How would the Clippers fit in LeBron?
The team received just a courtesy interview during James' 2010 free agency, but a lot has changed since then. With Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and a good supporting cast featuring J.J. Redick and sixth man Jamal Crawford, the Clippers are already competing in the West. Doc Rivers is at the helm, both on the sidelines and with player personnel. James and Paul are close friends, and have always talked about playing together. Being in the L.A. market doesn't hurt, nor does being backed by Ballmer. And ultimately, the prospect of leading the Clippers to a title in the first year of the post-Sterling era might be too good to pass up.
The Clippers already are title contenders without James; with him, they would be the favorites. So if James decides to become a Clipper, how does he get there? The Clippers already have about $71.7 million committed to player salaries next season (assuming Darren Collison, Glen Davis and Danny Granger opt out), so we can safely rule out signing him with cap room. James could sign for the Clippers' midlevel exception, of course, but that seems very unlikely.
That leaves a sign-and-trade transaction, which coincidentally is how James got from Cleveland to Miami in the first place. But we're playing under a different CBA now, and the sign-and-trade rules have changed since 2010. A lot of the advantages that existed back then don't exist anymore. Under the current rules, a player in a sign-and-trade can receive the same contract as a free agent changing teams, not a free agent who is re-signing with his old team. Teams cannot receive a player in a sign-and-trade at all if their resulting salary would be over the "apron" -- $4 million above the luxury-tax line -- which next season will be about $81 million. If the Clippers complete a sign-and-trade for James, they will be hard-capped at the $81 million apron, and unable to exceed it for any reason, for the remainder of the upcoming season.
One thing that hasn't changed is that Miami has to be a willing participant in the transaction -- a sign-and-trade isn't possible unless all three parties (both teams and the player) agree. Since we can safely assume that the Heat aren't exactly tickled at the idea of giving LeBron James away, it would require James requesting to be sent to the Clippers, and the Heat receiving an adequate return -- adequate enough to justify trading the player of the decade.
If the Heat don't receive enough compensation to make it worth their while, they can just say "no." James would then be left with three options: go to the Clippers on his own (signing for the midlevel exception), go to another team with sufficient cap room, or stay with the Heat. The Heat would know that if James doesn't have a plausible Plan B, staying in Miami at the maximum salary is probably preferable to playing for the Clippers at the midlevel. Therefore, it would take a hefty return in a sign-and-trade to coax the Heat into cooperating.
So what would the return be? The Heat's asking price surely would be Blake Griffin, and they'd be unlikely to budge from that position. If the Heat are faced with retooling for the post-Bron era, then Griffin is a great place to start -- and the Heat would be in the position to demand him in return for the favor of sending LeBron to L.A.
A sign-and-trade featuring Griffin and James (re-signed at the maximum salary) would work as a one-for-one transaction, but the Clippers' team salary would then be about $74 million. And remember, they would then be hard-capped at about $81 million, leaving just $7 million to: sign their first-round draft pick; potentially replace Collison, Davis and Granger; address the team's depth; fill out the remainder of the roster; and survive the upcoming season. It makes sense to create a little more breathing room while also sweetening the pot for the Heat. The Clippers could add Reggie Bullock (the team's first-round pick in 2013) and even their first-round draft pick this year to the trade.
Would the Heat go for it?
In this scenario -- where James requests a trade, and especially if he presents the Heat with a viable Plan B -- what other choice would they have? Receiving another all-star in his prime as a consolation is rare in these sorts of transactions -- even if it is a step down from what they'd be losing.
Would the Clippers go for it?
Make no mistake, the Clippers love Griffin, and wouldn't give him up for almost anyone -- with James being one of the few exceptions. With Paul and Rivers on the payroll, the Clippers are invested. With Ballmer at the helm, they're going for it. As much as the Clippers love Griffin, a chance at James is too good to pass up. They would immediately vault from outside contenders to the top of the heap.
So it really comes down to whether James wants it. It has been demonstrated time and again that a superstar player has the ability to force a team's hand. There have been signs for a couple years that the balance of power in the league is shifting. If James makes a change this summer, he can stay in title contention for the foreseeable future. But he might not have reason to be so optimistic if he stays in Miami.