Could the Cavs trade LeBron?

Of course they could, but would they?

Henry Abbott of ESPN’s TrueHoop suggests that if LeBron’s flirtation with the Knicks continues, the Cavs may want to investigate the idea of trading LeBron instead of getting nothing for him if/when he leaves via free agency in the summer of 2010.

First, he discusses LeBron’s recent behavior over the last few months…

Even if you want to leave all your options open, all you have to say is that you love playing in Cleveland, you’re from Ohio, and you’ll worry about your next contract when this one is done.

That would be enough to get the amplifiers turned up. Teams would still clear cap space for you, just in case. But that’s not enough for LeBron James. He’s taking it to a whole different level. His amplifier goes to eleven.

The Yankees hat, the coy talk, calling New York his favorite city … I hope Cleveland pharmacies are stocked up with Maalox this Thanksgiving, because Cavalier fans are feeling the indigestion.

In PR terms, I see that quote above, and the others we have seen like it, as LeBron James slapping Danny Ferry, owner Dan Gilbert, and Cleveland fans across the face.

Then Abbott moves into trade talk…

I hear you, I hear you. YOU DON’T TRADE LEBRON JAMES. YOU JUST DON’T.

GM 101.

I know. I agree.

And I know that there are far more Dans — Ferry, Gilbert, and the like — in this world than there are LeBrons. The superstar ultimately holds the cards, and everyone else should act accordingly.

But that doesn’t mean you stand idly by as they loot the store. If at any point the Cavaliers believe LeBron James is going to leave as a free agent in 2010, it’s time to start preparing Cavalier fans for the fact that you might trade the guy.

At the very least, it might dim the lights a little on the LeBron James flirtation show.

Or it might end up being smart to actually trade him.

If he walks, top teams will have cap space in 2010, but it’s a good bet that the premium markets will be the ones to attract the blue chip talent like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. In other words, Cleveland’s plan B for cap space in 2010 is probably not as sexy as New York’s. So better to trade for an asset that you can then pay more than anyone else to keep.

And let’s not pretend this free agent negotiation is really going to come down to some team executives wowing LeBron James with a nice tour of the city two summers from now. The Knicks, Nets, and Pistons have made their moves. The cards are on the table. There’s no good reason the decision makers in the LeBron James camp wouldn’t already have a good idea how they’d rank the contenders at this point. The only information to come is who is going to win the championships in 2009 and 2010, and who else might gain cap space.

So my point is, if you’re Danny Ferry, and you don’t have strong private conviction that LeBron James is harmlessly flirting, don’t you have to at least know what’s out there?

I know we have some Cavs fans that are regular readers; I wonder what they think of this kind of talk.

My first thought is that you don’t trade LeBron James. You do whatever you can to keep him, because the reward is worth the risk. Nothing you’re going to get in return is going to be worth what you lost. But if the writing is on the wall, and it becomes clear that LeBron is indeed going to leave, it might be worth thinking about. However, there’s a fine line between the realization that your superstar is truly leaving and taking action (i.e. floating the idea that he is “available”) that might shut the door on that superstar potentially re-upping with your team. You don’t want to push him out the door if you still have a 10-20% chance of re-signing him.

The other issue is the availability of potential trade partners. Like Kobe’s flirtation with the Bulls last year, it’s going to be tough for the Cavs to find a team that has enough to offer in trade while still having enough talent leftover to coax James to re-sign with the team once his contract is up. James doesn’t have a “no-trade” clause like Kobe, but the implication that he won’t re-sign would be enough to keep most teams from gutting their roster in order to get him.

One thing’s for sure – as long as LeBron keeps answering questions about his future, this story is not going away.

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