s not much here, especially considering his iffy fit with franchise cornerstones De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves: The market is less desirable than Sacramento, but Klutch client Anthony Edwards would likely appeal to James quite a bit as a teammate. If they could somehow keep Karl-Anthony Towns in the trade, James might believe he could win here. But it’s just nearly impossible to envision him playing in Minnesota.
21. Washington Wizards: James probably won’t ever run for office, but he’s a fairly frequent political commentator who might see the benefit of a stint in the nation’s capital. Bradley Beal would likely appeal to him as a teammate as well. Of course, the idea of the basketball gods rewarding the Wizards for decades of mediocrity with the James retirement tour just seems karmically wrong, and LeBron might want to avoid associations with Michael Jordan’s tumultuous time in Washington.
20. Oklahoma City Thunder: James has expressed admiration for Sam Presti in the past, but his draft picks would be the true target here. The Thunder have so many of them that they could trade for almost anyone James might want to play with while retaining the flexibility to grab Bronny whenever he enters the draft.
19. Portland Trail Blazers: We know James wanted to play with Damian Lillard because Lillard has detailed LeBron’s recruiting pitch on the record. It wasn’t meant to be in Los Angeles, but James could be the thing that lifts Lillard over the top in Portland, and the Blazers have quietly amassed enough young talent to make a compelling trade offer without breaking up too much of their team. Market is the major concern here.
18. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls haven’t won a championship since Jordan’s retirement. James might relish the opportunity to change that … and team up with beloved former teammate Alex Caruso in the process. Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball are Klutch clients, and DeMar DeRozan was a guest on LeBron’s unsanctioned 2021 offseason ripoff of The Bachelor. The real question here is whether the Bulls can even contend with James? They’re 15-19 as currently constructed while rapidly getting older and incurring more injury risk.
17. Houston Rockets: Desirable market, no state income taxes and a franchise known to bend over backwards for stars? Yeah, this all sounds like James-bait, especially with the rumors of James Harden possibly returning. Houston could even flip some of its picks and youngsters for another major piece or two. The uncertainty keeps the Rockets out of the top half of this list. They have a lot going for them, but they aren’t appealing enough yet without a firm commitment from another star.
16. Atlanta Hawks: If James doesn’t want to play point guard anymore, Trae Young is his ideal teammate. Young wants to run every element of his offense, and James could age gracefully in a secondary role next to him. But does LeBron want to walk into the chaos this organization seems to be dealing with right now? And can Atlanta build a worthwhile trade after giving up three picks and a swap for Dejounte Murray? Would Murray, a Klutch client, be in the trade? There are just too many questions here to warrant anything but the bottom tier.
15. Toronto Raptors: James has conquered the United States, why not check another country off of his bucket list? The Raptors have proven they can both cater to a superstar and quickly build a winner around one, and there’s plenty of incumbent talent to work with here. Nick Nurse would have to drop some of his more Thibodeausian rotation policies to accommodate a star pushing 40, but if he does so, he’d probably have plenty of fun designing creative uses for the NBA’s all-time jack-of-all-trades. Raptors fans deserve to see James on their side for once, but plenty of players prefer not to play in Canada due to the logistical concerns of being in another country. That’s the only thing keeping Toronto in this tier.
Tier 6: Jeanie Buss’ nightmare
14. Boston Celtics: The Lakers and Celtics have actually traded three times in their history. The most notable player involved in those deals, though, was a 36-year-old Gary Payton. James is in another stratosphere. Jeanie Buss has spoken on the record about her desire to surpass Boston’s 17 championships, which was originally her father’s goal. With Los Angeles also sitting on 17 titles, there is simply no universe in which Buss hands Boston the tools it needs to get to No. 18 before the Lakers do.
13. Los Angeles Clippers: All things being equal, the Clippers are probably LeBron’s preferred destination. He wants to live in Los Angeles. He’s pursued partnerships with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the past. He’s won a championship with Ty Lue. The Clippers can quietly make a somewhat compelling offer built around draft picks, as their obligation to Oklahoma City expires in 2026, which would allow them to offer unprotected picks in 2028 and 2030 along with unprotected swaps in 2027 and 2029 once the offseason arrives. That would give the Lakers access to the sort of high-value future assets they’ve been so hesitant to surrender themselves. James makes it clear to teams when he joins them that he expects them to pay to compete. The Lakers are gearing up to duck the repeater tax. Steve Ballmer’s wealth, by NBA standards, is functionally limitless. All of this makes a trade totally sensible.
But Ballmer is investing billions of dollars into the idea that Los Angeles can be converted from a Lakers town into a Clippers town. Thus far, he’s been unsuccessful. And there is so much bad blood between Lakers fans and the team’s current management that the Clippers taking the player that was originally meant to revive the Laker brand and winning a championship with him might actually be a tipping point. It may not sway lifelong Laker fans, but it would certainly push the next generation towards the Clippers. The Buss family can’t have that, so in all likelihood, the Lakers would make it clear from the outset that the Clippers are off the table.
Tier 5: You’d have to do some cajoling
12. New Orleans Pelicans: This is a surprisingly difficult fit to imagine. James, at this stage of his career, is a power forward. He could perhaps play small forward, but the Pelicans are set there as well. James can play point guard offensively, but would the Pelicans start Jose Alvarado at point guard to compensate defensively? Could Herbert Jones defend guards consistently? CJ McCollum would presumably be in the deal as matching salary along with several Pelicans picks, but McCollum is an essential component of this locker room. How would the younger guys respond to losing him? If Zion Williamson asked for a meeting, James would probably grant it, but when you combine these basketball questions with market concerns and the fact that the Pelicans are doing just fine without him you realize a deal just doesn’t make sense here.
11. Memphis Grizzlies: The basketball fit is a bit easier in Memphis. James could slot in as a small forward in the starting lineup and slide up to power forward in small closing lineups. Half-court offense is this team’s main concern in the postseason. James solves it. Jaren Jackson Jr. is, in many ways, an inferior version of Davis in the bubble: the rare big man that can both space the floor and catch lobs. Desmond Bane’s shooting would be welcome, and James could function as more of a cutter while picking his spots next to Ja Morant.
This would also be a somewhat poetic ending to LeBron’s career. In 2003, the Grizzlies owed their first-round pick to the Pistons … unless it landed at No. 1 overall. The entire basketball world watched a devastated Jerry West sitting on the lottery dais as he missed out on James by a single pick. Two decades later, the Grizzlies could finally get their man. But a trade of this magnitude contradicts their entire organizational philosophy. The Grizzlies are perhaps the best draft-and-develop team in basketball right now. Would they give up a decent chunk of draft capital for a brief James window? Especially when the opportunity cost is someone younger and cheaper? And how would James feel about the Memphis market? This is an exciting destination with a few too many questions.
10. Denver Nuggets: Laker lineups featuring James and Marc Gasol blasted opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions in 2021. It was basketball nirvana, pairing the NBA’s smartest wing with one of its best passing big men. A Nikola Jokic pairing would accomplish something similar, but on a much grander scale. James offers a bit of late-game offensive diversity, but would also happily slide into an enhanced version of the Aaron Gordon role by feasting off of the attention defenses pay the Jokic-Jamal Murray pick-and-roll. The Denver market isn’t all that glamorous, but it’s a city that players largely adore and is growing in national prominence quite a bit. The Nuggets tried to get a meeting with James in 2018. They’d probably be successful if they tried again in 2023.
The holdup here is that there just isn’t a deal. As it stands, the Nuggets don’t have a single first-round pick that can be traded. They can tinker with the protections on some of their existing picks, but even then, the best they can do is create a single tradable selection. The Lakers probably wouldn’t be too keen on absorbing Michael Porter Jr’s. contract given his injury risks. The Nuggets have turned down Murray offers for years. Gordon and cap filler probably doesn’t get it done. Sadly, there just isn’t a feasible way to make this dream a reality.
Tier 4: You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention
9. Milwaukee Bucks: Would the Bucks sign-and-trade Khris Middleton for LeBron James? That’s the question here. If the answer is yes … they make a lot of sense. James could absorb Middleton’s late-game shot-creation responsibilities. He’s not quite as strong a shooter, but there’s functionally no difference from a spacing perspective. Nobody is leaving LeBron James open. Given Middleton’s injury concerns, the Bucks might prefer the idea of a short-term partnership with James to a long-term Middleton commitment. Giannis Antetokounmpo is everything Davis was at his peak, but better. There’s no question that the two would fit together, and Jrue Holiday’s presence creates several fun pick-and-roll scenarios in which James serves as the screener. James probably doesn’t want to live in Milwaukee, but if winning his priority, it’d be hard to top a team-up with the NBA’s best player. This sort of move would just be so out of character for Milwaukee that we can’t credibly rank the Bucks higher than ninth. When Antetokounmpo won Finals MVP, he went out of his way to praise Middleton, specifically. That’s not a duo to be broken up lightly.
8. Philadelphia 76ers: Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris for James is one of the easier deals to build on the board. It would even allow the Lakers to maintain their relationship with Klutch Sports, which should quietly be a priority for them given their organizational dependence on recruiting stars. James turned down the Sixers in 2018. Joel Embiid would likely suit him just fine as a partner today, and the presence of Harden wouldn’t hurt in his eyes either. But would a James-Harden-Embiid trio be too ball-dominant? Would they defend well enough if P.J. Tucker ages out of usefulness? These are legitimate but relatively minor questions. The same goes for Philadelphia as a market. It’s not one of the league’s most glamorous, but its proximity to every major northeastern city would probably appeal enough to James to make this move viable, and Daryl Morey is absolutely aggressive enough to pursue this move. Philly isn’t a top tier option, but it checks almost every box.
7. Dallas Mavericks: I will take literally any excuse to share the greatest YouTube video NBA free agency has ever produced. Come on LeBron, put your Mavericks jersey on!
James reveres Mavericks coach Jason Kidd, who worked as an assistant for the Lakers when they won the 2020 championship. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz once reported that James believes Kidd is the “only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.” He is just as fond as Luka Doncic, even revealing that he wanted to start a Team LeBron brand at Nike similar to the Jordan Brand with Doncic as its first signee. General manager Nico Harrison has a relationship with James as a former Nike executive. The Mavericks will have their full complement of draft picks available this offseason once their obligation to the Knicks expires in June. Mark Cuban has proven he will spend deep into the tax for a winner, and Texas has no state income tax, which James would surely appreciate. Would James want to return to the site of his greatest failure? And would the Mavericks, fresh off of the Kristaps Porzingis debacle, want to devote their draft capital to an aging and more injury prone James rather than a long-term (fresh-legged) running mate for Doncic? They already botched one mega trade. A second might convince Doncic to explore other options upon the expiration of his current contract. Those are the only real questions here. Otherwise, Dallas makes a ton of sense.
6. Phoenix Suns: The same basic principles apply to both Phoenix and Dallas. The Suns have a young star James could thrive with. LeBron loves Suns president James Jones so much that he once called him “my favorite player of all time” and referred to him as “the greatest teammate I’ve ever had.” Jones, who famously de-emphasizes the draft as a roster-building mechanic, probably wouldn’t blink at the idea of surrendering picks for James. The real trade question here is who the Suns would use as matching salary. Would they surrender DeAndre Ayton? If so, how would they find a replacement center?
Phoenix lands ahead of Dallas for two reasons. First, Phoenix’s proximity to Los Angeles would make it easier for James to maintain his off-court empire. Second, and most importantly, Chris Paul is one of his closest friends. James would probably relish the opportunity to help the godfather of his middle son Bryce earn his first championship ring. James has made it clear publicly that he wants to play with every member of the banana boat crew. He’s crossed Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony off of that list. Paul is the last name left, though not for lack of trying, as Paul tried to recruit him to Houston in 2018. Oh, and the cherry on top? New Suns owner Mat Ishbia is a well-known rival of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, who has a, uh, let’s say complicated relationship with James.
Tier 3: There just isn’t a trade
5. Cleveland Cavaliers: This breaks my heart. LeBron should have retired in Cleveland. If he hadn’t extended in Los Angeles, he’d probably be Cleveland-bound as a free agent this summer if he really does want to leave the Lakers. The Cavs can create a decent chunk of cap space this offseason if they want to, but constructing a trade here is almost impossible. The only feasible way to match salary is by including Jarrett Allen, which the Cavaliers aren’t going to do, and even if they did, he only makes $20 million, so they’d have to include another $18 million or so just to make a deal legal. So long Ricky Rubio and Isaac Okoro, I suppose. They spent most of their draft capital in the Donovan Mitchell trade. Darius Garland has even spoken about how meaningful it would be for the Cavs to win without James, as the franchise has never really done so in its history outside of a brief pocket of contention in the 1980s. Maybe there’s a way to get James back to Cleveland down the line. If he makes it to 2024 free agency, it’s worth noting that Cleveland still has a first-round pick that season that it can use on Bronny. But purely from a trade perspective, there’s just not a sensible way to make a deal. That won’t stop James from using Cleveland as leverage to get to another desirable destination, though, so we’ll still give the Cavs top-five placement on the slim chance they make Allen available.
Tier 2: Start spreading the news
4. New York Knicks: If you subscribe to the theory that James went to Los Angeles largely for off-court reasons, then New York would probably be his ideal destination if staying put isn’t an option. The Knicks nearly traded for Mitchell in the offseason, but didn’t largely because they felt giving up that much for a single star would compromise their ability to land a second. Well, here’s their path to two stars. James, given all of the factors we’ve covered thus far, just wouldn’t cost nearly as much as Mitchell. There’s a pretty simple RJ Barrett-for-LeBron construction here with perhaps a bit of extra draft capital involved. The Knicks could then devote all of their other assets to landing another star immediately, ideally with Julius Randle as the matching salary so that Jalen Brunson (and, perhaps more importantly given his defense and salary, Quentin Grimes) could remain as part of the new-look Knicks. Who would that star be? I don’t know, but NBA history is pretty clear on two things:
- A star will always become available.
- When LeBron goes somewhere, a star follows.
That second point would be especially true in a market like New York. If James wants to strengthen his case over Michael Jordan, bringing the Knicks their first championship in over 50 years would probably go a long way. The Knicks might not be so keen on committing to such an old star, but James offers them the clearest path they’ve had to the title in decades. When push comes to shove, they’d probably take it.
3. Brooklyn Nets: Would a championship in Brooklyn mean quite as much as one at Madison Square Garden? No. But a Knicks contender is hypothetical. A Nets contender is already here. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could win the championship here and now. Swapping James in for Ben Simmons would probably make Brooklyn the title favorite next season. We know James can play with Irving because he’s already done so. He can play with Durant because anybody can. There’s not too much to add here. The only thing keeping Brooklyn out of the final tier is the possibility that the Lakers might not be interested in Simmons. There aren’t really alternative structures here as Brooklyn has spent its draft capital, so if the Lakers get queasy on Simmons’ medicals, the Nets are out of luck. Still, we should at least acknowledge one of LeBron’s best bits of free agency trolling in 2008, when he claimed that New York was his favorite city, but that Brooklyn was his favorite borough. The quote that launched a thousand rumors might finally pay off.
Tier 1: The favorites
2. Golden State Warriors: Hey, speaking of quotes launching rumors, James wasn’t even a little subtle in April when he said that Stephen Curry would be the player in today’s league with whom he’d most want to play. The Bay Area isn’t quite New York or Los Angeles, but it’s still an extremely appealing market thanks to Silicon Valley. Golden State’s ownership has hinted that it doesn’t plan to pay for a half-billion dollar payroll in the near future, but perhaps they’d change their tune if it meant access to all of the ancillary revenue streams James creates. The Warriors may not have felt they needed James to compete for a fifth championship before the season. Their poor start could make them more aggressive.
There’s a trade to be made here. It’s just a matter of who’s going to be involved. One of the following four players has to be in it as matching salary: Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole or Andrew Wiggins. Green is the logical choice. He plays LeBron’s position. He’s also a Klutch client who would probably like to play with James. Thompson is the next likeliest choice, but he’s a beloved Bay Area icon who carries none of Green’s baggage. Would the team really let him go? Would Curry? Thompson’s father played in Los Angeles. That might be enough to convince him to give the Lakers a try. Maybe the Warriors tell Green that he can either be traded to Los Angeles or traded somewhere less desirable and he acquiesces. Poole and Wiggins are essential to both their immediate title hopes and their future. The Warriors would probably prefer to keep them and build a trade around draft picks, Jonathan Kuminga and/or James Wiseman.
Would James want to open himself up to the same criticism Durant faced in 2016? Probably not, but he can’t be as picky as he used to be. If there was any question about his relationship with Golden State’s core, those were answered when he attended Green’s wedding and took pictures with Green and Curry while holding up four fingers. They’re the four rings club. Together, they could push for five or six.
1. Miami Heat: If James can forgive Dan Gilbert, he can forgive Pat Riley. Riley is certainly open to a reunion. In 2021, he said that there’s a “key under the mat” for James if he ever wants to use it. Right now, the Heat might need James to take it. At 18-17, they aren’t even in the top six in the Eastern Conference a year after earning the No. 1 seed. They never adequately replaced Tucker at power forward. Jimmy Butler remains a major injury risk, and Kyle Lowry just isn’t the player he used to be anymore. This current group has probably missed its window to win a championship. The Heat don’t rebuild. They reload.
Miami could offer three first-round picks along with Lowry as the primary matching salary. The Lakers would probably ask for Tyler Herro. That would be the sticking point in negotiations. The last time the Lakers and Heat made a trade of this magnitude, the Lakers tried a similar staredown involving Dwyane Wade and blinked. They ultimately sent Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat for Lamar Odom, Caron Butler and Brian Grant. It’s hard not to draw parallels to that trade when speculating about this one. Both deals began with an aging legend growing frustrated as the Lakers prioritized the future over the present.
Bam Adebayo is as close to peak Anthony Davis as exists in the current NBA. He’s not quite the scorer Davis is, but he’s nearly as good defensively and is a far craftier passer. Butler’s postseason resume speaks for itself. Herro would be an ideal spacer and secondary ball-handler next to James. If he’s in the deal, LeBron could probably revive Duncan Robinson. The Heat will find a role player or two on the margins because that’s what the Heat do. Erik Spoelstra is the genius who figured out how to maximize James in a small-ball setting. LeBron had the best years of his career in Miami. When he needed to escape Cleveland, the Heat gave him a path to championships. If he decides to escape Los Angeles, Miami’s roster, coaching staff, front office and market make it the best overall destination for the remainder of his prime.