Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Clap Clap ClapClapClap: What Would LeBron James’s Expiring Contract Be Worth?

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 12, 2009


Although I am by no means a LeBron James fan–he seems somehow lacking in character to me, something I unreasonably demand from my NBA stars–I am still, like many people, absolutely fascinated with the drama surrounding the expiration of his current contract in the summer of 2010. It seems unlikely that there has ever been a free agency so anticipated in professional sports, to the point where entire franchises have started planning their sales pitches years in advance, and speculation about the end game has reached such a fever pitch that JFK-level conspiracy theories have abounded about potential outcomes. Will he stick with the Cavs? Will he get seduced by playing at MSG with the Knicks? Will he hook up with Jay-Z and the crazy Russian billionaire in New Jersey? Will he invade Kobe’s back yard with the clippers? Will he join the Kings because fuck it, nobody expects him to join the Kings? Nobody knows, and try as we might to decode his cryptic statements on the matter, LeBron isn’t telling us. We’ll just have to see in the summer of 2010.

But then again–what if we didn’t have to wait so long to see LeBron on the move? What if the Cavaliers decided that the likelihood of LeBron hanging around past the summer of ’10 was so low, that they decided to cut their losses, and see what they could get for him before he signed with another team for nothing? What would other teams–second and third-tier NBA powers, maybe, teams that aren’t championship contenders as currently constituted, but very well might become one if they added the best player on the planet to their roster–give up for only a guaranteed half-season with him? How much of their future would they mortgage to get a chance to play with the King?

Now, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s pretty simple: No fucking way would that ever happen. And for the most part, you’re right. Players of LeBron’s stature are never traded like that. Cavs fans would never forgive the administration for giving up on him. LeBron would never demand a trade to a contender, if for no other reason than the fact that just about any team with LeBron on it is automatically a contender to begin with. Besides, in basketball, it’s the lousy players with expiring contracts that get dealt mid-season–the ones with deals that were always over-inflated, who lousy teams covet because they come off the books the following season and offer much-needed cap space. You never see players even nearly as good as LeBron on the block at the deadline.

All true. But just hear me out for a minute. Let’s envision an absolute worst-case scenario for the Cleveland Cavaliers over the next few months. Let’s say Delonte West’s legal or psychological issues perk back up again, and he has to leave the team for personal reasons. Let’s say Mo Williams goes through another cold spell of missing open threes like he did in the conference finals last year. Let’s say that Shaq continues to talk a big game in Cleveland, but his effort starts to slide, and the team begins to call him out on it. Let’s say that Big Z becomes more and more disenchanted with being pushed to the bench, and struggles to gel in his new role. Let’s say one or two of the other rotation guys–J.J. Hickson, Boobie Gibson, Anthony Parker–get injured, and all of a sudden the team needs to resort to signing near-retirees and D-League guys just to get bodies on the floor.

Meanwhile, let’s say that the Cavs, who have already lost as many home games than they lost all of last regular-season, continue to put up L’s at a somewhat alarming pace. Let’s say that the city begins to voice a little discontent, and that some of it starts to fall on LeBron, for failing to integrate the new players into the system, for acting superior to coach Mike Brown, for becoming that most hated of sports phenomenons–the distraction–with all his upcoming off-season hijinx. Finally, let’s say that the Cavs come off a shellacking at home (say, a 95-71 loss to the Celtics), and LeBron looks around at the broken bodies he calls his teammates, and thinks to himself “People really expect me to spend the rest of my career with these losers?” So let’s say he goes to the post-game conference, and in a rare moment of completely unfiltered, unthinking honesty, offers the following quote: “I can’t wait till next season when I won’t have to deal with this bullshit anymore.

Now, naturally, the odds of this perfect shitstorm happening are not good. If I was a betting man, I’d probably peg ’em at somewhere between 150 and 200 to 1, and that’s just because I’m a pragmatist. But you could certainly see most of those things happening over the course of the season, couldn’t you? So what if they all did? Once LeBron made it clear that his heart and his future rested not in The Cleve, and once the team became too internally dysfunctional to hold out hope for a championship run, wouldn’t they be somewhat wise to at least get some combination of young talent, reliable vets, fellow expiring deals and future draft picks, rather than just letting him walk at the end of the season? Maybe they would, and just hope that one or two of the other big names this off-season–Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki–showed interest. But really, who would want to go to Cleveland without LeBron there? Who would want the shellshocked sloppy-seconds that even a player of LeBron’s unprecedented caliber couldn’t get a ring with?

So now that we’ve suspended disbelief enough to buy there being at least the slightest of possibility that the Cavs would trade LeBron, we come to the other side of the equation: What teams would be interested in trading him? The easy answer, of course, is everyone–when the best player in the world is put on the block, you answer the phone no matter who you are. But for some teams, the fit just wouldn’t make sense enough to really discuss here.  Teams like the Magic, Celtics and Lakers are already too good, have too many untradeable players, and would be too unlikely to want to gut their team’s current structures to make such a dangerous deal. Meanwhile, teams like the Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Bucks are too far away from contending to risk crippling their rebuilding process by selling the farm for LeBron.

But what of those creamy teams in the middle, those for whom a half-season worth of LeBron might be enough to make it worth the gamble? Let’s examine the possible trade partners in alphabetical order–using that golden standard of objective arbitration, the NBA Trade Machine, to make sure the trades are at least financially even–and see who, on that 1/150th-1/200th of a chance, might end up being a taker this winter.

1. To Atlanta for Al Horford, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague.

Right off the bat, I kind of like this one. The Cavs completely re-stock their front lines with two high-upside (albeit still somewhat green) young’ns, meaning they don’t have to overpay in the off-season or re-sign the corpses of Shaq and Big Z when their deals expire in the summer, and get a promising back-up point in Jeff Teague to boot. Meanwhile, the Hawks can stop trying to use Joe Johnson as a franchise player and instantly turn him into one of the best second-best guys in the league, and still play a good back-court of Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams (imagine Bibby throwing alley-oops to LeBron–yikes).

The “yeah, but”s from this deal would mostly come from the Hawks’ side. They could maybe get away with moving LeBron up to replace Smith at the four–he’s only an inch shorter than Josh, and certainly no less athletic–but you’d have to start Zaza Pachulia at center, and trade for or call up some scrub to back him up. Meanwhile, if LeBron walked that summer, and they lost Johnson too, the franchise would have to undergo a complete retooling in the off-season. Still, I feel like the Cavs could have a shot at rebuilding with that front-court upgrading, and the Hawks could have a shot–much better than they have as currently constituted, anyway–at the title with a Bibby/Williams/Johnson/James/Pachulia starting five.

Ruling: Gold, Jerry, Gold! (Though the Trade Machine says I lessened the win expectancy of both teams by eight games with the deal.)

2. To Chicago for Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson.

This is interesting to discuss, because Chicago was the team being discussed at the beginning of the ’07-’08 season as a possible trade destination for Kobe Bryant, possibly the only other player in the league who would command such a strong package as a short-term rental. The main give-and-take here comes with how valuable you view Luol Deng as being as a player–he’s probably not quite worth six years / 71 mil the Bulls gave him two off-seasons ago, but he’s come back from injury this year and been kind of quietly nice so far. Would the King be enough of an upgrade over the Man from Sudan to give away his deal, as well as two quality (albeit somewhat low-ceilinged) role-players for a few months of his time?

The real question, perhaps, is if the Bulls would be willing to include budding-star Derrick Rose in such a deal, instead of any or all parts previously mentioned. I think the answer is pretty easily no–unless they were borderline-guaranteed that LeBron would sign on for longer, so much of the team’s future is currently tied up with Rose that there’s no way they’d risk being haunted by him for the next decade-and-a-half for one championship run. Ultimately, I don’t think the pieces are quite in place here on either side for this one to be much of a success.

Ruling: Not So Good, Al.

3. To Miami, Along with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, for Jermaine O’Neal, Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers and a Future #1 Pick

This would be to answer the question that the New York Knicks hope that they’re lucky enough to be asking themselves in the ’10-’11 season: Would you still be able to win a championship if your only half-decent players were LeBron James and Dwyane Wade? Assuming they made the above deal, their potential starting lineup would probably be Arroyo/Wade/James/Haslem/Ilgauskas, with the first guys off the bench being Quentin Richardson, Daequan Cook and, uh, Yakhouba Diawara. Not exactly the ’86 Celtics here, but part of you has to feel that even with suiting up scrubs in roster spots 3-12, any team with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade–almost certainly the two best all-around players in the NBA–needs to be considered the finals favorite going into the playoffs. I mean, right?

The crazy thing, is that even with Miami sacrificing their only decent young talent, as well as their future #1 (and, uh, Jermaine O’Neal, who I included with Big Z just to make the salaries even out), I still don’t think it’s enough for Cleveland to part with the King for a half-season. And people think Wade is gonna be staying in South Beach the rest of his career? Maybe I should’ve written this column about him instead.

Ruling: Why Are the Pretty Ones Always Insane?

4. To Los Angeles [Clippers] for Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon, Al Thornton and a Future #1.

A whole lot of hesitation dribbles to be had concerning this deal. It’s hard to evaluate any of the Clippers players, largely because they have only played for the Clippers, and thus can not really be judged by normal-player standards. Kaman’s been absolutely dynamite so far this season, Gordon seems like a legit blue-chipper, and Thornton…well, Thornton probably sucks by just about any standards, but he comes fairly cheap. Still, are you going to risk giving up the king for three guys coming from the most cursed franchise in all professional sports? Who knows what they actually look like in the light of day?

And on the other side, will the Clippers be good enough or healthy enough at mid-season to make the risk worthwhile? Promising as he seems, we still have no idea what we’ll be getting this season from Blake Griffin–whether he comes in the league in four weeks and instantly starts slapping up double-doubles, or whether he struggles to get right with his knee and never even gets on the court this season. Meanwhile, Baron Davis has been significantly better so far this year than his catastrophic ’08-’09 campaign, but who knows how many bad losses it’ll take for BD to start backsliding? You’d certainly like any starting lineup with Baron, Griffin and LeBron as a big three in theory, but in practice, it could get a little ugly.

Ruling: Not So Good, Al.

5. To Portland with Daniel Gibson for LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake, Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw and Jerryd Bayless

Definitely a steep hit to Portland’s depth without these guys, as well as the loss of a legit (albeit likely overpaid) talent in Aldridge, but they probably have enough dudes on the bench to make up for it, and they solve their Too Many Point Guards dilemma with the ex-communication of Blake and Bayless (and get a quality backup back with Gibson). Cleveland gets one of the deepest back courts in the league and a couple nice, athletic forwards, though they might insist on getting Oden instead of a couple of the guards, which I don’t see the Blazers doing (Aldridge and Oden? Too much personal investment, I think, even if on paper right now it might not be that crippling a loss). Meanwhile, the Blazers get to trot out a Miller/Roy/Batum/James/Oden starting lineup, which might be a little awkward positionally, but talent-wise would have to rank near or at the very top of the league.

This might not even be the worst fit long-term for LBJ, though it’s less likely now that Portland spent so much money locking up Roy and Aldridge. Still, young team, loose-walleted owner, hyper-enthusiastic fanbase…it’s not the biggest market, but I think LBJ could have himself a time playing there, and I might even enjoy watching him do it, too. I’d throw in Portland’s situational baby bro Oklahoma City as another possible trade partner here, but as sexy as the idea of LeBron playing with Durant may be, I think the latter’s already taken too much to the alpha dog mentality to be willing to play second fiddle as he enters his prime, especially not to someone who basically plays the same position as him. Nah, Portland would have to be the move here.

Rating: Gold, Jerry, Gold!

Outliers if Their Records Were Up to Snuff: Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors (Ownership is crazy enough to do it, regardless of the logic)

Wouldn’t Take if They Threw In the Entire Team and Even the Home Stadium: New York Knicks

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