At the time of this story publishing, Lakers star LeBron James is currently the No. 1 trending player in Fanspo’s trade machine. On normal occasions that would seem insane — and it still kind of is — but in this case, fans are just following the news cycle.
To be clear, it still seems unlikely that the Lakers will actually trade LeBron for a variety of reasons, but there has been so much smoke over the last week that it’s not surprising that fans are flocking to the trade machine to find The King a new castle. Here’s how we got here.
How did the LeBron James trade rumors and speculation start?
It all started fairly simply: With an hourglass emoji. LeBron tweeted one after the Lakers lost to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday:
This came on the heels of a postgame talk with reporters in which — after Lakers PR ended the interview — James said “Way to cut me off because I was about to…” before trailing off.
What was he about to do? We’ll never know for sure, but it certainly didn’t seem that he was going to finish his sentence with “… thank the Lakers front office for building this beautiful roster, and say that I hope they stand pat at the trade deadline.”
After it was announced James would be out against the Boston Celtics two nights later, speculation about his future status with the team kicked up to a fever pitch when KTLA reporter David Pingalore tweeted the following:
Full disclosure: I had never heard of Pingalore before that moment, and I’m based in Los Angeles. So normally I would not cite him in a news article like this.
However, like many members of NBA Twitter, I had to channel my inner Shaq and apologize to him for not being familiar with his game, as Pingalore has a fairly extensive history of getting NBA transactions right:
At that point, noise got loud enough that LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul, felt the need to give an on-the-record quote to Brian Windhorst of ESPN the next day saying that his client would not be requesting a trade or being traded:
“LeBron won’t be traded, and we aren’t asking to be,” Paul said in reaction to some growing speculation about James’ future ahead of next week’s trade deadline.
So that put all this to bed, right? Well… not quite. On late Friday night, ahead of a matchup with the New York Knicks, James not only tweeted the following reply…
… which normally would be nothing, but still caught some attention because of #LeMojiWatch2024, but also went on the next day to:
- decline to explain his hourglass emoji tweet to reporters
- say that he was undecided on his $51 million contract option to remain with the team next season
- add that he’d always considered playing for the Knicks
LeBron James declined to offer clarity on his ⌛️ tweet and when asked if he knows what he will do with his contract option for the Lakers this summer said, “No.” pic.twitter.com/0IydouZpPm
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) February 3, 2024
Now, as anyone who has closely followed him knows, the next step in the LeBron playbook is going to be to get mad at the media for making too much of this or say they took him out of context: It’s just what he does.
That said, when you combine all this noise and passive-aggressive agitating from him to try and get the team to make upgrades at the NBA trade deadline with his agent very publicly making peace with the Knicks and ending the Creative Artists Agency vs. Klutch Sports pseudo proxy war, it’s not surprising that fans and media alike are wondering if and when he will leave the Lakers at yet another trade deadline.
Could the Lakers actually trade LeBron?
Legally, yes. The only players the Lakers cannot trade because of contract complications are Anthony Davis and Jarred Vanderbilt. James’ approximately $47.6 salary for this season with the aforementioned player option worth over $51 million for next year are tradeable. He also does not have a (legal) no-trade clause, although — for reasons I’ll get into in the next section — he probably has a functional, albeit unofficial one.
Is a LeBron trade actually happening?
Despite all this noise, it still seems doubtful. For one thing, that would be a hell of a pivot to make in-season for the Lakers, and a huge decision to make in less than a week before the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline. There is also the reality that Paul is probably telling the truth about LeBron not wanting one during the season. With his son Bronny playing his first collegiate basketball season at nearby USC and the rest of the James family very much based in Los Angeles, it’s unlikely LeBron wants to uproot himself right now, no matter how long he’s thought about playing for the Knicks.
And for the Lakers, while they could just trade LeBron regardless of what he wants, that seems unlikely to happen. No matter how fine they seem to be with pissing him off heading into the trade deadline every year, it would be akin to franchise suicide for this ownership group to trade a player of LeBron’s stature against his will. If there is one thing you can credit the team’s brain trust of Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka and the Rambii for in their tenures — and it’s hard to find more than the one — it’s that they understand that while NBA free agency is mostly dead as players prefer to extend and then demand trades, the Lakers are a glamour-market franchise stars will always want to resuscitate: see James, LeBron in 2018.
Exiling LeBron without his sign-off would probably make future stars question whether they’d get stabbed in the back, too, and would seemingly be a huge red line they won’t cross as a result.
Now, with ALL THAT CONTEXT out of the way… LeBron James for Julius Randle and Evan Fournier works in the trade machine:
Knicks and Lakers fans, I’ll let you haggle over how many draft picks New York would have to include in the comments.