The Lakers confirmed Thomas and Cavs forward Channing Frye were joining from Cleveland in exchange for guard Jordan Clarkson and forward Larry Nance Jr.
The Lakers will also get the Cavaliers’ protected first-round draft pick in 2018 as part of the deal.
Crucially, the trade frees up salary space for the Lakers which could enable them to pursue a blockbuster deal for James, who will enter free agency in the summer.
Lakers president Earvin “Magic” Johnson told reporters the deal was an important step on the team’s rebuilding journey.
“Hey, we had to do this deal for now and the future of the Lakers,” Johnson said.
“I came here to create flexibility for our organisation so one day we can have a superstar come here with our young core,” he added.
Thomas joined the Cavs last year as part of the move which sent Kyrie Irving to the Boston Celtics.
However the playmaker has been unable to settle in Cleveland, missing the first two months of the season with a hip injury.
On Wednesday, Thomas told reporters he did not want to leave Cleveland in what would be the fourth move of his career.
“I’m tired of being traded,” Thomas said following the Cavs’ win over Minnesota. “That’s not a good thing. But I just want to be where I’m wanted. I like it here. It hasn’t been as planned, but I definitely want to be here.
“We have a real chance to win an NBA championship, and I want to be a part of that.”
Thomas is now expected to form a partnership with rookie Lonzo Ball in the backcourt, despite the fact they both play at point guard.
“He’s a great player. He’s still coming back from injuries, so the (more time he has on the court) the better (he’ll get),” Lakers coach Luke Walton said of Thomas.
The Thomas deal deal marked a frenzied deadline day for Cleveland, who also offloaded Dwyane Wade back to the Miami Heat in exchange for a protected second round pick.
The Cavs also brought in Rodney Hood (Utah Jazz) and George Hill from the (Sacramento Kings), while sending Joe Johnson and Iman Shumpert to Sacramento.
Jae Crowder and Derrick Rose were also sent to Utah as the Cavs dramatically reshaped their roster in a bid to kick-start a season which has seen them fall away at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Whether the restructuring is enough to persuade James to remain in Cleveland however is an open question.
Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman said the arrival of Clarkson and Nance Jr. from the Lakers would “add athleticism, energy and length” to the roster.
“This trade is also a reflection of our continuing commitment to invest in our roster in ways that help us evolve and compete at the highest level now and into the future,” Altman said.
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Et tu, LeBron?
But the notion that LeBron would leave in free agency and go to the team best situated to win titles for the foreseeable future was, until today, pure fantasy.
Well, the chances of that dream – or nightmare, depending on your perspective – appear slightly better after a bombshell report by ESPN’s Chris Haynes that James could meet with the Golden State Warriors and listen to their pitch on getting him to join.
The report isn’t saying James will join the Warriors, or even that he wants to. It’s just revealing that James would consider it.
Let’s break down why such a colossus move won’t become a reality, but also explore why it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility.
Why it wouldn’t happen
Before jumping into LeBron’s massive shoes and sifting through his motivations, let’s first look at the cold, hard facts – or in this case, the cold, hard salary cap.
The very first words of ESPN’s report make it clear that any meeting between James and the defending champions would be dependent on “if the Golden State Warriors can create a max salary slot this offseason”. So you can throw any thought of LeBron taking a pay cut out the window.
Golden State would need to create cap space to slot in LeBron’s max contract, which will be no easy feat considering their payroll is expected to once again be north of $128 million next season. Unless Kevin Durant declines his player option for 2018-19 and is generous enough to literally take next to nothing on his next contract, there’s really no way LeBron’s salary could fit without a trade going down.
Only realistic way for LeBron to clear a path to GSW (or Houston) is to go the Chris Paul route and opt-into his 18-19 contract and have GSW send back a package of players. This scenario would not impact the Durant FA.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 1, 2018
Sign/trade scenario is challenging because GSW would be hard capped and have severe roster restrictions. Plus James would be subject to base year and his salary would only be worth 50% in a trade. https://t.co/10qYl5N3jG— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) February 1, 2018
LeBron is the best player in the world, even at the 33, and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. In the short term, he’s an upgrade over every player in the league. So it’s not so much a question of whether the Warriors would be better right now in that scenario.
But it could come at the cost of what they’ve already built – a sustainable, egalitarian ecosystem that’s already set up to be a dynasty. Adding LeBron may remove all doubt, but Golden State don’t need him to keep winning titles.
And for LeBron, there’s more to consider than just basketball and titles.
If you thought James was killed for leaving Cleveland the first time and joining Miami, and Kevin Durant was dragged over the coals for bailing on Oklahoma City for the Bay Area, a LeBron-to-Warriors move would inspire fury never seen before from casual NBA fans.
“He’s done something similar before”, you say. Well, the decision to team-up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in South Beach was different. That was a case of three friends coming together and building their own ‘superteam’. James joining these Warriors, an already-constructed Voltron, would just be a more exaggerated version of Durant’s decision to take the path of least resistance.
Even if he won several titles with Golden State, his image, legacy and brand may not be better for it. LeBron should already be considered alongside Michael Jordan as the greatest ever and no matter what he does going forward, that should never be taken away from him. But what should happen and what will happen are two different things because the overwhelming narrative isn’t always right.
What if LeBron doesn’t care though?
LeBron joins GS same way Anakin joined dark side— R👽b Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) February 1, 2018
We’re all screaming “YOU WERE THE CHOSEN ONE”
But over time he is conflicted
After years of NBA imperialism he chasedown blocks Durant in a Game 7, falls into Giannis’ arms
“You were right about me”
Warriors era ends https://t.co/6yudw5CZf4
Why it could happen
Maybe James is just sick of it all. Sick of spending every season dealing with wild inconsistencies before righting the ship and making a run to the Finals, only to get bounced without so much as putting a scratch on the Warriors.
Maybe he’s sick of playing with aging veterans who are past their prime. Maybe he’s sick of Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert messing everything up. Maybe he’s sick of having all the burden and expectations placed on his broad shoulders.
Durant got characterised as someone who wanted to take the easy way out when he joined Golden State, but it felt like playing a fun, cohesive style of basketball was just as important to his decision as winning was. It wouldn’t be ridiculous if LeBron had that same yearning.
And yes, the chance to gobble up titles and close the gap, if not even the score, with Jordan remains a massive selling point.
While people who follow the league might put a mental asterisk on any titles LeBron wins with the Warriors, it’s entirely possible James is chasing the ghost of Jordan for his own personal challenge and not for anyone else’s judgement.
If it sounds like you’re being talked into the idea like a potential customer being talked into buying a car, you’re exactly right. Because at the end of the day, LeBron isn’t joining the Warriors.
The first domino ahead of the trade deadline has fallen with Blake Griffin traded to Detroit. Here are five players who could be on the move next, with his former team-mate kicking off the list:
Both are expiring contracts – though Jordan could opt-in for $24.1 million in 2018-19 – but LA might be content holding on to them and re-signing them in the summer. Out of the two, Williams could be moved easier, thanks to his lower salary and what he can offer a contender: scoring and shooting in a pinch, either as a starter or off the bench.
Charlotte have made it clear that their point guard is available for the right price, although that price may be too steep for teams who would like to pursue him.
Walker isn’t having as good of a season as he did last year, but he’s still a borderline All-Star and a talented scorer. He’s also on a cheap contract that will pay him just $12 million next season. All these reasons are why Charlotte are likely seeking high value in return and few, if any teams, will want to match that price point.
Michael Jordan says he's not looking to trade Kemba Walker but would listen to opportunities. pic.twitter.com/CXTpniYAcP— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 23, 2018
Hood might not be any more than what he already is, but at just 25, he’s worth taking a gamble on.
Utah aren’t going anywhere right now and the only players on their roster that should be in their future plans are Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Detroit, even after trading for Griffin, are reportedly eyeing Hood, who would instantly provide outside shooting and some scoring, complimenting the Pistons’ new frontcourt look.
Evans is having the best season of his career at the age of 28 and would provide a major boost to any contender in need of a scoring punch.
Memphis are headed for a lottery pick and could improve their selection by shipping Evans somewhere he could play meaningful minutes, like Boston. However, Evans is playing too well for the Grizzlies not to command a first-round pick and teams will hesitate at spending that for an expiring contract.
Not confirmed. But don't be surprised if Tyreke Evans is moved to Boston— Ronald Tillery (@CAGrizBeat) January 28, 2018
Despite his production, Randle is a bit of a question mark in today’s NBA as a bruising power forward who doesn’t stretch the floor or provide much rim protection.
But he’s only 23 and seems to produce whenever he’s on the floor. The Lakers are chasing cap space in the summer and Randle doesn’t figure to be in their long-term plans as he’ll hit restricted free agency, so it would make sense to move him now if a team values his old-school game.