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Should LeBron James join Boston Celtics in free agency?

Zach Harper

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LeBron James Boston Celtics
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

As we look at whether or not LeBron James could go to every single team in some Rick and Morty type of alternate universe, a lot of teams end up having harsh realities they have to consider. Some teams are just perennial losers who can’t get out of their own way. Some teams are treadmill organizations that just run in place with the status quo and don’t have the flexibility to fix it. The Celtics don’t fall into those categories.

The Boston Celtics are on the cusp of contending — at least when they have a healthy squad. They have current All-Stars and future All-Stars. They possess one of the best defensive efforts in the league and can find their way into good offense for stretches. While they could obviously use LeBron, they don’t really need LeBron. But the idea of him ending up in some way on the Celtics this summer leads to a fun hypothetical.

Could LeBron James play for the Boston Celtics for four or five years and end up with his jersey retired? Let’s say LeBron gets to the Celtics, and they immediately start hanging banners up in the rafters. This team already has a crowded ceiling thanks to decades of unprecedented excellence. LeBron on the Celtics, adding two or three more banners to the arena, would immediately put him up there with some Celtics legends.

Could that be enough to give him all-time Celtics status and put his jersey up in retirement with the likes of Larry Bird, Paul Pierce, Bill Russell, and a lot more? While we ponder that idea, let’s take a look at how LeBron could get there and why he would or wouldn’t do it.

How does LeBron James get to the Celtics?

Someone has to go. The Celtics already possess three big contracts with Gordon Hayward ($31.2 million), Al Horford ($28.9 million), and Kyrie Irving ($20 million). Considering the salary cap is projected to hit $101 million next season and LeBron’s starting salary is $35.5 milion, the Celtics have huge cuts to make to their payroll. That’s the only way to fit LeBron on the squad. They also don’t want to have to finagle anything where it means nickel and diming the roster cuts by moving young, exciting, rookie deals like Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier.

The most natural selection here is moving Hayward. He and LeBron play the same position and Hayward makes the most money. If we add up Horford, Irving, LeBron, Tatum, Brown, and Rozier, that puts the Celtics at $99.4 million with roughly seven rosters spots to secure. That simply won’t cut it in terms of fitting LeBron in. And that already means salary dumps of trading away Hayward, Guerschon Yabusele, and Marcus Morris. It also entails renouncing free agent rights to Greg Monroe, Marcus Smart, Aron Baynes, and Shane Larkin. They would also have to waive Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader, and Daniel Theis.

That’s just to get within striking distance of being able to afford LeBron. They still have to move Brown or Tatum in this deal. Clearing Rozier’s $3 million probably wouldn’t even be enough. It’s a mess to make this work.

What’s working against them?

Mostly, the complications of the cap. On paper, the Celtics look incredible and on the cusp of contention. If Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum make a big but still pretty natural leap in the next two years, having them flanking Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford should provide plenty of fear for the rest of the East. Danny Ainge built this team up through a lot of cultivation, craftiness, and convincing. How much does he want to disrupt that process to bring in LeBron James in his mid-30s? That doesn’t seem like the Ainge thing to do.

Not to mention, the whole Irving-LeBron thing is weird. There are a half-dozen reasons Kyrie wanted to get away from Cleveland and that situation. But the overarching theme is Kyrie didn’t want to play with LeBron anymore. Their public comments have been incendiary since then. Does LeBron want to deal with that type of headache? Do the Celtics want to deal with that type of headache? Are these questions just filling out a section because really the biggest hurdle the Celtics would have in this scenario is simply finding a way to fit another outside max contract into their cap situation?

These are the questions that need answers.

Why would LeBron James possibly go there?

Two words: Tommy Heinsohn. Wait, that’s probably not going to be a real reason even though his belligerent charm does find a way to woo Boston fans nightly. As great as Tommy is, the real reason has a lot to do with what Heinsohn helped create decades ago.

Two more words: Storied franchise. The Celtics have more banners than just about anybody. Walk into the latest version of The Garden and you can’t help but notice their championship decorations hanging from the rafters. Even if they’ve only done it once in the past couple decades, the Celtics only believe in one thing. That’s hanging banners. LeBron James has been focused on giving himself a chance to win banners for the last decade.

Another two words: Brad Stevens. The Celtics have one of the best coaches in the NBA. He may win Coach of the Year. Think of the two coaches LeBron has had since leaving Miami. He had the international fighter pilot, David Blatt. That situation was so contentious and such a mess that the Cavaliers fired Blatt as the top team in the East halfway through the year. Then Tyronn Lue replaced Blatt. Lue is the worst coach to ever win an NBA championship. Upgrading from Blatt/Lue to Stevens would be like going from a flip phone to SkyNet.

Intangibles: Hi, Kyrie. We know that LeBron isn’t above trolling teammates or even competitors. So wouldn’t the ultimate troll job be for him to find his way to the team Kyrie Irving just escaped to? Irving asked for a trade this past summer and eventually got it. Maybe he just hated playing with LeBron. Maybe he just wanted to try things on his own and spread his wings. Perhaps it’s a combination of both or he could see the writing on the wall with LeBron.

Either way, LeBron hunting him down and finding his way onto Kyrie’s team would be kind of hilarious. Is it legally stalking if that’s what LeBron does? Does he just want Kyrie to admit he misses him? Either way, I’m all for LeBron heading out on a petty note in the next few years.

Is it possible? It would never happen for a couple of reasons. First, that cap situation is a complete mess in terms of trying to add another max contract. We saw the sacrifices needed above, just to add a superstar entering his mid-30s. Danny Ainge hasn’t wanted to get rid of Terry Rozier in order to try to acquire solid veterans. Do you think he’d really want to give up someone like Tatum or Brown plus Hayward plus all of those potential role players down the road to get LeBron?

The Celtics would probably pass before LeBron does, which is kind of crazy.

Zach Harper is a basketball obsessive with a penchant for outside shooting and high volume scorers. He believes in living life 3-point line to 3-point line. Zach has worked for ESPN, Bleacher Report, and CBS Sports since 2010. He's as interested in exploring the minutiae of the game of basketball as he is in finding the humor in it. Basketball in previous eras was fun, but it's much better now. Embrace change.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Alex

    May 28, 2018 at 11:49 am

    What about trading Irving and Hayward and leaving everyone else in place?

    • Tobias

      May 29, 2018 at 8:07 pm

      Thumbs up to this — I live in Cleveland and love Lebron but would rather him see him join the Celtics next season. Anything to stop the Warriors from threepeating.

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