Tomase: If Celtics seriously want to acquire LeBron James, here's how they could do it

John Tomase
June 08, 2018 - 9:49 am
LeBron James and Jayson Tatum

David Butler II/USA Today Sports

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If LeBron James wants to play for the Celtics, forget about free agency and remember these three words: sign-and-trade.

That's the most realistic way the Best Player on the Planet is coming to Boston this offseason, and even then the odds are remote almost to the point of fancy.

But since Stephen A. Smith mentioned the Celtics as a potential landing spot for The King once he's swept out of power by the Warriors -- maybe as soon as Friday's Game 4 of the NBA Finals -- we might as well at least investigate how LeBron in green could come to pass.

The NBA salary cap is not my area of expertise, but it is Ryan Bernardoni's. Think of the former CelticsHub.com editor as the NBA equivalent of Miguel from PatsCap.com. He's the guys who knows the numbers that the rest of us, reporters included, couldn't keep straight with an abacus and Excel.

And while he's reluctant to seriously engage on the topic -- "Hard to imagine this happening," he wrote in an e-mail -- he at least laid out the basic form a deal would likely take.

First off, forget about an outright signing in free agency. Landing LeBron would realistically require not only trading two among Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, the deals would require willing trade partners with cap space, which eliminates about 80 percent of the league. The goal is clearing those salaries off the books to make room for the $35 million or so James would command as part of a max deal. The Celtics open the offseason about $30 million over the cap, per RealGM.com.

Because the NBA no long counts non-guaranteed contracts when matching salary in trade, the Celtics wouldn't have the option of acquiring and then cutting filler. At least one of their two injured stars would need to be sent to a team that could accommodate their salaries -- like, say, the Atlanta Hawks -- with the Celtics receiving draft picks in return.

If they wanted to clear the space to go straight free agency, they'd likely need to move not only Hayward, but also one of the Jays (Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown), and that's not happening.

More likely is a sign-and-trade. Bernardoni notes that the Chris Paul opt-in/get traded model that landed the All-Star point guard in Houston wouldn't apply, because James would need to opt in before the offseason, which would negate his ability to conduct a free agent tour. Also, the Cavs are technically still playing. That said, if James did opt-in to the final year of his deal and force a trade to Boston, he could be dealt straight up for Hayward.

So how would a sign-and-trade work? It would have to involve a third team, because the Cavs are in cap hell and looking to start a rebuild somewhere south of the tax line. The likely player to move would be Hayward, because there's positional duplication, and James would probably want to play with Horford, who's a perfect floor-spacing teammate, not to mention defender against LeBron's nemeses in Golden State. The third team would take Hayward and send something to Cleveland.

"LeBron forces this by saying 'trade me to Boston or I sign in (Place X),' because the C's are not a cap space threat," Bernardoni wrote. "The C's have more than enough high-value players and picks to make it worth it for everyone, if they want."

The same deal could be made with Irving, but his $20 million salary is $11 million lower than Hayward's, so it would require moving Marcus Morris and others as well, depending on James' desire to max out every dollar. Also, it's worth noting that Irving cannot be traded to the Cavs at the moment becuase of a rule prohibiting teams from reacquiring a player already traded within that league year.

Finally, as Bernardoni notes, a sign-and-trade invokes a hard cap at the tax line, plus $6 million, and James would be making more than the players sent out already, so Marcus Smart probably couldn't be signed for anything beyond the $6.1 million qualifying offer, and Aron Baynes would have to pack up all of Australia, too.

That's how to make the math work. Left unsaid are so many variables: can Kyrie stomach playing with LeBron again or, after forcing his way out of Cleveland, would he balk in Boston, too? Would any team be willing to assume the risk of Hayward following his season-ending broken leg? Does LeBron actually want to come here? Do the Celtics have legitimate interest?

Those are the questions that really matter in this exercise of the unlikely. As for the numbers, there's at least technically a path to making them work, for whatever that's worth.

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