LeBron Should Force His Way to the Pelicans

The Finals are over so it’s time for the media to go all in on the “where will LeBron sign” storyline, even prior to the draft.  It’s simply the most fascinating storyline possible: where will the best player alive decide to play next season?  Many believe the most likely scenario, and perhaps best scenario, for LeBron is to get to Houston.  While it is true that in the NBA if a star tells you he is coming to your team, history shows that that team just finds a way to make it happen, regardless of cap gymnastics.

I firmly believe, however, that it is essentially impossible for LeBron to get to Houston. They would either have to strip the whole thing down, get Paul to take not the max, renounce Capela’s cap hold, and then fill the remainder of the roster with minimum guys in order to sign LeBron, or somehow work a trade.

No one is going to help the Rockets facilitate a trade where LeBron ends up in Houston, but when you look at the commodities the Rockets would be sending out, it’s just hard to come up with a scenario where it all works.  Nothing Houston has to offer would peak the Cavs interest, so at least a third team has to be involved.  Basically another team is going to have to be willing to eat Ryan Anderson’s contract or just really like Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker to the point where they are willing to give up something Cleveland actually likes.

Good luck with that.

The path to New Orleans is no less complicated, but there is at least one intriguing option should both sides be able to make all the financials work: LeBron opts into his player option, a la Chris Paul in 2017, and the Pelicans sign and trade Boogie to Cleveland.

There are big question marks there.  Cleveland would first of all have to actually want Cousins, presumably on a max contract.  Do you want Boogie, coming off a torn achilles, on a max contract?  Maybe it doesn’t need to be the full amount of years, and it could be a two plus one, so Boogie gets some guaranteed money and the ability to hit the open market again at age 29 in the summer of 2020.

Would Cleveland want to cede contract power like that the guy they’re bringing in to lead the post LeBron era?

There is also the matter of the math.  Boogie’s max can start $30.3 million for the upcoming season.  LeBron’s player option for next year is $35.6 million.  In terms of the money coming in within 125% of the outgoing salary, those numbers work.

However, there is a rule of base-year compensation, and therefore Boogie’s outgoing salary in a trade would be viewed as $18 million as opposed to $30.3 million.  (Base year is the greater of the player’s salary in the previous season or 50 percent of his new salary.)

So, and I’m not capologist (although I would be way better at my “job” if I were), this presumably leads us to believe the Pelicans need to add in another $10.48 million in outgoing salary in order to make this all work.  (To match salary in a LeBron opt-in and trade, New Orleans needs to send out $28.48 million in salary based on LeBron’s $35.6 million player option figure.)

But the Cavaliers would be taking on $38.48 million in salary, an increase from LeBron’s number.  Not a huge increase, but does Cleveland want to pay an even higher luxury tax bill for a team that will assuredly be worse next season?  Does Cleveland want Cousins at all or would they prefer to just tear the whole thing down, avoid the tax, and cross their fingers they hit another string of lottery luck that brings them three number one picks in four years? (Hyperbole, but, you get the point)

I don’t know what Cleveland prefers if they lose LeBron.  But it doesn’t matter.  If Cleveland wants Boogie knowing they will lose LeBron, and the two sides can make the math work, LeBron should seize the opportunity to take his talents to the Big Easy.

As for the other player New Orleans would have to add in to the deal to make the math work, E’Twaun Moore is making $8.8 million next season.  Does Cleveland want him?  Who knows, but this is a fantasy world anyway so let’s just say he gets shipped out to make all of this work.  To finalize the financials, New Orleans has five different trade exceptions at their disposal to make up the difference between Moore’s $8.8 million and the $10.48 million the team needs to reach.

Also, as much as it is going to pain New Orleans to keep sending out first round picks, I would have to imagine they will need to add in at least one to make this trade happen.

Ok, so, we got LeBron to New Orleans.  Let’s actually talk about why he should leverage his way onto the Pelicans in the first place.

This entire article could literally be me saying “LeBron and AD, oh lawd!” and everyone would just nod their heads in agreement.

But it is more in depth than that, and it all works favorably for LeBron.

When building a roster your first question should be, “can we get LeBron?”  If they answer is yes the next question should be, “how much shooting can we put around him?”  In New Orleans, the answer is a lot.

If LeBron joins, four out of the closing five for the Pelicans will be Jrue Holiday, LeBron, Nikola Mirotic, and Anthony Davis.

Let’s start with Holiday.  In his career he is a 36% three point shooter, and on a yearly basis his three point percentage doesn’t much deviate from the average.  He did, however, shoot 39.4% on catch and shoot threes this season, as opposed to 28.8% on pull up threes.  I’m willing to wager Jrue will see some more catch and shoot opportunities if LeBron joins the team.

Nikola Mirotic is a career 35.7% three point shooter that hit 34.7% of his catch and shoot threes last season.  These aren’t knock down numbers, but there is reason for optimism.  Mirotic was enjoying one of the best shooting stretches of his career during the 25 games he played for the Bulls last year.  He shot 42.9% from three on 6.4 attempts per game.  That is a great percentage on a high volume.  After the trade, he shot 33.5% from three on 6.6 attempts per game over 30 games.  Perhaps relocating messed with his shot.

There is some evidence that could be the case.  In Mirotic’s first season in the NBA he shot a, by far, career worst 31.6% from three.  His season totals since then have been 39%, 34.2%, and 37.7%.  I know this is some exceptional cherry picking, but if you eschew Mirotic’s rookie season and his 30 games on the Pelicans, he is a career 37.6% shooter from deep.  Seeing as how he is a career 80% shooter from the free throw line, I think predicting Mirotic to shoot in the high 30’s to low 40’s next season is more than reasonable.

As for Davis, he shot a career high 34% from deep last year.  That’s probably good enough for a stretch 5, and based on who he is teams won’t be inclined to leave him open.  This may be a situation where his gravity is more important than his actual shooting performance if it leads to better floor spacing.

Much has been made of how Rondo is a good presence in the locker room and provides leadership on this team, so it seems likely New Orleans retains him this summer.  You may question his fit with LeBron based on his career shooting record, but even with Rondo there are signs for optimism.  Last season Rondo shot a ghastly 28.6% on corner threes.  However, the the two seasons prior he shot 44.8% and 43.8%.

Imagine a world in which LeBron runs a high pick and roll with Davis, Rondo is standing in a corner and Jrue and Mirotic are also outside of the three point line.  They would basically be the Rockets, but instead of Harden/CP3 running the pick and roll with Capela, it would be LeBron and Davis.  How are you defending that?

If you have a traditional center on the floor, both Davis and LeBron will blow by them.  If you’re playing a smaller lineup, then one of the defenders caught in that pick and roll won’t be able to deal with the strength of LeBron or Davis.  Davis could just pop out for three.  If LeBron attacks the rim, and you send help, you probably send it from Rondo, who may actually be a serviceable corner three shooter now.  Otherwise you have to leave Mirotic or Jrue, both reliable shooters.

Oh, and there is no one clogging the lane.  It’s five out, with a wide open paint and five guys that have a high basketball IQ, which is something LeBron clearly wants in his teammates moving forward.

LeBron would also not have to exhaust himself with such a heavy offensive burden.  This is rather self evident, seeing as how Anthony Davis is an MVP finalist and Jrue Holiday should have been in contention for third team All-NBA.

Davis is one of the most efficient high volume post up players in the NBA, scoring on 61.4% of his post ups.  Put another way, Davis ranked 4th in the NBA in points per possession on post ups among players that averaged at least three post up possessions per game and played in at least 41 games.

Imagine a LeBron, Davis pick and roll, and then consider that Davis ranked 8th in the NBA in points per possession as a Pick and Roll Roll Man, among players with at least two such possessions per game and that played in at least 41 games.

Davis is also one of the best players in the league when getting the ball at the elbows, both in terms of scoring, as well as handing out assists among players that averaged at least three elbow touches per game and played a minimum of 41 games.

Ok, yea, you probably don’t need me to prove to you that Anthony Davis is an animal.  But remember all that floor spacing I was talking about a moment ago, in a scenario where the Pelicans can play five out given the guys on the court, resulting in a wide open lane without rim protection?  Well, Jrue Holiday was one of the most efficient drivers last season.

Holiday ranked 18th in 2017-2018 on how often he produced points on a drive, among those that averaged at least five drives per game and played at least 41 games.  Holiday also finished in the 68th percentile among Pick and Roll Ball Handlers that averaged five such possessions per game and played in at least 41 games.

Oh, and how about that would-be defense?  I think we all are pretty well aware of the fact that LeBron doesn’t want to exert any energy on defense during the regular season, and then only in the playoffs when he feels like it or feels as if it will actually make a difference.

Well, luckily for LeBron, he won’t have to try very hard, and when he is engaged this might be the best defense in basketball.  Look, Rondo might actually be the worst defensive player in the NBA, but despite that, the Pelicans were the 5th best defense in the league after Cousins got injured through the end of the regular season.

Anthony Davis is a Defensive Player of the Year finalist, and gives LeBron the best rim protection he will have ever enjoyed during his career.  Davis was 7th in the NBA in DRPM, led the league in blocks, and among players who played in at least 41 games, and defended at least 4 shots a game within 6 feet of the basket, Davis was 5th in the league in Defended Field Goal Percentage on such shots.

Oh, and Jrue Holiday was voted All-Defensive first team this season.  Jrue Holiday finished 9th in Deflections per Game, 6th in Total Deflections, 11th in Block% among guards that played at least 41 games, 5th in DRPM among point guards and 8th in DRPM among all guards.

The Pelicans can still make additional moves to try and improve the roster.  If they do add LeBron’s $35.6 million player option to their books and lose E’Twaun Moore’s contract, they would presumably have the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception available to them, if they use Rondo’s non-bird rights to retain him.

They could then go onto the market looking for a three and D wing.  That isn’t exactly the most fruitful endeavor, but bringing in someone like James Ennis would be a nice addition.

The team could also look for veterans that want to ride the LeBron train to a potential title, either with the Taxpayer MLE or on a minimum contract.

I just spent 2,100 words telling you that if LeBron joined the Pelicans the resulting team would be an immediate title contender.  Of course, you intuitively knew that, but it’s nice to have the more granular details of how it might play out.  New Orleans is one of the best possible places for LeBron to end up next season, and if Cleveland has enough interest in DeMarcus Cousins it just may actually pan out.


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