If you run a team like, say, the Raptors, Cavaliers, or Suns, and you think you're going to lose Chris Bosh, LeBron James or Amare Stoudemire, the strategic move is to sign that guy and trade him.
By any rational analysis, that's 100% the best thing for team's long-term basketball future. Even if it's just for the NBA's ultimate consolation prize -- a second-round draft pick that is protected from slots 31-55 -- that trade benefits your team immensely, because at the very least it gives you a valuable trade exception.
Ask Daryl Morey, ask Tom Penn, ask anyone with a sense of the NBA salary cap. If you're going to lose a player, do yourself a favor and lose him like the then-Sonics lost Rashard Lewis to the Magic -- through a lopsided sign-and-trade. As Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains, it was a non-trivial part of the Thunder's emergence as one of the NBA's best young teams:
Presti used the exception and the second-rounder to take on Kurt Thomas' $8.1 million contract from Phoenix. The Suns threw in two unconditional first-round picks in 2008 and 2010. Those turned into Serge Ibaka and, via another trade, Cole Aldrich. Presti then sent Thomas to San Antonio for Francisco Elson, Brent Barry and a 2009 first-round pick that, as a result of moving up one spot, gave the Thunder Byron Mullens.
Morey predicted some time ago that all of this summer's big free agents who change teams would do so via these kinds of trades. Which is exceptionally rational of him. If all anybody cared about was their team's long-term hoops strategy, that's exactly how it would go down.
However, in all that thinking about salary caps, ownership expenditures, player talent and all that, there's one more part of this analysis: Fans.
And they're the reason I would not be surprised to see someone like LeBron James change teams without being traded.
It comes down to how fans see the team and the people running the show. If James leaves Cleveland, well then, that's regrettable. But dig through the comments on the six bajillion articles and blog posts about his free agency. Cleveland fans say the city of Cleveland has always been doomed. Cleveland fans talk about how James has a big ego. Cleveland fans talk about how the national media never wanted him to stay. Cleveland fans talk about how Mike Brown or Danny Ferry could have done better.
There is a ton of blame out there, but only an ounce or two of all that is aimed at the franchise as a whole, owner Dan Gilbert or current general manager Chris Grant. And that's more or less how it's going to stay, even if James leaves.
However ... if they trade James? Then call up the statue makers, and make room in your Hall of Cleveland Sports Horrors. (By the way, they should really make that.) Because as history will remember it, these two bozos just took LeBron stinking James -- the greatest player in the history of the basketball, the local hero who wrote a book about how much he loved his home town, the luckiest thing that ever happened to Ohio -- and traded him for Hamady N'diaye (or whomever that pick turns out to be).
Through all the bitterness of that departure, there may not be a ton of interest in the details of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Those basketball fans walking around downtown Cleveland half-drunk and angry are not going to want to hear much about how Sam Presti got Byron Mullens.
And what fans thinks matters. For one thing, the depth of their devotion to the team is a key measure of the franchise's value. For another, Gilbert has poured his heart and his millions into the Cavaliers. It would be a shame if, after all that, one day his obituary includes a line about how he broke the hearts of every basketball fan in the state by putting the Cavaliers on the wrong end of the most lopsided trade in NBA history.
Not to mention, if the public narrative of the Cavaliers becomes that they're the team that screws things up, then that is also bad for the team's long-term basketball strategy.
Consider the Clippers: They have their meeting coming up with LeBron James, but almost nobody thinks there's any chance he'll sign there. Why? Because they're a team with that kind of reputation. That hurts.
The Cavaliers could be similarly tarred, if they're not careful. Meanwhile, if James ditches the Cavaliers all on his own, the franchise, I'd wager, will be seen not as idiotic, but unlucky.
James himself could help the team out, though, in a way that might seem surprising.
If the superstar decides to leave, and holds a press conference to say forcefully that "under no circumstances will I return to the Cavaliers," that would be the kind of Memorable Historic Event that would shift everybody's thinking. Then it would be clear that this whole decision was made by James. In the narrative of Cleveland sports history, that moment would become the end of James' time in Cleveland, not some trade cooked up by Grant and Gilbert for cap reasons.
If James dumps Cleveland, then Gilbert and Grant would be freed to do the rational thing, which is to salvage some value by making the best sign-and-trade deal they can.