I’ll preface the following by saying, for the record, that I do not believe in any way, shape or form that this will happen. It is merely a thought exercise. If LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul decided to team up as early as this summer, where could they realistically do it?
For argument’s sake, let’s say they’d be willing to play anywhere to make this happen. That leaves two realistic barriers any team hoping to unite the four stars has to overcome:
- The team in question must have the salary cap space to sign both Wade and James as free agents. James has stated that he would take a pay cut to play with his friends. Wade has never shown such an inclination. Let’s assume that his salary would have to stay where it is now ($20 million per season) while James would lower his to match Wade’s (another $20 million). We’ll bump the projected cap up to its most optimistic upper bound and say it hits $92 million, so subtract $40 million and the team in question must have $52 million or less committed in salaries for the 2016-17 season.
- The team in question must have a realistic path to acquiring BOTH Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony in a trade or have either one already on the roster.
So, that gives us a nice place to start. What about the teams that already have Anthony and Paul?
New York Knicks: No
The Knicks already have Anthony, and by dangling Kristaps Porzingis as trade bait they probably could acquire Chris Paul (either in a straight up deal with the Clippers or in a three-teamer). However, there is no scenario that grants New York the necessary $40 million in available cap space. Even if we assume Arron Afflalo and Derrick Williams decline their player options (and neither is a certainty), and that phantom cap holds for minimum salaries didn’t exist, the lowest committed salary the Knicks could reach this summer without trading anybody would be just under $57 million.
Now when we bring the rules back into play and apply minimum cap holds for empty roster spots, that jumps up to around $60 million. Now at this point, you’re probably wondering why the Knicks couldn’t just trade somebody to offload the remaining $8 million. The answer to that is the 125% rule.
That rule states that a team at or over the salary cap can absorb no more than 125% of their outgoing salaries in a trade. Once the Knicks sign James and Wade, they still have to trade for Chris Paul, and that will require the proper salaries to match. At first glance, Paul is slated to make approximately $22.9 million next season. That means that the Knicks would have to trade at least $18.3 million (an inexact figure) to acquire Paul). The only player on the roster whose salary is over the necessary $8 million besides Anthony is Robin Lopez. Therefore, they’d have to be able to match the 125% rule without including Lopez in the trade for Paul as they would have to dump him beforehand to afford James and Wade.
Luckily for the Knicks, if you add up the salaries of literally every other player they have under contract, they do reach that minimum figure at around $18.6 million. Unfortunately, there’s one last variable to add to the equation. Paul has a 15% trade kicker. Therefore, the additional 15% salary is considered incoming for the Knicks, and must be considered as part of the 125% rule. That brings Paul’s incoming salary to around $26.3 million. That prices the Knicks out of acquiring Paul. Lopez would have to be in the trade.
Before you argue that Wade and/or James could simply take slightly less to make it work, remember that we’re already using an optimistic cap projection AND assuming Afflalo and Williams both opt out. They won’t have such luck this summer, therefore their available cap space will be significantly lower than the numbers used here. In other words, the Knicks can come somewhat close, but can’t quite get there.
Los Angeles Clippers: No
The Clippers obviously already have Paul, and could easily trade for Anthony using Blake Griffin. The problem is cap space. The Clippers are simply paying too much money to other players to go out and sign Wade and James.
With Paul and Griffin making over $44 million themselves, the Clippers would essentially have to trade every single player on their roster besides those two in order to clear the minimum threshold. Even if the Clippers went into the offseason with Paul, Griffin and ten minimum cap holds, they’d have around $49.5 million committed, just barely under $52 million, and there’s simply no way they could trade every single player on their roster without taking any money back. So Wade and James are out of the question.
Ok, so now we now Paul and Anthony can’t unite the group on their teams, but what about James or Wade?
Cleveland Cavaliers: No
Sure, Cleveland could trade Kyrie Irving for Paul and Kevin Love for Anthony, but the Cavs have almost $80 million committed to players NOT NAMED LeBron James. So no, they couldn’t afford to sign Wade. Even if they found a taker for Tristan Thompson beforehand, which is highly unlikely, the contracts of Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and J.R. Smith make it impossible.
Miami Heat: No
Salary isn’t a problem for Miami. They currently have only around $48 million committed to five players. Add Wade’s $20 million and another $3 million for cap holds and there’s still enough left over to sign James. The trouble is trading for Paul and Anthony.
Justise Winslow is probably a valuable enough trade chip to get Anthony, but his salary is so low that Chris Bosh would have to be involved as well to meet the requirements of the 125% rule. That in itself is doable, but would leave Miami only Goran Dragic, Josh McRoberts and Josh Richardson to trade for Paul. That wouldn’t get it done, especially with so many future draft picks already traded.
Still, the Heat could conceivably afford James, Wade, Dragic, Bosh and Winslow on one team. So there’s that.
Alright, so all of the current teams are out. Let’s narrow it down based on who will actually have the requisite salary cap space to get James and Wade. By my count, there are nine teams slated to have that much money available:
Memphis Grizzlies: No
They could probably get Carmelo Anthony for Marc Gasol, but wouldn’t have enough trade assets leftover for Chris Paul.
Washington Wizards: No
John Wall would probably be a big enough piece to get Chris Paul, but the cupboard would be bare to chase Anthony afterwards. Bradley Beal might’ve been appealing under his rookie contract, but another injury-filled season and a bigger deal lowers his trade value significantly.
Denver Nuggets: No
There might be enough here to trade for Anthony, but certainly not Paul as well.
Charlotte Hornets: No
I doubt there’s enough on this roster to acquire either Paul or Anthony.
Orlando Magic: No
Every available trade piece on the Magic is more interesting as a supporting player, not the centerpiece of a deal for a superstar.
Boston Celtics: No
They can come reasonably close with all of those draft picks, but the Clippers would probably want something more tangible for Paul.
Los Angeles Lakers: No
Their trade assets are interesting but divisive. They would have to hope to get Paul straight up for D’angelo Russell, which is unlikely.
Philadelphia 76ers: No
They might have the assets to acquire both Paul and Anthony, but they can’t meet the requirements of the 125% rule after signing James and Wade so it’s moot. The Sixers simply have too much cap space.
So, who’s our lucky winner?
Houston Rockets: Yes
Ding ding ding! We have a winner! So, how could the Rockets pull off this coup?
The cap math is relatively simple. All that needs to happen is Dwight Howard declining his player option, which is highly likely. That would get them all the way down to around $48 million in committed money before cap holds and closer to $50 million afterwards. In any scenario, even with a more realistic $90 million cap, the Rockets should have the necessary $40 million to sign James and Wade.
Getting Chris Paul would be simple enough. Even if he’s a better player than James Harden, he’s several years older. Harden would be enough in a one-for-one trade.
That leaves the following pieces available to be trade for Anthony: Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and any draft pick in Houston’s arsenal besides the one they owe Denver for Ty Lawson.
There isn’t a superstar in that package, but the cumulative value is enough to net Anthony. Remember, the Knicks wouldn’t necessary have to take all of those players. Older teams would have more value for Ariza and Beverley. Both would easily net first round picks from specific suitors. So, adjust the package and the Knicks are really getting two first round picks, a very promising young center in Clint Capela whom the league adores, and two nice young prospects in Dekker and McDaniels. It may not be the dream package Knicks fans hope for, but it’s enough to get a deal done assuming Phil Jackson is high enough on Capela.
So there you have it, the one team most equipped to unite LeBron’s super team is the Houston Rockets.