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December 29, 2022

Could the Sixers trade for LeBron James next summer?

If LeBron James wants out of Los Angeles next summer, could the Sixers entice him?

LeBron James had some quotes about wanting to win right now on Wednesday night. The Sixers are trying to win now to the point that they paid a 37-year-old role player upwards of 10 million a year. You’re going to hear the case that they (eventually) trade for a much better, soon-to-be 38-year-old whether you like it or not.

Snark aside, LeBron and his current Lakers team are not in good shape. Anthony Davis is out for an indeterminable period of time, L.A. is 14-21 (3.5 games out of the last play-in spot), and they don’t appear particularly inclined to push more chips in for this group. All of this prompted ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, a reporter LeBron is known to trust, to ask how long he thinks he has left. That question drew this answer:

I don't have a number. I know as long as my mind stays in it, I can play at this level for a minute. Now, that's up to my mind. My body is going to be OK because if my mind is into it, I will make sure my body is taken care of and I'll continue to put in the work. So, I'm a winner and I want to win. And I want to win and give myself a chance to win and still compete for championships. That has always been my passion, that has always been my goal since I entered the league as an 18-year-old kid out of Akron, Ohio. And I know it takes steps to get there, but once you get there and know how to get there, playing basketball at this level just to be playing basketball is not in my DNA. It's not in my DNA anymore. So, we'll see what happens and see how fresh my mind stays over the next couple years.

If we are at the point that he is saying all of this at a podium, things are obviously not good. This is a man who knows better than anyone else in the league how powerful his voice is, and this is pressure being put on the Lakers, indirect though it may be. I’m obligated, of course, to note that the Lakers are in this spot because he chose them and helped pressure the front office into going with a Russell Westbrook trade over a trade for complementary pieces around him and Anthony Davis, but I digress.

Before we go any further, we must acknowledge that LeBron signing a big-money extension in late September means that he cannot be traded this year, as he first becomes tradable five days after the 2023 deadline. Not helpful for the Sixers in their attempt to win this season, obviously.

You’re still waiting for me to answer why this has anything to do with the Sixers at all. Let’s run through some reasons these two could find a mutually desirable suitor in the summer of 2023, with the very big disclaimer that this is a mental exercise rather than present-day reporting. It’s the end of the year, let’s have some fun.

1. Previous attraction

Let’s say the Sixers find themselves stuck in the same spot they’ve been in for years when this season comes to an end. They lose in the second round, they’re clearly missing a little something extra, and maybe James Harden remains stuck in that middle ground too — not consistent enough to command whatever he wants from whoever he wants. There’s enough belief to keep the stars together another year, but not enough firepower to get it done as a group. In that spot, don’t you have to kick the tires on LeBron and see if you can convince him to force his way to Philly?

It was not too long ago that LeBron gave Philadelphia at least some consideration in free agency, even if we concede he was always destined for L.A. The roster and management have changed, with his Klutch buddy and once protege Ben Simmons hitting the old dusty trail, but Joel Embiid has ascended to superstar status in the time since. Coming to Philly is a more attractive proposition now than it has ever been, with a perennial MVP candidate in his prime and ready to go for it all. If LeBron does leave the Lakers, he’s not leaving to play with developing talent unless the move is to return to Cleveland again.

The L.A. move may have been about brand building and off-court legacy as much as it was about basketball. Perhaps LeBron sees now that giving himself one last opportunity to really compete for titles is more valuable than, I don’t know, making Space Jam 2. And we’ve all transitioned to remote work anyway, so he can sit in on Zoom calls if he’s got other irons in the fire.

2. Pieces to make a trade work

In the off-season, the Sixers will be armed with Tobias Harris’ expiring deal and an ascending Tyrese Maxey, and only a little bit of extra salary is needed in order to deal that pairing to L.A. If James wants out, the Lakers would be hard-pressed to get a better young player back than Maxey, and Harris’ money coming off the books would give L.A. a shot to chase some big-time free agents in 2024, most notably Devin Booker, Jaylen Brown, and Pascal Siakam.

It may take less than Maxey for all I know, as I don’t think there’s really a precedent for trading this type of player this deep into their career. Frankly, I don’t have any idea what it would take for the Lakers to actually make a LeBron James trade before his contract is up.

Assuming it would take draft some draft capital on top of the outgoing players, the Sixers are light on picks to send, with their next available first to trade coming in 2029. That’s a long way away, and it would be a highly risky move to send that out for James ahead of his age-39 season. But banners hang forever, and as we learned when people (including the Sixers) outright refused the idea of trading Ben Simmons for Kawhi Leonard, prioritizing the long-term window over a real-deal chance to win immediately can be just as prickly. 

3. Merging the timelines

Right now, the Sixers have (mostly) committed to winning now but still have to do a bit of timeline straddling as they try to bring Tyrese Maxey along and mold him into the best version of himself. That’s sort of where the “Should he move to sixth man?” conversation comes from. De’Anthony Melton is a more obvious two-way fit alongside the current starters, but the Sixers owe it to themselves to get their highest-upside prospect as many minutes as possible with the other core guys. That’s going to lead to some hiccups along the way, and it could even cost the Sixers important games at some point. Commit to a load-up year where anything short of a title is failure, and you don’t have that problem anymore.

On the other end of the deal, as we established up top, LeBron is clearly not pleased with where the Lakers sit on their timeline. Bringing him to Philadelphia would highlight the urgency on his part and the team’s part to win while they have a real chance to do so. The Sixers would only need to worry about having players who fill in the gaps between their three stars. They'd have LeBron for at least one year, maybe two if he picks up his player option in 2024-25.

4. LeBron is good at basketball

You may have heard of this guy before, but in case you haven’t kept up with the Lakers this year, he’s averaging roughly 28/8/6 this season on a team that stinks outside of him. He may be old, but he’s a generation-defining player, so the talent is still there to justify having interest in him.

Think of what the Sixers could do with a ballhandler like Harden, a center like Embiid, and a do-it-all forward like LeBron. Each could take turns running different units and effectively protecting one another from wear and tear. All three players need three-and-D players around them to succeed, so anybody else you’d try to acquire would be chased with that in mind.

We all know Daryl Morey obsesses over star power and thinks it's close to the only thing that matters when the playoffs roll around. There would be no starrier team than this.

5. One of your best players has actually won before

Not a small deal. Harden and Embiid are trying to figure out exactly what it takes to lead a team to a title, and LeBron could be the wily vet who shares the details as he nears his retirement. I'm sure there will be the "LeBron isn't a closer!" stuff said in response to this, and I actually think there's some merit to that at his current age, given it has gotten tougher for him to get by guys. Still, a much, much better resume than their current two stars.

Now, let’s get into the problems.

Why not?

On Philadelphia’s end, there are a lot of reasons to say no right off the rip:

— The Sixers are already built around a center with regular health issues and a declining Harden, who himself has dealt with injuries the past couple of years. Adding James as he’s set to turn 39 is as high risk as it gets, even if James is an outlier among outliers at his age. All it takes is one injury to any of these guys to send things spiraling, and even without an injury, physical decline might just sap effectiveness enough to leave this team too old and too slow in the playoffs.

— Trying to mesh the talents of the Harden/LeBron/Embiid trio would be quite the challenge. They are three immensely gifted offensive players, but not necessarily complementary players. LeBron is in the midst of his worst outside shooting season ever, Harden has struggled to be an impactful off-ball player, and there’s some overlap with the spots Embiid and LeBron would want to operate from. Add on potential ego clashing and you have a whole different set of problems.

— Let’s just say LeBron’s defensive impact and general attentiveness have dropped off from his peak. You can hide some of this with surrounding talent and Embiid at the five, and James is at least huge if nothing else, with the strength to wall off plenty of bigger wings even as he ages. But there would definitely be quite a few “I’m saving myself” games between this trio in the regular season, and it would drive everyone insane.

And then there’s the matter of James needing to get to the point of actually wanting out, and also getting to the point of wanting to go to Philly specifically. If he’s obsessed with just a one-shot chance at a title, is he taking that chance with guys who haven’t won? Is his obsession with legacy taking him to a place where they probably won’t be super forgiving if it all goes belly up?

I’ve wondered a lot recently whether the weight of a single bubble title is enough in L.A., where expectations are always sky-high and the rest of the years have been middling-to-bad. Think about how divisive the idea of signing LeBron was in Philly when the opportunity was there years ago, and then try to imagine the blowback if they (for example) traded someone like Maxey to get him here and then failed to win. Fair or not, it would send him into retirement with a negative tailwind behind him as he continues striving for the GOAT moniker in his final years. If Lebron is going to ask out of the Lakers, I tend to think he’d either going shoot for the moon (e.g. go to the Knicks), go home to Cleveland, or remain in L.A. by moving to the other team in the City of Angels, the Clippers. Either you go for the biggest legacy-shifting title possible in an absolutely enormous market, return to your roots, or stay in L.A. but move to (at this point) a better-run franchise.

But if other options are actually on the table, and this Lakers experiment reaches its end, maybe, just maybe, this once-rumored pairing could finally happen. 

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