It seems like news intended for those who only know the names of four or five basketball players, and three NBA teams. LeBron James could become a Los Angeles Laker in 2014. Of course, he could become a member of the Memphis Grizzlies or Houston Rockets in 2014 should he decide to utilize the Early Termination Option in his contract and join one of the 29 other teams besides the Miami Heat that would want to employ his services, but it's the Lakers' potential to sign James that has some NBA executives talking.
ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst, who has followed James for years and knows him as well as any journo talking, discussed the options with a few high-rankers around the NBA, and they seem to be pretty convinced that Los Angeles is attempting to go after James when Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol's contracts run out following the 2013-14 season. From ESPN:
"It's not a mistake that all those deals end the same year Kobe's does. They have probably been planning for their next phase for a while," said one general manager. "The Busses and [Lakers GM] Mitch [Kupchak] are always thinking about the next big deal."
It's true. The Lakers are always thinking a few years down the line, but just about any NBA GM with a scintilla of job security is always thinking one or two or three offseasons ahead.
And what is also true is the fact that, sure, the Lakers are leaving that option open. That doesn't mean James is using the Lakers as an option, or even a hoped-for destination; and it certainly wouldn't preclude Los Angeles from re-signing both Pau and Kobe for any number of years at any point between now and then. The Lakers are going to go after LeBron James in some capacity in 2014, much in the same way the Grizzlies and Rockets will when James opts out of his contract that season. Maximum cap space or not, you always have to send a feeler out.
[Related: Derek Fisher could be a Los Angeles Laker again ]
The reason for the opt-out from LBJ has nothing to do with any perceived animosity between the Heat and James, or LeBron worrying about his supporting cast (from Dwyane Wade's knee to the roster that will have to be completely overhauled when each — read that again, "each" — of the team's contracts could be knocked off the books in 2013-14 due to various player and team options.
It has to do with money, and flexibility. James can make more money from the Heat with a new contact in place of his current one -- recall that he took slightly less than the max to join the team in 2010 -- and he can wield a greater influence (either by turning down more money, again, or taking all he can, or signing for any number of years to retain free-agent flexibility) within the team's personnel structure. The Lakers, potentially free and clear from Kobe and Pau's salary, will be one of his options.
(See, ESPN.com editors? That is how you link to sites outside of your ESPN umbrella. Putting links inside of columns in order to further educate and entertain your readers won't cause massive public copulation in Bristol, Connecticut's High Street, we promise. You can link to CBS Sports and Yahoo! Sports, various ESPN EDs, and nothing will break.)
That's taking on the notion that LeBron James, after working for years to tone down the vitriol sent his way following the much-reviled Decision in 2010, would join the NBA's most-loathed team. It's fun to love the Lakers, we certainly do, but they're also the newest team that er'ryone loves to hate because of Bryant's haughty presence, and the way they were able to dupe lesser lights on their way towards fielding Kobe, Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash.
Nash will still be under contract in 2014-15, and it seems close to certain that Dwight Howard will re-sign with what amounts to his hometown team (he grew up around Atlanta, but has called Los Angeles home for years) this summer when his contract expires. With several other Lakers besides Kobe and Gasol hitting the skids that summer, the team would have enough space to pair Howard (making over $20 million that season as a max player), a 40-year-old Nash, and James.
They'd also have to ensure that Kobe Bean Bryant, who has never met a bug he hasn't wanted to crush, would be A-mother[bleepin']-OK with willingly handing the reins to a team he would have called his own for 18 years over to his greatest rival. One that, if our projections are correct, he'll have faced in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals.
[Related: Kobe Bryant's got A-Rod's back]
Because Kobe's cap hold is monstrous, and until a team either renounces or re-signs a player after their contract expires, teams are on the hook for a "cap hold" which prevents them from using the cap space established by the divorce between player and team. This would mean the Los Angeles Lakers would have to officially cut ties with Kobe Bryant, who may or may not want to retire by that point, in the eyes of the NBA's league office. To sign LeBron, bloody, James.
And because Kobe is Kobe, the dude might just go and sign with the Clippers or a 35-win Boston Celtics team just out of spite. If Michael Jordan can play for the Washington Wizards, Kobe Bryant can find a way to get back at the team that asked him to leave in favor of the Next Big Thing.
Or, Current Big Thing. Because the Lakers aren't doing anything wrong, here.
By the time 2013-14 comes around, they'll be paying Kobe a salary over $30 million, a price that will just about match half of the team's salary cap. And this isn't exactly the same $30 million handed two different times to Jordan in the 1990s — Kobe hasn't been able to lead his Lakers out of the second round (or, most damningly, take more than one game in nine tries) for two consecutive years despite a supporting cast featuring Gasol and Andrew Bynum. We respect the hell out of Kobe and think the Lakers top contenders for the Finals this year and next, but he's clearly been on the decline for a while now, and 2014 still seems like a long way away.
For James, 29 by the time that free agency hits, it probably feels like just as long an eternity. One perhaps filled with a pair of rings between then, and now. And though we were gobsmacked by his tactlessness as he made the move from Cleveland to Miami, that mess will have been four years old at that point. The Lakers both then and now feature the NBA's second-best player — Dwight Howard, for all his foolishness — but would LeBron make a similar move, again? Even if it meant another few titles?
The Lakers certainly hope so, according to the guesswork of a few NBA executives.
And the fallback plan? It's not all that bad. Re-sign Mssrs. Bryant and Gasol, pair them with Nash and Howard, and try it one more time. Either way, we'll have a big story on our hands, and some interesting basketball to watch.
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