As the NBA Finals are underway and the league just about to wrap up another season, the Lakers, like all but two teams are looking to the off-season. This upcoming summer will be the most important for the franchise since the Dwight Howard nightmare.
With copious amounts of cap space, young talent and dreams of adding at least one, if not two, franchise-altering free agents, all eyes will be on the Lakers this summer.
There will be several big name free agents connected to the team, but none bigger than LeBron James. With his club unlikely to win the title this season and a dire inventory in terms of assets, there is speculation that James could leave Cleveland for the second time. There will be 29 teams lining up for his services but reports are that the 15-year veteran has only four teams on his radar; the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, Cleveland Cavaliers and the Lakers.
The Lakers have positioned themselves to chase stars such as James and Paul George by making moves to rid themselves of most of their non-rookie scale players in order to conceivably have two max contract spots. They did this all while riding their young core to an 18-win improvement over the last two seasons. Those two factors alone put the Lakers as a viable option for James’ services, but do they have the upper hand on the other teams on his list? I say yes.
From a basketball standpoint, the roster isn’t as talented or playoff ready as Houston or Philadelphia but there are questions surrounding both of those teams that might help the Los Angeles.
The Rockets have James Harden, Chris Paul and were a game away from the Finals this year. However, they will have to maneuver around cap constraints that might be too much to overcome. Paul is an unrestricted free agent who is seeking a 5-year, $205 million contract which will all hamper their ability to create room for James. In order to sign both to max contracts, they would have to offload the atrocity that is the Ryan Anderson deal, as well as trade key role players Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker. Their budding star center, Clint Capela is set to be a restricted free agent who could command a massive offer sheet as well which would press the front office to match or lose him.
In order to pull this off the biggest hurdle will be trading Anderson, who offers little value at this point and with few picks to attach to him, they may not be able to find a suitor. There is a possibility of a sign-and-trade which would land James in Houston and Anderson plus picks and others in Cleveland but there would be little incentive for the Cavaliers to take on more money with an already expensive roster. There is no limit to what Rockets GM Daryl Morey will try in order to attract James but the organization would have to have several things go their way to make it feasible.
When looking at Philadelphia as a potential landing spot everything seems perfect on the surface but digging deeper makes it easier to find flaws in this situation for James. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are terrific young players but Simmons’ fit alongside the Cavaliers forward is a bit clunky due to his lack of an outside shot and need to be on the ball.
Another, um, tiny issue with Philadelphia is their current GM situation. Bryan Colangelo is under investigation for potentially having secret twitter accounts which he used to take shots at some of the 76ers players. This is a dark cloud surrounding the franchise and will continue to be until it is resolved. With less than a month until free agency begins, if Colangelo is retained, it’s safe to wonder how potential free agents will view the front office in Philly. After a 52-win season led by two players under 24-years old the 76ers are on the rise, but the uncertainty surrounding the front office, if retained or not, is likely to be a factor one way or another.
James is an Ohio native who has meant more to the city of Cleveland than probably any athlete has to a city so there is pronounced sentimental value in being a Cavalier. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why he could be on his way out. Last summer, the front office went against James’ wishes and traded a disgruntled Kyrie Irving which left him without a legitimate second fiddle. Then, they compounded that trade by blowing up the roster at the trade deadline and made themselves objectively worse. With little-to-no assets outside of the eighth pick in the draft and no cap space to sign free agents, the Cavaliers will have a hard time improving their roster if James stays or not.
The Cavaliers, like the Sixers, have a potential front office issue that could turn James off from signing with them; owner Dan Gilbert. We are all aware of the comic sans fashioned note that Gilbert wrote belittling James when he fled to Miami and the relationship seemingly hasn’t improved in their second stint together.
Gilbert, though, is also a firm supporter of President Trump, someone who James despises. While the political allegiances of owners may not matter to some players, they could be a factor to someone as outspoken as James. During a recent interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, he was asked how much his relationship with Gilbert will play a part in his free agency decision and responded with, “We’ll see.”
It took a historical performance from James just to get this Cavaliers team to the NBA Finals. With little equity to improve their roster and a frayed relationship between the superstar forward and the front office, the team could lose its franchise player for the second time.
When you look at any of the possible destinations for James it’s easy to see there are flaws with all of them. All of those flaws are on the table before you even consider the enigma that is LeBron James. There are some teams that could make more sense than others depending on which boxes will need to be checked to win over his services, but no one knows that those boxes are. While we don’t know what he will prioritize, the Lakers will benefit from the fact there is no clear-cut, perfect destination for the 33-year old.
One thing the Lakers have working for them is that they could offer the most seamless fit for James and another star. Players like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Julius Randle all fit the profile for the modern NBA and though they are young, they showed signs that the potential is existent. With copious amounts of cap space and a legendary Laker figure heading the front office to go along with the young core, the Lakers might be in the right spot to land themselves a star like James.