By Ben Golliver
There are 621 days until Miami Heat forward LeBron James, who stopped the basketball world with "The Decision" in 2010, can become a free agent, should he choose to exercise the early-termination option on his contract during the summer of 2014. Surely, there will be at least 621 scenarios floated over the next 20 months concerning James' future, given that the league's current power balance sways with his every move.
Thursday brought a whopper to kick off the frenzy: ESPN.com reports that the Los Angeles Lakers are hoping to land James to fill the superstar void that would be created by the anticipated retirement of guard Kobe Bryant, whose current contract also ends in 2014.
Several teams' executives have told ESPN.com they believe the Lakers are positioning themselves to make a run at LeBron James in 2014, when the Miami Heat star can choose to become a free agent.
In July 2014, Bryant's $30.4 million, Pau Gasol's $19.2 million, Metta World Peace's $7.7 million, Steve Blake's $4 million and Jordan Hill's $3.5 million will come off the books. There likely won't even be any first-round draft picks filling up the cap, either, as the Lakers have already traded their 2013 first-round pick to Phoenix in the Nash deal.
"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."
Biggest star, most glamorous franchise, best media market, biggest stage -- this wouldn't exactly be an original formula. Really, given the timeline on their current contracts, it would be far more surprising if the Lakers weren't planning to make a splashy play in July 2014. A wish list for any team with the ability to land a max-level free agent in 2014 is going to have LeBron James at the top, just as every team that is set up to have cap space next summer is currently crossing its fingers that the Oklahoma City Thunder can't reach an agreement with guard James Harden by the Oct. 31 deadline for former first-round picks entering their fourth seasons to sign extensions. The class' top player is always the most important domino to fall, as we learned when James and Chris Bosh picked Miami, sending the New York Knicks and Houston Rockets, among others, into contingency plans.
The Lakers are far from the only team that could have cap room two summers from now, should they opt for the most flexible path available to them. Here's a (long) list of teams that could have significant cap flexibility during the summer of 2014 if they commit to it over the next two years: Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats, Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, San Antonio Spurs, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz and the Washington Wizards. Some of those teams might face a difficult choice on a current player to get there, but all could be easily position themselves to be big-time buyers in July 2014.
In the chase for James and others in the 2014 class, then, the Lakers aren't necessarily set apart from the competition because of their flexibility. Nearly half the league's teams could wind up next to them, champing at the bit with cap space burning a whole in their pockets. What makes the Lakers so frightening here is the same thing that has made them a player for an impossibly long list of stars over the years: Jerry Buss' team is the league's premier destination. Stars want to play there. The appeal is so strong that, this summer, the Lakers were able to transform an All-Star center, a trade exception and scraps into two future Hall of Famers.
There should be a developing fear factor for the rest of the league, even though this chatter is coming out more than a year early. Running down the Lakers' 2014 cap-space wielding competitors reveals L.A. as a clear standout from a market-desirability standpoint. The Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder will all most likely be out of the 2014 race because of big-dollar salaries already committed to star players. (There are entry methods for a few of the teams on this list, but they involve either sacrificing a star to sign a new star or constructing a roster that is really, really top-heavy, a pinch that James already went through with the Heat in 2010.)
An early guess sees incumbent Miami, where you would expect the pull to retain the Big Three would be very, very strong, and Mark Cuban's Mavericks as the Lakers' chief competition. James will have his choice between 1) continuity, familiar circumstances and South Beach and 2) a pair of big-market franchises pitching him clean slates. Surely L.A. will have a fighting chance under those conditions. Indeed, we could very well be heading toward a bizarro universe in which the basketball community finds itself cheering for the Heat to retain one or more of their stars, solely to prevent them from jumping ship to the Lakers. Who would have thought that was a possibility during Miami's "Not one, not two ..." parade debacle?