LeBron James to the Thunder? Why the wild trade would make sense

LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers and Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers and Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder / Joshua Gateley/GettyImages

There is something that Oklahoma City Thunder fans need to understand: LeBron James is definitely, probably not, certainly, potentially, absolutely not being traded. Maybe.

That's the level of confusion and speculation swirling around the NBA's biggest brand and one of the two greatest players in NBA history. Even as LeBron James defies Father Time and is in the midst of yet another All-NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers are floundering on the very rim of the postseason race in the Western Conference.

Would the Lakers trade LeBron James?

After yet another desultory loss by the Lakers, rumors began circulating that LeBron, the Lakers or both sides were considering a trade to send the 21-year veteran and recently-named All-Star starter to a contending team. When LeBron then sat out the Lakers' next game, the rumors only spiked in volume.

These sorts of rumors are hardly brand new; Bill Simmons of The Ringer hypothesized on some LeBron trades earlier in the season and set off a whirlwind of speculation. What made the rumors different this time around was that they were not begun with speculation, but rather reporting from an NBA insider with a proven track record.

The James trade rumors took on a life of their own for 24 hours before LeBron's longtime friend and agent Rich Paul made a statement that "LeBron won't be traded, and we aren't asking to be."

It's possible that this is the end of the speculation. LeBron James has never been traded in any of his 21 seasons in the league, after all (he was technically sign-and-traded from Cleveland to Miami). But where there is smoke there is often fire, and even if LeBron and Rich Paul put it out this time around, there will be embers smoldering until they can reignite.

The idea of another team trading for LeBron James is seemingly far-fetched. He makes $47.6 million this season with a $51.4 million player option for next season. He is 39 years old and, despite his victories over aging thus far, will at some point soon begin to fall off, and has increasingly dealt with injuries over the past few seasons.

For a team to trade for James they would need to a title contender with enough matching salary to bring him in without disrupting their core, enough excess draft capital to make it worth the Lakers' while, and the long-range outlook not to be afraid of him walking this summer in free agency, to go play with his son Bronny James or elsewhere.

There are a few teams that could try and convince themselves that they fit that description, including the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers. Ultimately, however, there is only one team in the entire NBA that truly fits that bill: the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder would be the perfect LeBron trade destination

The Thunder are awash in extra draft picks, both in the near-term and long-term. They have a large chunk of expiring money in Davis Bertans and Aleksej Pokusevski to get a deal started, and they are well under the luxury tax line to give them flexibility to take back more salary than they are sending out.

Assuming that Josh Giddey and Luguentz Dort are a part of the deal (you could swap Giddey out for another small salary, but Dort almost has to be in the deal to make the money work) the Thunder could deploy this lineup: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Cason Wallace, Jalen Williams, LeBron James and Chet Holmgren. Vasilije Micic, Isaiah Joe, Aaron Wiggins, Kenrich Williams and Jaylin Williams would all be ready off the bench, with the Thunder instantly being a contender to add players off of the buyout market.

The Thunder don't have many weaknesses as a team, but adding LeBron James would erase their size and strength one, at least in large part. He would give them a third unstoppable force on offense, he's a better shooter than Dort and Giddey, and his playmaking would only help on a team with weapons at every position.

LeBron would probably elect to walk in free agency to join another team; no one is expecting the biggest name in basketball to live in Oklahoma long-term. Yet if he did play out that final year of his contract, the Thunder would be the easy title favorites next season as well.

The Thunder will get expensive soon as their youg stars need to get paid; adding an expensive "star" right now is a difficult ask when you look at their long-term salary and the implications of team-building with the second-apron in place. That all goes away with James, as by the time Holmgren and Williams need to be paid he'll have moved on.

It's a fascinating possibility to consider. It's almost certainly a pipe dream; while James can't officially block a trade, he holds a lot of sway and could almost certainly guide his destination. Yet if he's looking for a legitimate run at a title, it's hard to argue with the success and the roster in Oklahoma City this season.

LeBron to the Thunder? It has a nice ring to it.