By Jason Keidel
Normally the NBA trade deadline is like the NFL — a hollow ritual of salary cap-clearing moves. Only baseball has real sizzle around the league’s deadline to deal players.
Not so this year, with LeBron James, er, the Cleveland Cavaliers, dealing about 40 percent of their minutes played to give LeBron new toys and a new sense that his Cavs can compete this spring.
We can debate the merits of Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr, George Hill, and the gaggle of new comrades in the hardwood trench with LeBron for the rest of the season, but this remarkable remake of the Cavaliers told us two vital things.
The Boston Celtics may have lost that game last night, but they took the Cavs to the woodshed when it came to the blockbuster trade that sent Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland and Kyrie Irving to Boston. It’s long been an NBA maxim that the club that bags the best player in a trade often wins it. Nowhere is that notion more evident than it is here.
Not only was Thomas damaged physical goods, he was toxic in the Cavs’ locker room, talking way too soon and way out of turn, making sweeping assertions about a team he just joined and didn’t even play with for the first two months of the season. After just 15 or so games, Thomas had burned the red carpet that lay out for him from the airport to the arena. In one of the more stunning, if not haunting, free-falls in modern NBA history, Thomas has decayed from MVP candidate to LeBron’s wingman to a throw-away cap dump, in Los Angeles, with the Lakers having zero interest in signing him to a max, pseudo-max, or minimum-wage contract. Add the professional carnage to the personal tragedy of losing his sister, and you could say Isaiah Thomas has had one of the worst 12-month stretches we’ve ever seen from a basketball player.
Nearly all trades have a clear winner and loser, but Danny Ainge should be indicted for some major theft. Boston beat Cleveland so badly at the bargaining table that pundits now joke that GMs across the sport don’t answer the phone when Ainge calls, swiping his name straight to voicemail.
It also says that LeBron James has symbolically waved the white flag, and surrendered the NBA title to the Warriors. Two years ago, Golden State was stacked and nearly impossible to beat, sans Kevin Durant, when Cleveland still had Irving. But since Durant migrated to Oakland, the Warriors are like the Harlem Globetrotters, with the rest of the league playing the role of the hapless Washington Generals.
Cleveland jumped from 9-5 favorites to 11-10 favorites to win the Eastern Conference, a consolation prize that has neither weight nor meaning for LeBron at this point. These last few years of his career are solely about legacy, adding cherries to a historic, hardwood pastry that has graced the league for 15 years. But, sadly, doesn’t it feel that in terms of NBA titles, this is all we’re going to get from King James?
All the cackling about a move west, to Los Angeles, is a bit farfetched. It’s being spun in lovely, mystical colors, however, as if LeBron to the Lakers were some athletic and spiritual pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Wilt, Shaq, and Kareem, three legends who made their bones in one spot then came to the greatest franchise west of Boston to add their name and game to the glittering marquee, and perhaps get their numbers hung in the rafters, and, in rare cases, get a statue.
LeBron doesn’t have enough years left to start a new career in any new town. And while there’s a romantic bent to LeBron in purple and gold, perhaps paired with L.A. native Paul George, that won’t come close to beating the Warriors. Then explain how LeBron, who got Thomas bounced from the club because he has very low tolerance for peripheral noise, will somehow have the patience for LaVar Ball.
There’s no black hat or heart ruthless enough to take it to the Warriors. In this age of spacing, space-age shooting, and delicate sense of physical play, the Warriors are just about a perfect basketball club. They have endless talent and temerity, with their core players all in their prime. They have no clear challengers, other than perhaps Houston, a team with virtually the same record (42-13) as the Warriors (43-13), and beat the Warriors twice in three games this year. But even the Rockets publicly asserted they’re trying to be like the Warriors.
Where does that leave LeBron? In Cleveland? Where his top hardwood Lieutenant is Kevin Love? Where there’s a sprawling history of discord with his employer, owner Dan Gilbert, with whom LeBron crafted a detente just long enough to deliver his homeland with their only NBA title, and Cleveland’s first major sports crown of any kind since the 1964 Browns?
If LeBron leaves for Los Angeles, it’s a move of convenience, not dominance. Why move if he can’t win? Even at his athletic, transcendent best, LeBron James has always been somewhat enigmatic. The reason he’s not Michael Jordan, we keep saying, is that winning is not life and death to LeBron James. Maybe in the absence of victory, maybe a little vanity will due. Los Angeles can certainly feed anyone’s sense of self-importance. We’ll see in six months if he’s ready for his West Coast closeup.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.