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NBA Free Agency 2018: LeBron James trade scenarios but why Paul George should be more compelling for New Orleans Pelicans

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Fantasy dreaming: The King or PG13?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Eight years ago, LeBron James sat down with Jim Gray on ESPN for “The Decision,” one of the most controversial moments in NBA Free Agent history.

Four years later, James and Lee Jenkins penned his return to Cleveland through a Sports Illustrated article, “I’m Coming Home.”

Like clockwork, four years have passed and James is at it again, seeking greener and more triumphant pastures.

Fans across the league are wondering, why can’t LeBron come here?

Stephen A. Smith has since reported LeBron is planning to hold meetings with Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, Golden State and possibly San Antonio.

Many Pelicans fans are asking, ”Why not New Orleans?”

Alvin Gentry’s squad boasts a top three MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate to go along with Jrue Holiday, who along with AD, finished on the All-NBA Defensive First Team.

With a healthy DeMarcus Cousins, the Pelicans had their eyes set on attempting the impossible in the postseason and hopes culminated during the defeat of the Houston Rockets on January 26th that wasn’t as close as the final score, 115-113, would indicate.

How could such a transaction take place?

First, LeBron has to opt into his player option, especially if the Pelicans re-sign Boogie. Then New Orleans would need to shed salary on a third, fourth, and potentially fifth team, and acquire enough assets to make the transaction worth it to Cleveland.

The Cavaliers went deep into the tax in the 2017/18 season. Following the deadline trades for Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and George Hill, the Cavaliers are set to pay a $50 million tax bill. Thanks repeater tax. And things would get even more expensive if James decides to stay, but we’re not going to operate under that assumption.

So first things first, the Cavaliers need to shed salary, not add to their total. Cleveland will not pay that penal repeater tax again no matter what they are able to get in exchange for LeBron James. They simply cannot contend without him, regardless of the haul, so any team seeking a sign-and-trade for LeBron will need in most instances to ship out salary another team(s) to absorb his $35.6 million player option.

But across the NBA, few teams have the requisite space to dump unwanted salary.

The Pelicans have three options in a LeBron-to-New-Orleans scenario:

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

1) Easiest thing is to dump Jrue Holiday and his $25+ million dollar annual salary.

Sure, sacrificing the Pelicans Most Improved Player, and critical “cornerstone” as Demps and Gentry referred to him, would be a dramatic turn, but we are talking about The King here!

The Pelicans could either move Holiday to a team like Phoenix, Atlanta, Brooklyn or Sacramento and forward the assets offered by those teams to Cleveland, or could ship him directly to Cleveland and let Cleveland figure out on their own how they’ll manage to dump Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love, and/or J.R. Smith.

New Orleans would then likely need to send at least one of Alexis Ajinca, Nikola Mirotic, Solomon Hill or E’Twaun Moore elsewhere in a dump in order to acquire space to fill out the roster with veteran minimum players.

2) The most popular one among local fans: shipping out matching salary that doesn’t include Davis or Holiday, and New Orleans re-signing Boogie.

General Manager Dell Demps made clear Mrs. Gayle Benson might be willing to pay the tax under the right circumstances, and adding the best player in the league should certainly qualify. However, it would be ideal if the Pelicans could remain well enough under the apron ($128 million) to utilize their full Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions.

As the roster currently stands, the Pelicans have roughly $93 million dedicated to AD, Holiday, Mirotic, Moore, Hill, Ajinca and Frank Jackson. Should the Pelicans re-sign DeMarcus Cousins for anywhere close to the max that would have them knocking on the door of the luxury tax line ($123 million). That number does not include the partial or unguaranteed contracts of Cheick Diallo, DeAndre Liggins, Emeka Okafor and Darius Miller.

So, the Pelicans would have to start with a package similar to Solomon Hill ($12.7 million), Nikola Mirotic ($12.5 million) and E’Twaun Moore ($8.8 million) to match Lebron’s incoming $35.6 million player option.

Now realize Cleveland would not have interest in all of these players — why pay the repeater tax it the team isn’t even playoff-caliber? Thus, the Pelicans would have to find takers elsewhere and hopefully acquire enough assets to send to Cleveland to make the deal work. Also, the Pelicans could not take ANY money back from those teams, because they are assimilating all of Lebron James $35 million figure.

Remember in 2010 the Cleveland Cavaliers did not take back salary from Miami to make the deal work. They simply accepted picks. Two first round picks, two seconds, swap rights, and a $15 million trade exception. Not too shabby, eh?

So where to send some Pelicans?

Shipping out Nikola Mirotic is the easiest part, as he is not only as valuable player but also an expiring contract. The Pelicans should be able to acquire at least a high second round pick, if not a late first.

E’Twaun Moore was the Pelicans best shooter last year, and he did an admirably job defensively against both C.J. McCollum and Klay Thompson. Shifting him for a second round pick is quite possible as he’s on a friendly deal paying him less than $10 million over the next two seasons, but recognize few teams have the space available to take on such sums. Most of those teams would probably be better suited to save their money once they’re ready to pursue deep playoff runs.

So here we are, with a late first round pick for Mirotic, a second round pick for Moore, several of the Pelicans’ future picks, and one giant problem: Solomon Hill.

We’ve seen the going rate for bad contracts. They are either immovable or cost a lottery pick, such as DeAngelo Russell. With Hill’s two remaining years and $26 million, though, it’s not the worst deal, but it would likely require a lottery pick, or two late first round picks to move.

To summarize, the Pelicans send out Nikola Mirotic (maybe to Indiana or Utah?) and E’Twaun Moore for a late first and mid second, and they send out their own 2019 unprotected pick and 2021 lottery protected pick (converts to two seconds if doesn’t convey) for the right to dump Solomon Hill (Atlanta, Sacramento, Phoenix, Brooklyn).

This, as I understand it, would mean the Pelicans could not offer any protections on that ‘19 pick because if the picks don’t convert, they then potentially convert in back to back years — which violates the Stepien Rule. In addition, picks can only be traded up to seven years, meaning the Pelicans can only include their 2023, and possibly 2025 picks to Cleveland.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

At roughly $123 million (assuming the Pels sign Boogie), the Pelicans have but AD, Jrue, Lebron, Boogie, Frank Jackson, and Alexis Ajinca under contract, with no means of acquiring outside talent with the exception of the minimum. The Pelicans could consider stretching Ajinca at this point, which would bring the number to roughly $119 million which would allow the space needed to sign Rajon Rondo under the Bi-annual Exception.

Logistically, this is close to making it work as far as I know, but it means the Pelicans have but one first round pick until 2022, and it would severely cripples any bench the Pelicans could feasibly create. But with a lineup of Rondo, Jrue, Lebron, AD and Boogie, it might be worth it.

Again, this is all predicated on Lebron agreeing to New Orleans and Cleveland accepting the Pelicans’ offer. To suggest the Cavaliers have no power in this scenario is simply not true. If Cleveland refuses an offer, Lebron’s only options become teams with cap space (Philly, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas).

3) Let DeMarcus Cousins walk.

If the Pelicans let Boogie walk, everything becomes easier in any trade with Cleveland. However, the team would still have to be careful with exceeding the luxury tax, but Dell Demps could get creative by stretching Alexis Ajinca, and finding a dumping ground for Solo, thereby providing the space needed to resign Rajon Rondo (if desired), Ian Clark and a couple of veteran minimum signings.

However, this is all under the presumption that Lebron James doesn’t need to play with Cousins and is only concerned with playing with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday.

This third option may seem to be the simplest, but I have a simpler one:

Bonus: Ship out Nikola Mirotic and E’Twaun Moore for Paul George.

The numbers match up perfectly, and Oklahoma City could desperately use everything that Mirotic and Moore bring. With a lineup of Westbrook-Roberson-Moore-Mirotic-Adams, the Thunder would possess a nice mix of defense and shooting needed to compliment Westbrook’s style of play.

For New Orleans, the decision is easy. Paul George is a superstar in his own right: a five-time All-Star, a three-time All-NBA recipient, and a two-time NBA All Defensive Team member.

Consider a lineup of Rondo-Holiday-PG-AD-Boogie. Paul George compliments what the Pelicans do beautifully on both ends. Plus, New Orleans would actually save one million in this transaction and could further enhance the roster by seeking to move Hill and Ajinca in separate deals to acquire additional talent.

Losing Niko and Moore hurts, but they are crucial in making this deal a reality. The Thunder seek to contend, and would have absolutely no interest in Solomon Hill or Alexis Ajinca —barring an injury to Russell Westbrook.

Summary

We’ve seen this song and dance from LeBron before. He could take as much as a week to come to a decision. By that time, many of the pieces across the NBA could be gone, and the teams waiting for The King will be left empty-handed.

On the other hand, Paul George is really only choosing between Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Oklahoma City. Every prognosticator has George going to Los Angeles and for several great reasons, but consider this:

The best the Lakers can offer the ‘free agent’ George is four years and $130 million.

NBA: Preseason-New Orleans Pelicans at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Pelicans convince him to opt into his player option and acquire him via trade, they can then offer George a five-year, $176 million extension. Remember, he is not yet eligible for the super max, as he has been traded and has not yet passed the 10-year veteran threshold.

Paul George’s current salary of $20.7 million is easier on the Pelicans’ books and does not require unloading Solomon Hill until the trade deadline when he and Alexis Ajinca will likely have a bit more value. As an expiring, Ajinca will grant a team looking to get off salary a welcome reprieve.

Solomon Hill will likely return to good health and perform close to his 2016/17 version than the one we witnessed last year coming off a torn hamstring. He should recoup at least ‘some’ value. This could allow Demps to work his magic much as he did last season in acquiring Mirotic.

At the deadline, many teams could decide to ‘tank’ or stave off the luxury tax (Wizards, Raptors, Blazers) so offloading talent for the relief that Ajinca provides becomes enviable and there in would make swallowing Solo’s contract a bit easier.

Boasting a Rondo-Jrue-PG-AD-Boogie starting lineup (!!!) with a bench of Jackson, Solo, Darius, Diallo, Okafor, and whatever veteran miniums Dell can acquire (Ian Clark?), the Pels would sit in a position at the deadline to either acquire talent, or send out Solomon Hill to avoid paying the luxury tax.

**Disclaimer: this is all under the unlikely presumption that every superstar in America is dying to play with Anthony Davis and see New Orleans as their best opportunity to win a championship now.