The premiere season of LeBron James, Los Angeles Laker, has been a total flop. Despite a decent start that had LA looking at a potential top-4 seed in a topsy-turvey Western Conference, some injuries and insouciance wrecked everything.
Now, with six weeks left in the regular season, there is basically no path to the playoffs for the Lakers. James will have gone from eight straight trips to the NBA Finals (with three rings to show for it) to the NBA Draft lottery. Yikes.
The good news for the Lakers is that James broke from tradition and signed a full four-year deal with LA last summer, something he didn’t do in his most recent stint in Cleveland. That means that the Lakers know they still have a superstar on deck next season. If James had signed a 1+1 deal, there would be rampant rumors that James were leaving this summer.
But since the Lakers have James under contract for three more years, and since James is new to LA, and since the team is barely closer to the playoffs than it was before the four-time MVP arrived, you at least have to consider that the franchise could at least think about trading him ... right?
He doesn’t have a no-trade clause. He’s a top-notch asset. It’s at least a consideration worth making, isn’t it?
No. No, no, no.
Here are three reasons the Lakers absolutely cannot trade James.
1. It would be career suicide for the front office
If Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka trade James — whose free agent acquisition is the only actual success of their tenure running the team — they might as well hand in their resignations and find new fields to work in. (I mean, Johnson doesn’t actually need to work any more. Which is good, because he’d never work in basketball again.)
Admitting failure is not something NBA figures are good at doing, and trading James would be a loud, explicit acknowledgement that these dudes failed totally in building a team around the greatest player of his generation. They had cap space and flexibility, they had young players to package or develop and ... they ended up in 10th place (or worse!) in the conference.
This is compounded by the fact that no one really gives Johnson and Pelinka a ton of credit for landing James in the first place. Common consensus has become that James had decided to join LA, and met with Johnson only to vet the situation. Apparently, he should have vetted the situation a little more thoroughly.
NBA executives, even those with supreme egos and immense safety nets, don’t make a habit of knowingly making moves that will directly lead to their demise. Even broaching this subject out loud would probably do the trick for Johnson and Pelinka. They are smart enough to know that.
2. No one is crazy enough to trade a lot for an angry James
Imagine the trade value price for three years of James, even in his mid-30s. It’s super steep. Like every possible pick plus a blue chip prospect or two. It’s three future firsts, the rights to Zion Williamson, and Lauri Markannen (plus contracts to meet NBA match requirements). It’s Karl-Anthony Towns, two firsts, and a fresh water pipeline from Minnesota to SoCal. It’s a price so incredibly steep you can’t even come up with anything viable for most other NBA teams unless they land Zion in the 2019 NBA Draft.
Now imagine giving up that sort of bounty for a superstar who is absolutely, positively livid that he has been traded.
James will be remembered for so much, but high on that list is how he pushed the boundaries of superstar empowerment. His entire career has been a master class is doing what you want and protecting your individual interests.
Getting traded is the biggest violation of that. It destroys a superstar’s control over their own career. Can you imagine how mad James would be if his perfectly coiffed career arc were run off the rails by a trade?
Put these two realities together: the price is steeper than any, and the result is angering deeply the ultra-powerful star you are acquiring. It’s like buying yourself an ulcer at the corner store.
3. James can just threaten to retire
And finally, while James may not have an official no-trade clause or the legal ability to veto any trade by virtue of being on a one-year deal, he does hold a trump card: he can just threaten to retire if traded to any team he doesn’t want to be on. Retiring in anger would damage James’ reputation and prevent him from getting the scoring record or winning a fourth championship (something that seems increasingly unlikely anyway), but it would mean he wouldn’t have to suit up for the Bulls or whoever if he didn’t want to do so.
This back pocket veto essentially prevents this whole conversation from even starting. The retirement threat veto will prevent teams from offering what the Lakers would need to pull to justify a James trade, and the likelihood that the offers will not stack up as high as needed will prevent Johnson and Pelinka from putting their careers on the line by even broaching the topic with other teams. Both reason Nos. 1 and 2 would prevent a James trade on their own. Reason No. 3 makes those first two reasons even more potent.
This is not going to happen. The Lakers will not trade James.
But that this is even a discussion worth considering in March of his first season in Los Angeles is really amazing.