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How the Lakers-Cavaliers midseason trade paved LeBron’s way to Los Angeles

In taking on Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, the Cavaliers created the extra cap space for the Lakers to snag LeBron James from them.

Cleveland Cavaliers v New York Knicks Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 9 and updated on July 1 after LeBron James agreed to sign with the Lakers.

The Los Angeles Lakers made a blockbuster move that opened salary cap flexibility at the trade deadline when they traded Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Isaiah Thomas and Channing Frye.

The trades brought the Cavaliers to the Finals, but not to a title. Meanwhile, LeBron left Cleveland to sign with the Lakers. That trade now takes on extra meaning.

In unloading the pricy long-term contract of Clarkson, and taking on a pair of contracts set to expire this summer, they now they have room to sign two superstars this summer or the next. That was key in making a real run at LeBron and pair him with another star. Paul George stayed in Oklahoma City, but DeMarcus Cousins is still out there and the Lakers can also acquire Kawhi Leonard in a trade without matching salary.

The Cavaliers were among the most active teams at the deadline after their team imploded over the course of the last few weeks. There were locker room issues, a failed team meeting, and then Kevin Love broke his hand in January. The Cavs were incredibly anxious to make a move of any team in the league to salvage James’ last year before his free agency.

L.A. capitalized on that desperation. In the process, they tricked the Cavs into playing James right into their hands this summer.

The Lakers’ direction was clear from the outlet

The official trade sent L.A. Thomas, Frye and Cleveland’s protected 2018 first-rounder for Clarkson and Nance Jr. Essentially, the Lakers were able to move two pieces they didn’t view as long-term fits in exchange for gan additional $15 million cap room and a bonus first-round pick.

L.A. has three players age 22 or younger who they view as the future: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. They understood that making the playoffs last season wasn’t as clearing room to eventually sign superstars, and they’ve had that mentality since Johnson assumed office. They were trying to shed salary for more than a year, and dealing Clarkson and Nance was the final step.

LAst June, the Lakers traded D’Angelo Russell just to get rid of Timofey Mozgov’s contract. They had been actively shopping both Julius Randle and Luol Deng to no avail, but now might let Randle walk in free agency. They signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope last summer to a big-money one-year deal this summer to preserve long-term cap space as well, then re-signed him after James committed for less money. Everything was about landing top free agents in the summers of 2018 and 2019.

Trading Clarkson for Thomas fits the same narrative. In the end, it worked, at the expense of their trade partner.

So how much money did the Lakers save?

Jordan Clarkson is owed just short of $26 million over the next two seasons, and he was a guard coming off the bench. The Lakers had been pursuing a trade for him for months, and got exactly what they wanted from the Cavs.

Isaiah Thomas was owed $6.2 million last year, and Channing Frye was owed $7.4 million. Then both of their contracts expire, meaning the Lakers have completely wiped Clarkson’s expenses off the payroll for the next two seasons.

The trade cost them Nance Jr., who is a solid role player still under a cheap rookie contract for another season, but also earned them a protected first-round pick they eventually used on Michigan’s Moritz Wagner.

Altogether, this trade saves the Lakers more than $28 million over the next two seasons: $15 million in 2018-19 and an additional $13 million in 2019-20).

So what did the rest of the Lakers payroll look like before LeBron arrived?

The Lakers had just $39 million locked up for their 2018-19 payroll. That means the Lakers had close to $69 million to play around with this offseason. That was enough for TWO max contracts.

They’ll still have Ingram, Kuzma and Ball on the roster, but Thomas, Frye, Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez, and Corey Brewer will all become unrestricted free agents.

Who did the Lakers target?

LEBRON JAMES and PAUL GEORGE! That was the pipe dream for more than a year. Because of this midseason trade, the Lakers had the money to make it happen — and the Cavaliers helped!

The bad news is that George ultimately stayed with the Thunder, but there are other superstars out there. Cousins is keen on joining the Lakers, and Leonard has all but demanded he end up there via trade.

Of course, the Cavaliers were hoping these trades would help them keep LeBron. But it didn’t work out, and in the process, they made the Lakers’ double heist financially possible.

This deal happened months before the offseason, but it’s potential effects were clear from the jump. The Lakers made all the right moves to put themselves in position to land stars. Ironically, the team they poached LeBron from made it all possible.