The Lakers Cannot Trade LeBron James

LeBron James
LeBron James / Harry How/GettyImages

The relationship between LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers appears to be getting worse by the day. LeBron is unhappy because he's 37 years-old and his team stinks. The Lakers didn't even try to fix that problem at the trade deadline, mostly because it would have required getting rid of Russell Westbrook, which was impossible without including their next available draft pick. Los Angeles, quite reasonably, didn't want to give that up for what would likely amount to a marginal upgrade this season.

The public battle of perception happening between LeBron, Klutch, and the Lakers is painting an ugly picture of their relationship. There is also no solution in sight. LeBron is under contract through next season. The Lakers can bend over backwards to try to reconfigure the roster this summer but it's going to be very difficult with Westbrook's $47 million player option. They also might not be inclined to try all that hard because it was LeBron who wanted Westbrook in the building.

This has not stopped the sports media folks from trying to find a solution, and the arrows are pointing in an unexpected direction: trade LeBron James. Colin Cowherd opened his show today by explaining how trading the generational superstar is the only way to really fix the Lakers. Longtime L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke made the same argument in an article today. As Cowherd explained yesterday, this was an unthinkable idea five years ago, but at this stage, it should be a realistic option.

Here's the thing: trading LeBron makes basketball sense to a degree. He makes a lot of money, would obviously fetch a very significant return, and the void left in his absence would permit a more standard power structure within the organization. Anthony Davis is very good when he's healthy and the Lakers are definitely capable of putting together a competitive team around AD and the high-level pieces they'd receive for LeBron.

But the Lakers brand simply cannot afford to trade LeBron James. A significant chunk of their reputation revolves around how great it is to be a star with the Lakers. Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson are cemented as basketball legends and city icons because they played for the Lakers. The city is obviously the central attraction; the allure of being very rich in Los Angeles is very strong to nearly everybody on the planet. But there's zero discussion about stars trying to force their way to the other team in Los Angeles. There's no competition. Elite basketball players want to play in Los Angeles, and they want to play for the Lakers because that's where the stars go to play.

But if they trade LeBron? The best player of the century? The heir to Michael Jordan? That would change. I'm not saying players will subsequently shun the Lakers and line up to play for the Clippers. But if the next big superstar to hit free agency or the trade market were considering going to L.A., how could they feel secure signing up to play for the Lakers knowing they traded LeBron? If the Lakers trade LeBron, they can trade anybody.

Obviously that is part of the deal with being a professional athlete. Anybody can be traded-- in theory. In practice, superstars are rarely traded without their go-ahead. True game-changing superstars like LeBron are never traded unless they ask. And if LeBron asks, that changes everything.

Right now, the discussion isn't whether or not LeBron will ask for a trade. It's about whether or not the Lakers would trade him. And unless they get a formal trade request, they won't. Not because it doesn't make basketball sense. But because they just can't do it.