Perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but fans aren’t the only ones who enjoy playing what-if. NBA executives and scouts do as well.
And with both the Los Angeles Lakers and Brooklyn Nets on pace to miss the playoffs, the front-office speculation around the league is whether this could inspire a fantasy league-type exchange of discounted superstars. Not just Russell Westbrook for Kyrie Irving — which was rumored last summer — but Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant added to the mix.
Sound farfetched? While no one in the league is convinced it will happen, several GMs believe that it could.
“Who would do that? All parties involved,” an Eastern Conference GM said.
There’s no indication that either team has reached out to the other at this point, but the Lakers, league sources say, have known since last summer that their current roster isn’t capable of competing for another championship. They were highly interested, those sources say, in swapping point guards, but the Nets never “engaged,” said one source.
The question now is — with Irving embroiled in another distraction courtesy of a social media post viewed as antisemitic and a contentious exchange with a media member because of it — are the Nets now receptive?
“Way too early to call,” a second Eastern Conference GM said. “It makes some sense for both, but Kyrie is such a wild card right now.”
One question is whether the Lakers are desperate enough to include their two available future first-round picks in 2027 and 2029. While the Lakers would appear to be the far worse team (league-low two wins, 29th in net rating) compared to the Nets (4-7, 18th in net rating), a Western Conference scout believes the Nets should be more eager to make a change.
“The Nets should be highly motivated to move the albatross of the modern NBA and receive value,” the scout said, referring to Irving. “Otherwise, he walks this summer and the Nets get nothing. The Nets need size, and they have urgency for this season. I think the Lakers are looking a year down the road.”
Another Eastern Conference GM believes the Nets only engage the Lakers if Durant reiterates the trade demand he made last summer and then rescinded. Early indications are that Durant has no issues with Jacque Vaughn being named the full-time head coach and appears content to remain a Net — for now.
“Any rebuild,” the GM said, “would begin if and when KD wants out.”
Both the Lakers and Nets are among the top five teams in player payroll this season. Both are also subject to a hefty luxury tax for having repeatedly gone over the threshold the last few years. That’s why the Nets, league sources said, also hope to move long-range shooter Joe Harris, who is set to make $18 million this year and $19 million next season. The Lakers adding Patrick Beverley and his expiring $13 million salary to a Westbrook-Davis deal would satisfy salary-cap trade requirements, but it would bring the deal to nearly $200 million in contracts being moved, easily a league record for a single trade.
For that reason, an Eastern Conference assistant GM is skeptical that the Nets and Lakers actually get anything done. Doing some part of the larger deal doesn’t make enough of an impact and doing the blockbuster version has too many moving parts.
“Too many stumbling blocks,” he said. “I don’t see it happening.”
WHAT ABOUT LEBRON? LeBron James signed a two-year, $97.1 million extension in August that ties him to the Lakers at least through the 2023-24 season, with a player option for the following year. But considering how this season is going so far, the Lakers’ limited resources to improve next year, and James’ notorious restlessness playing for teams that aren’t title contenders, the question has been raised in NBA circles whether James would suffer through yet another season like this one or demand to be traded.
And if he did ask to be moved, what destination would make the most sense?
There’s been plenty of speculation already about James possibly returning to Cleveland since he actually said, “Don’t close the door on that,” last February, and the Cavs are once again viewed as one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
Most executives, though, don’t see James straying that far from his family or his business interests on the West Coast. The Cavs also used a good chunk of their future draft capital in acquiring Donovan Mitchell, sending the Utah Jazz three first-round picks and the rights to swap two others.
If the Lakers were to move James, it presumably would be to acquire the treasure trove of future picks they currently lack.
A Western Conference scout pointed to the Phoenix Suns as a far more ideal candidate should they find themselves once again falling short this season in their quest for the franchise’s first championship, after reaching the Finals two years ago and then getting knocked out in a seven-game, second-round series by Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks last year.
“The Suns have proved themselves quite capable of getting close, but I think they need a little bit more if they want to get to where they want,” the scout said. “One more ball handler and playmaker.”
The presence of one of LeBron’s best friends, Chris Paul, would make it especially appealing.
“It’s the one place he’d be welcome with open arms,” the scout said. “In Phoenix, with LeBron, I think Chris would finally get his ring.”
The Suns, unlike the Cavs, have all of their draft picks available to spend. James signing an extension that will pay him nearly $47 million next season makes moving him — or him asking to be moved — more problematic, but not impossible. The viewpoint among executives is that there is no such thing as an unmovable contract these days.
Even if James doesn’t broach the subject of going elsewhere to chase another ring and finish his career, the scout believes the Lakers should.
“They need to think about moving LeBron and Anthony Davis,” he said. “They just have too many holes to fill.”
UDOKA’S FUTURE: Were the Nets former disgraced Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka’s best last chance to land another coaching job?
The league consensus is that the Nets did have interest in Udoka at one point before giving the full-time job to Jacque Vaughn last week. But with the team already embroiled in the controversies sparked by Irving, hiring a coach suspended for alleged sexual harassment was inviting even more public and media outcry.
“There is no doubt it was too much for the climate there to absorb,” one Eastern Conference GM said.
A team looking to make a coaching change that isn’t already dealing with a toxic environment, however, might not be as fazed by the circumstances that led to Udoka’s suspension in Boston. In fact, one team apparently wasn’t.
An Eastern Conference GM declined to identify the team but said, “I know for a fact a team was gathering background intel on Ime a week after everything happened in Boston,” he said. “Ime was going to be their guy if they fired their current coach.”
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” on NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds.” He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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