When the Cavaliers and Lakers hooked up for a trade deadline swap three weeks ago, there were two major takeaways. The first was that Cleveland was willing to pull out all of the stops — even taking on future salary — to give the team its best opportunity to compete for a title this season. The second was that L.A. was all-in on its quest to add talent in free agency by cutting salary
The Cavaliers made the trade betting on the now. The Lakers made the deal betting on tomorrow.
Since the All-Star break, Cleveland has lost four of six. The Lakers have won five straight. Huh.
Such are the perils of trying to rebuild a contender in the middle of the season. The dream of Cleveland making a fourth straight NBA Finals is in more peril than ever — 538 has the Cavs at 11 percent to win the East. As LeBron James approaches free agency, there’s a real argument that if another ring is what the greatest of his generation truly seeks, he’s better off in L.A. than Ohio.
The Lakers have the youngest team in the NBA, yet sit at No. 21 in scoring margin, giving up about a point-and-a-half more than they score. That’s pretty good! L.A. has the No. 11 defense in the league while playing at the NBA’s fastest pace under Luke Walton. After struggling early, Lonzo Ball has come around. (You wonder whether his father being a world away has helped somewhat.) Julius Randle Hill is experiencing a real estate rush after being depopulated last season; his restricted free agency stands to be mighty interesting. Brandon Ingram has looked as bright as ever, Kyle Kuzma continues to produce, and Isaiah Thomas has slotted in calmly and effectively.
As noted, Randle is a restricted free agent. Isaiah will be an unrestricted free agent. To have maximum cap space for two superstars, L.A. would have to lose them (though it’s possible Randle could stay if the timing worked out and he didn’t immediately go sign some lucrative offer sheet). This is obviously a complicating factor given LeBron’s historic penchant for taking his time to make a free agent decision — the Lakers, if they believe they have a real shot at James, could be left in the cold if everything else dries up while the whale considers everything.
But if the Lakers could manage to get Paul George or perhaps DeMarcus Cousins (as risky as it would be for L.A.) to commit early, and maintain the flexibility to still recruit LeBron? And so long as the other main option is staying in Cleveland with Kevin Love, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, a top-8 draft pick, and a bevy of longtime teammates who had their moments in a since-passed era of contendership? L.A. is the smart pick there.
This isn’t to say that L.A. is LeBron’s best option altogether. As Bill Simmons recently wrote, there actually aren’t too many teams for LeBron to join, similar to Michael Jordan in 1998. The Sixers have picked up quite a lot of buzz lately, and last summer the Rockets were the go-to team for contrarians to highlight. Both would obviously get LeBron closer to a fourth championship sooner than would the Lakers.
But if James doesn’t want to join the Sixers to slow his protegé Ben Simmons’ rise, or sign with the Rockets and almost certainly require either his close friend Chris Paul or LeBron himself to take haircuts, the Lakers are a real strong option because of their young core.
Would Lonzo fit with LeBron? Obviously! While James needs shooters around him and that isn’t Ball’s strong suit, don’t forget that Kyrie Irving excelled playing with LeBron. He just wanted more. Perhaps Lonzo, as an uber-confident multimedia star, would too. But as Ball isn’t a primary scorer and doesn’t project to become that, the conflict may never develop.
You would think James would impact Ingram quite a lot, but consider that LeBron has never really had a big wing quite like Ingram alongside him. Back during his days as a draft prospect, the common Ingram comparison was to a poor man’s Kevin Durant. That’s such an unfair comp to make. Lamar Odom might be a closer fit: Ingram is a talented passer and looks (right now, at least) comfortable being a No. 2 or 3 scoring option. As LeBron ages, having a long playmaking shooter running with him could be a boon.
Of course, the Cavaliers could pick up someone like that with the Nets’ pick. Said player would just be younger and less of a known quantity as of early July when LeBron is making a decision. L.A. doesn’t have their own lottery pick, so improving through the draft will have to come using Cleveland’s pick, which also came over in that Isaiah/Clarkson deal. (That this Lakers front office struck gold with Kuzma well outside the lottery gives one hope.)
No one knows what factors LeBron will consider most closely. His camp has said pretty emphatically that an opportunity to win another ring is the important thing, and that living in L.A. during the season wouldn’t be a huge boon to his burgeoning entertainment career. The prior probability has been that if he wants to keep winning, LeBron would re-sign with Cleveland (the 3-time defending conference champs). If he wanted to pursue greater global stardom, he’d join the Lakers.
After reviewing the evidence, there’s a case to be made that the Lakers — while not close to offering the best chance to win another ring — present LeBron with a stronger outlook in the near future than the Cavaliers.