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If the NBA adopted soccer's bonkers transfer rules, we'd get LeBron James on the Lakers

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Let’s imagine that an already chaotic period on the NBA calendar got even weirder.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

NBA offseasons have become increasingly wild in recent years. Some even say that the free agent period is better than the season itself! (Which ... nah, but I get the sentiment.)

But even the NBA’s offseason madness doesn’t hold a candle to soccer’s transfer window, which closes on Aug. 31. NBA players (generally) have to wait until their contracts are up to switch teams, and there’s a salary cap and player max that restrict the market. No such provisions exist in soccer, though, which means stuff gets really weird.

Explaining how soccer’s transfer window works would take days, but in a nutshell:

  • Teams are not bound by any sort of salary cap. There is something called Financial Fair Play, but super clubs like Paris Saint-Germain routinely make a mockery of it.
  • Anyone can really switch clubs at any time. Contracts can be bought and sold, transferred, bought out, whatever. It’s much more free market than anything we have in the U.S.
  • If a club wants a certain player, they can negotiate a transfer fee with his existing club as compensation for letting said player out of his contract early. That fee could be tiny or nonexistent (if the current club is cool with letting that player go), astronomical (if the club isn’t), or anything in between.
  • If the two clubs can agree on a fee — a complicated process often derailed by angry agents, stubborn managers, and the whims of the player himself — the new team then negotiates a new contract with said player.
  • There are also loans, where one team agrees on a much smaller fee to essentially rent the player for a year.
  • Why would anyone sell a good player? Because they need the cash, and better to recoup and/or reinvest a lot of money before the player’s contract is up and is free to go anywhere. With some exceptions — hello, Arsenal! — clubs understand where they stand in global soccer’s pecking order and act accordingly.

There’s a lot more to it — read this entertaining explainer and watch this excellent video — but that’s the gist.

The NBA offseason would devolve into complete chaos if it adopted this system, so it’ll never happen. But because I’m feeling like an anarchist today, let’s imagine if it did. Considering that nearly 40 percent of the All-Stars from last season have switched teams in the last 14 months, we aren’t that far off anyway.

LeBron James

Cleveland Cavaliers v Sacramento Kings Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

WHAT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENING: LeBron is still on the Cavs for one more year, but all rumors point to him leaving next summer.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: As part of James’ 2014 transfer to the Cavaliers, the team agreed to give him a $500 million buyout clause. James’ team negotiated that into his contract to give him some freedom of movement, and the Cavaliers agreed because they couldn’t conceive of James or another team actually forking over that much cash to leave Northeast Ohio.

But after the Cavaliers let David Griffin go, LeBron grew antsy. Through back channels, his reps convinced the Lakers that he’d happily pay a portion of the exit clause and leave Cleveland if the Lakers gave him an even bigger annual salary to compensate. Magic Johnson acquiesced, and James was headed to L.A. Cleveland put up a fight and even filed a grievance with the league (in Comic Sans, of course) to declare James’ exit clause against league rules, but it all failed.

Kyrie Irving

2017 NBA Finals - Game Five Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

WHAT’S ACTUALLY HAPPENED: This about sums it up, but the upshot is that he’s a Boston Celtic, now and probably in the future.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: Irving caught the Cavaliers off guard when he submitted a formal transfer request in July. Already spurned by LeBron and annoyed at his crumbling empire, Dan Gilbert initially refused and spoke publicly about fining Irving for missing training camp.

Bids still rolled in. The Timberwolves offered $90 million. San Antonio one-upped them with a $110 million bid. The Knicks flashed $130 million, but Irving, despite reports, waived them off. Irving angled a move to San Antonio, but Gilbert held firm. Irving would not be for sale.

Two days before the window closed, Danny Ainge dialed up new Cavaliers GM Koby Altman. How about $110 million, plus Isaiah Thomas in a swap? Altman pleaded with Gilbert to take the deal and start fresh, but Gilbert held firm. Rumors of a late Milwaukee swoop appeared in the press.

With an hour to spare, Gilbert appeared to agree to the swap. But at the last minute, he pulled back, insisting that Boston up the fee to $120 million. Stunned and insulted, Ainge and the Celtics pulled out, leaving Kyrie stuck in Cleveland.

Paul George

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers - Game Four Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Once George made it crystal clear that he wouldn’t re-sign with the Pacers after next year, Kevin Pritchard dealt him to Oklahoma City for the measly package of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: Frustrated by George’s insistence that he’d only accept a transfer to the Lakers, Pritchard shoots down L.A.’s attempt to fit George in under FFP with a loan deal including an option to buy. Indiana accepts Boston’s lesser bid, but George refuses to negotiate a new contract with the Celtics.

The window closes, George plays out the season, then leaves on a free transfer to L.A. next summer.

Kristaps Porzingis

Detroit Pistons v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Porzingis’ frustration combined with Phil Jackson’s abrasiveness put the Latvian Unicorn in a series of trade rumors around draft day, but nothing came of them. Yet.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: Porzingis’ frustration was obvious when Jeff Hornacek chose to bench him for a critical late-season game. His desire to leave the club was repeated over and over, and yet the Knicks insisted they’d never sell him. In fact, the Knicks spend up the wazoo on veteran players that don’t fix their actual problems, failing to understand their actual place in the league’s hierarchy.

One team remains forever persistent in the Porzingis chase: the Boston Celtics. New York insists on $180 million to even begin the discussion for a transfer. Boston goes as high as $120 million.

Nothing else goes right for the Knicks and everyone wants them to sell Porzingis to let him prosper elsewhere. Finally, on deadline day, they accept the Celtics’ bid of $130 million.

They then turn around and spend $80 million of that money to buy Kevin Love. The cycle continues.

Chris Paul

Los Angeles Clippers v Utah Jazz - Game Three Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Paul made it known that he wanted to play for the Rockets, so the Clippers worked out a unique sign-and-trade to send him there and recoup some value for losing him.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: Pretty much that, except the Clippers receive a $90 million transfer fee instead of a bunch of players.

Gordon Hayward

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Hayward turned down Utah’s attempts to woo him with several roster moves to sign with Brad Stevens’ Celtics.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: Confident that they could keep him, the Jazz let Hayward’s contract wind down instead of selling him in previous summers. Hayward ultimately leaves on a free transfer to join Boston, accepting a lesser contract in the process with promises that he’d be more heavily featured in a faster-paced offense. Jazz fans are stunned.

DeMarcus Cousins

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Fed up with Cousins’ issues and suddenly realizing they were staring down the barrel of giving him a massive contract, the Kings traded Cousins to the Pelicans for not very much.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: This would’ve been far simpler. Hoping to reunite with his college teammate, Cousins would’ve angled a move to D.C. to join John Wall. The Kings initially asked for $120 million, but lowered their demand down to $70 million after a eureka moment.

Anthony Davis

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: Davis isn’t on the block yet, but the Celtics are eyeing him.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: The Pelicans insist Davis isn’t for sale, but nobody believes them. Bids roll in and New Orleans turns them all down. He stays until the Lakers buy him in 2019.

Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Giannis Antetokounmpo

WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED: He’s not going anywhere, but the Bucks are now on a four-year clock to win with him.

WHAT WOULD’VE HAPPENED: A product of the famed John Hammond Milwaukee Wingspan academy, Antetokounmpo burst onto the scene last year. The Bucks, known leaguewide as the ultimate feeder club, know it’s inevitable a rich team will buy him eventually, but they want one more year.

Worried that they need more ammo to survive, the Warriors agree to pay $250 million for Antetokounmpo to transfer after next season. They win the next six titles in a row and Milwaukee weeps.

Two years later, Thon Maker, another famed product of the John Hammond Milwaukee Wingspan Academy, bursts onto the scene. The Bucks, known leaguewide as the ultimate feeder club, know it’s inevitable ...

Other stuff

  • Needing to clear room for their new signings, the Celtics loan Jaylen Brown to the Bulls and attach a smaller-than-expected option to buy. Brown goes on to lead the Bulls in scoring and secures a permanent transfer next summer. The Bulls then sell Jimmy Butler to Minnesota for $20 million, thinking Brown is already better for some reason.
  • Fed up with LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs coerce Phoenix to take him for a whopping $80 million.
  • Cleveland tries desperately to get into the George and Butler sweepstakes, but fail and panic buy Harrison Barnes for $70 million in an attempt to appease Kyrie.
  • Detroit tries desperately to offload Reggie Jackson, but nobody wants him. The Pistons eventually loan him to Orlando while agreeing to pay his full salary.
  • Toronto gets Paul Millsap on a free transfer, which then coerces the Nuggets to offer $40 million for Serge Ibaka for some reason.
  • To free up some money for LeBron, L.A. agrees to sell Julius Randle to Indiana for $25 million.
  • Brooklyn agrees to take in every young player not getting enough burn with other teams on loan, including D’Angelo Russell, T.J. Warren, Juancho Hernangomez, Mario Hezonja, Jahlil Okafor, and DeJounte Murray. They try for Patrick McCaw too, but Golden State turns the offer down.