As of this Tuesday dispatch, this NBA trade deadline season has been, well, dead.
The OG Anunoby-to-the-Knicks deal was last year, for crying out loud (Dec. 30). The Pascal Siakam-to-the-Pacers trade was almost a month ago at this point. And since then, we’ve gotten … Steven Adams to the Rockets. And an injured Steven Adams, no less.
But with two days left before the Thursday deadline (3 p.m. Eastern), and with the chance remaining that the fireworks might go off here at the end, there’s at least one high-profile scenario still on the board worth examining from all sides: Dejounte Murray to the Lakers. And with all due respect to the involved parties, from the Hawks front office that has so much to ponder here to the Lakers side that was so widely celebrated when it had a fantastic trade deadline performance around this time a year ago, the widespread intrigue here revolves around one man: LeBron James.
While the 39-year-old has not publicly campaigned for the Murray deal in the way he did for Anthony Davis in 2018, he has been sending all sorts of signals lately that he would like the Lakers to do something of significance. Add in that James can become a free agent in fewer than five months from now, and it’s not hard to understand why there’s so much spotlight on this situation at the moment. With that in mind, let’s unpack how they all got here and whether this is a deal that should get done.
As our Lakers beat writer, Jovan Buha, detailed here, the Lakers’ trade talks with Atlanta have continued in recent weeks. The holdup, as has been widely reported for quite some time, is the Hawks’ clear disinterest in taking back D’Angelo Russell and the need for a different landing spot for the Lakers guard as a result (Brooklyn is routinely highlighted by league sources as a Russell candidate here). The Hawks are known to covet Austin Reaves, whom the Lakers have no interest in giving up. The Lakers, per Buha, have offered Russell, rookie guard (and 17th pick) Jalen Hood-Schifino, the 2029 first-round pick (preferably protected) and additional draft compensation.
As for the contracts, here’s how they break down.
Russell: Owed $17.3 million this season, with a player option worth $18.6 million in 2024-25.
Murray: Signed through the 2026-27 campaign, with a player option worth $31.6 million in 2027-28. If he picked up that option, the lump sum owed from this season to the end of 2027-28 is $132.5 million. Murray, like James and fellow Lakers star Anthony Davis, is represented by Rich Paul of Klutch Sports.
The Lakers’ and LeBron’s (annual) pressure play
When it comes to James — aka the Benjamin Button of basketball — his ability to continue playing at an elite level at this advanced age means there will always be pressure on the Lakers’ ownership and front office to maximize the roster around him. So with this season’s Lakers mired in mediocrity again, currently standing at ninth place in the Western Conference at 27-25 after winning their last three, it should come as no surprise that the annual LBJ leverage games are back.
As Lakers wrap road trip, attention turns toward the future
James has long since become the master of his own message, using all of the various platforms at his disposal to communicate in the kind of way that would be worthy of inclusion in “The Da Vinci Code.” The rare exception came in January 2023, when his declaration that “Y’all know what the f— should be happening” in our interview about that trade deadline season was a moment of LeBron candor the likes of which we rarely see. Sure enough, he walked it back on social media the next day.
So when James hit send last week on the hourglass tweet seen ’round the Association, then later declined a request to explain its meaning while speaking to reporters in New York, it sparked the latest round of speculation about what he was truly saying.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 31, 2024
But was it James’ way of highlighting the reality that he’s running out of time and pushing for more help in the form of a player like Murray? Or, as one Lakers official speculated, was it somehow related to his well-chronicled desire to share the court with his son Bronny if he enters the draft next season? Only LeBron knows for sure.
But lest anyone forget, we’re only a month removed from The Athletic’s report of a disconnect between the Lakers locker room and second-year coach Darvin Ham. The organization’s power brokers chose to push back against those internal forces and stand by Ham — for now, at least — but that perceived pressure to make some sort of significant change typically needs to be relieved somehow.
Whatever James’ intentions, this much is fair to say: His visit to the Big Apple over the weekend was an all-timer when it comes to his ability to get powerful Lakers people talking — and guessing. In the same New York interview with reporters in which James chose not to explain the hourglass, he was asked whether he had decided to pick up his player option for next season that’s worth $51.4 million and has an exercise deadline of June 29.
“No,” he replied abruptly.
Then came the Knicks-themed messages that went viral on social media, with James wearing sneakers with New York’s team colors, shouting “Mr. James in the Garden!” as he entered their hallowed arena, and even donning a Knicks towel during a nationally televised postgame interview in which he raved about the Knicks’ first-time All-Star, Jalen Brunson. Subtle, it was not. And it didn’t stop there either.
On Friday, there was the relevant and curiously timed revelation — as reported by The New York Post — that the Knicks are apparently back in business when it comes to Klutch Sports clients. The extended friction between Paul and Knicks president Leon Rose had been fixed, with league sources telling The Athletic that Rose made a point to smooth things over earlier this season.
Rose, to review, was Paul’s mentor at Creative Artists Agency and James’ former agent before they both departed to build Klutch Sports. This development matters, of course, because it had become a major obstacle for the Knicks whenever they considered the prospect of adding Klutch Sports clients.
A major part of the issue, as is widely known in league circles, was the way the Knicks handled Cam Reddish, a Klutch client, during his short and unsuccessful time there from 2022 to 2023. Reddish has since become a pivotal part of the Lakers rotation (he has been out since late January with an ankle injury). But back to James and the fascinating way he has been moving of late.
His statement to reporters regarding his contract is the only part that truly matters when it comes to the power dynamics in play here. Team sources say the Lakers would strongly prefer that James retire in their jersey someday, meaning he holds all the cards until his contract situation gets figured out. The Lakers’ top decision makers have no illusions about that much.
But for all the media and fan focus on James’ latest messaging, the truth about his relationship with the Lakers at this point is that nothing qualifies as a crisis until there’s an actual meeting called. In February 2022, amid reports of rising tension between the two sides and James’ choice to discuss a possible return to Cleveland at All-Star Weekend, the dynamics were sensitive enough that they all sat down in person to discuss solutions. This situation, it’s clear, hasn’t reached that point.
As Paul made clear in an interview with ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, James “won’t be traded, and we aren’t asking to be (traded).” A high-ranking Lakers source, meanwhile, scoffed at the idea that the Lakers would even consider trading James. But so long as the goal remains for this partnership to continue, it certainly behooves the Lakers to take James’ voice into account. If, that is, he chooses to use it in a direct manner with team officials rather than this sort of passive-aggressive style.
When James was asked about the trade deadline after a win Monday night in Charlotte, he had this to say.
LeBron James was asked twice about the trade deadline tonight.
Here are his two answers:
You guys went 4-2 on this trip. Do you feel like as a team you’ve proven or shown why you guys should continue to invest in this group?
James: “This is who we have, so there’s nothing else…
— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) February 6, 2024
In terms of how the Lakers evaluate their own possible pieces of this trade, this part is certainly worth noting: Russell has picked a hell of a time to play some of his best basketball. Just take a look at the before and after here:
Russell from Dec. 1 to Jan. 9 (14 games): 10.4 points (41 percent shooting overall and 32.9 percent from 3 on five attempts per) and 5.4 assists per game. On Dec. 23, Ham moved Russell to a reserve role that lasted just seven games before he returned to the starting lineup.
Russell’s 14 games since then: He is the Lakers’ second-leading scorer behind James and ahead of Davis, averaging 23.6 points per (46.8 percent shooting overall and 46.3 percent from 3 on 8.8 attempts per) and 6.5 assists (second behind James and ahead of Reaves).
The tricky part to unpack, for the Lakers’ purposes, is that they went 8-6 during each of those spans. Still, Russell deserves credit for turning his season around and making the Lakers think twice about how much of an upgrade Murray might be. The defensive possibilities that come with Murray are certainly playing a big part here, as he is a much more effective wing defender than Russell and the Lakers (who just lost forward Jarred Vanderbilt for at least three weeks because of a foot sprain) are currently 14th in defensive rating.
The Hawks and the Murray calculus
It’s been 20 months since the previous Hawks front-office regime succumbed to ownership pressure and did the Murray deal with the San Antonio Spurs that cost them three first-rounders, a first-round pick swap and Danilo Gallinari. They were one year removed from an East finals appearance at the time, with organizational aspirations of title contention if they could find the right star to pair alongside franchise centerpiece Trae Young.
But as we’ve seen since, with the Hawks getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs in consecutive years and now sitting 10th in the East (22-28), even after a recent four-game winning streak, this clearly wasn’t the move to make back then. And the 25-year-old Young, who is the only player in the league averaging at least 27 points and 10 assists and was named an All-Star for the third time on Tuesday, hasn’t gotten any … younger in the process.
As Marc Stein reported recently, and which was confirmed by a league source to The Athletic, second-year Hawks coach Quin Snyder is known to be advocating for the Hawks to hold onto Murray. That sort of prominent voice is certainly enough to split the room, so to speak, when a particular trade is being analyzed.
What’s more, the Hawks’ front office, which is now led by general manager Landry Fields, added another key figure recently who is surely weighing in on the conversation. Chris Grant, the former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager who worked with Fields in recent years while with the Spurs, was added by Atlanta as an executive adviser in mid-January.
The challenge here for the Hawks, it seems, is that doing this deal without Reaves would do very little to help their chances of winning now. There is value in recouping some of the assets lost in the trade to land Murray, but one first-rounder (and perhaps a first-round swap and/or second-rounders) pales in comparison to what they gave up to get him in 2022.
The question, then, is whether they decide to forge ahead with this flawed roster while waiting until this summer to revisit the Murray market. Young is signed through the 2026-27 campaign, which lessens the pressure a bit when it comes to their star player politics. They’re only 5 1/2 games out of the sixth spot in the East (and the chance to avoid the Play-In Tournament), with recent wins over the Raptors, Lakers, Suns and Warriors (not to mention a close loss Monday night to the red-hot Clippers) showing signs of promise. And considering the way Murray has played of late, waiting this out might be the right move for the Hawks.
Since Dec. 31, Murray is averaging 23.7 points (48.4 percent shooting overall; 35.2 percent from 3 on six attempts per), 5.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists. Among players who have played at least 30 games this season, only 11 have reached those 23-5-5 thresholds (Murray is at 21.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists for the season).
The eerie quietness of this 2024 trade deadline season, in other words, might continue on this front too. Whether LeBron likes it or not.
(Photo of Dejounte Murray and LeBron James: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)