The Los Angeles Lakers sat LeBron James on Thursday vs. the Boston Celtics, suggesting there was a possibility the team was looking at moving the Hall of Fame forward. At 39 years old, James remains a dominant force averaging 24.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game. However, the Lakers find themselves at .500 ahead of the trade deadline with plenty of issues.
Even though LA’s win over the Celtics without James and Anthony Davis won’t quiet the noise around this franchise, it’s a sign there is still a team here that can make a playoff run. And trading James won’t solve the team’s current problems.
The head coach
Head coach Darvin Ham’s use of rotations remains baffling. The Lakers starting unit of James, Davis, Taurean Prince, D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves is a -10 in 228 minutes. Take out Prince for Jarred Vanderbilt and you get LA’s best lineup by plus/minus at +27. That group hasn’t played as much because of Vanderbilt’s injury early in the season but should be seeing more run.
But Ham’s use of lineups isn’t the only issue. There have been constant reports of miscommunication between the coach and players, leading to regression across the board as guys try to figure out their roles. Reaves has declined, although he remains on a team-friendly deal and the Lakers reportedly don’t want to move him. Russell has leveled off. Rui Hachimura has stagnated as well.
Even if we are to believe James has an influence over those things, it’s not his job to develop everyone’s game and make sure the lineups fit as best as possible.
The value of LeBron in a loaded Western Conference
The Lakers started 2-10 last season. They were 25-31 a few days at last year’s trade deadline. They finished the season 43-39, winning six of their last seven games to become the No. 7 in the play-in tournament.
The team then went on an impressive run, knocking off the upstart No. 2 Memphis Grizzlies in six games before sending the No. 6 Golden State Warriors packing in six games. It was the first time in the Steve Kerr era the Warriors hadn’t made the Finals when participating in the postseason. Even though the Lakers were swept by the eventual champion Denver Nuggets, that run to the Western Conference Finals highlights the value of James. He remains the ultimate antidote for a team that might not appear to match up on paper. And even though he isn’t as consistent at 39 as he was even a few years earlier, he can turn things up at a moment’s notice to a level few others can.
The Lakers simply have to hold serve and get into the postseason to let James do his thing. The team banked on continuity from last season leading to a more productive year overall, but the endgame is not about getting the most regular season wins. A playoff run is still in the cards as long as James and Davis are healthy, which they have been for most of the year.
A trade won’t net a fair return
Every team in the league would pick up the phone if James was made available. The Lakers would certainly get a decent return back, but that would likely mean punting on the team’s title chances in 2023-24. But would that return be fair?
The Nets got four unprotected first-round picks, a pick swap and two blue-chip players in Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson for Kevin Durant. The Lakers would want similar value, which very few teams could actually provide. The Thunder would be the most obvious candidate to give up draft assets and have the infrastructure to surround James with great talent, but does James want to go there? The Rockets and Jazz are also in the mix when it comes to having draft assets, but neither are at the level of the Thunder when it comes to being competitive.
There’s also the value James brings beyond the basketball court. He’s arguably the most marketable athlete on the planet. He drives ticket sales, merchandise sales and sponsorships. The Lakers are considered the premier basketball franchise and value having superstars on the roster to continue building their brand. Are they really going to be the ones to trade who many consider the greatest player of all time?
What the Lakers should do at the deadline
However, the Lakers cannot continue down this road. The first move would be to put Vanderbilt in the starting lineup instead of Prince. The Lakers could look to add a low-cost bench 3-and-D option, such as Dorian Finney-Smith or Landry Shamet, to provide more flexibility for Ham.
The prospect of Dejounte Murray is intriguing but the Lakers would likely have to give up either Reaves or Russell to make that deal work. And while Murray did show some good defensive chops in San Antonio, he has really struggled on that side of the ball in Atlanta. Are the Lakers getting Spurs Murray or Hawks Murray?
James holds a $51 million player option for next season, which he seems likely to decline if his son Bronny James declares for the NBA draft. James has stated he wants to play with his son, so that could be the case for 2024-25. In theory, the Lakers would lose him for nothing but James has done a sign-and-trade deal before. He could opt into his deal and then get a move to the team that takes Bronny, with the Lakers getting something in return.
LA is currently the No. 9 seed in the West, four games back of the sixth and final automatic playoff spot. The conference is loaded, with the Lakers being one of nine teams with 25+ wins. A trade won’t separate them from the pack but James can do that in a playoff series. There’s no reason to move him now.