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USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers aren't used to swinging and missing in free agency, as they did with Dwight Howard. But the beautiful thing about this mixed metaphor is there are three strikes before you're out, and the Lakers will be gearing up for another big swing during the 2014 offseason. 

If Dwight was a knuckleball thrown by R.A. Dickey during a good outing (really, what else could he be?), then the loaded free-agency class next summer is a hanging curve just waiting to be pounded out of the Staples Center by general manager Mitch Kupchak. 

The Lakers have only one player signed past this upcoming 2013-14 campaign: Steve Nash. Thanks to the stretch provision, there's a chance he could be on the books for only $3.2 million, leaving L.A. with all of the money in the world to spend. 

Kobe Bryant has to be brought back, so don't expect to see him featured in this slideshow. We're dealing with targets from other teams, not incumbent superstars who won't require much of a pursuit. 

But after Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times brought up the early interest in Carmelo Anthony, let's take a look at the superstars whom the Lakers could end up pursuing next offseason.

6. Dirk Nowitzki

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USA TODAY Sports

Team: Dallas Mavericks

Position: PF

Age: 35

Per-Game Stats: 17.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.7 blocks, 19.8 PER

 

Dirk Nowitzki will be 36 years old next summer, but his game is built to hold tight when Father Time tries to rip away his effectiveness. The German 7-footer has made his NBA legacy so stellar because of his jump-shooting prowess, not because he's an athletic marvel. 

In all likelihood, Dirk will never join the Los Angeles Lakers. That can be said about a lot of stars and borderline stars who weren't included here, but the difference is that it would actually make sense for the Lakers to pursue him. 

Dwyane Wade could be a free agent in 2014, but the Lakers would never show any interest in signing a man who plays the same position as Kobe Bryant. It just wouldn't happen. 

Dirk, though, would actually have value in the Purple and Gold. His jump-shooting abilities would help space the court and make re-signing Pau Gasol less of a priority. His range also extends well beyond the Spaniard's, and the Lakers are in dire need of more perimeter shooting, particularly in the frontcourt after losing Antawn Jamison. 

Unless Ryan Kelly shatters low expectations, don't be surprised to hear Dirk and the Lakers linked a few times over the next calendar year. The rumors will be there, even if there's no interest on No. 41's part. 

5. Rudy Gay

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John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Spo

Team: Toronto Raptors

Position: SF

Age: 26

Per-Game Stats: 18.2 points, 6.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 15.6 PER

 

Rudy Gay took remarkable strides forward during the 2012-13 season, morphing from an incredibly overrated volume scorer for the Memphis Grizzlies into a valuable contributor for the Toronto Raptors. The difference stemmed almost solely from his ability to choose his shots wisely. 

Take a look at these shooting splits from the previous campaign, courtesy of Basketball-Reference

  PPG FG% 3P% FT% PER
Memphis Grizzlies 17.2 40.8 31.0 77.6 14.1
Toronto Raptors 19.5 42.5 33.6 85.6 17.6

Amazingly enough, Gay used efficiency to overcome a reduction in minutes and average more points with the Raptors than he did with the Grizzlies. If that's the type of basketball he can play, all the while functioning as a quality perimeter defender, then he'll be valuable and worthy of the "star" title. 

Gay helps any team's defense and transition offense out immensely with his incredible athleticism, and those are two areas in which the Lakers could use some help. The key for him to unlock his full potential in the half-court set and become even more useful is stepping back to three-point range whenever he feels like taking a deep two-pointer. 

If things don't go well north of the border during the 2013-14 campaign, don't be surprised to see Rudy Gay decline his player option and hit the market as an unrestricted free agent just entering into his physical prime. 

4. Chris Bosh

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Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Miami Heat

Position: PF/C

Age: 29

Per-Game Stats: 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.4 blocks, 20.0 PER

 

When Chris Bosh plays hard, he's an incredible big man. The problem is, he can often revert to his soft tendencies and fail to make the necessary impact on the glass and the defensive end of the court. 

You know who's really good at motivating his teammates into giving their full effort night in and night out? Kobe Bryant. 

Bosh would become the second offensive option on the Los Angeles Lakers, and we'd finally reason that only his role on the Miami Heat is depressing his offensive stats. The 29-year-old has become a more efficient shooter than ever, forced to hone his skills to maximize his touches while playing alongside LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. 

Plus, he's expanded his range and possesses a legitimate three-point shot now. It's weak enough that teams dared him to let fly from downtown during the playoffs, but another offseason and full season of work should do wonders for Bosh's ability to splash shots in from the outside. 

Once that happens, the offensive potential next to Kobe is terrifying. Of course, this all assumes Bosh is willing to use his early-termination option. 

3. Zach Randolph

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Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Memphis Grizzlies

Position: PF

Age: 31

Per-Game Stats: 15.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.4 blocks, 17.9 PER

 

The Los Angeles Lakers have always achieved the most success when they have a player who is capable of banging away in the low post. Look back throughout their championships, and you'll realize just how beneficial a dominant post presence can be. 

Most recently, that was Andrew Bynum, whose emergence on the blocks helped out the Lake Show more than most will give him credit for. That's especially true now that Bynum has managed to turn what seems like every NBA fan against him. 

The post is where Zach Randolph thrives. 

He's not a great athlete, but he will torture opposing players with his back to the basket or with his remarkable strength. A dominant threat on the offensive glass, Z-Bo would give L.A. that low-post presence it craves while allowing Pau Gasol to still have a place on the roster (or a player similar to Pau). 

Randolph has an early-termination option as well, and it's not too tough to envision him using it. If that happens, few teams will be able to offer him more exposure and money than the Lakers. The allure of one more big contract before old age takes over could be too much to pass up.

2. Carmelo Anthony

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USA TODAY Sports

Team: New York Knicks

Position: SF/PF

Age: 29

Per-Game Stats: 28.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, 24.8 PER

 

Let's assume the New York Knicks don't win a championship next year (they won't). There's a postseason flameout and the New York media/fanbase that was once so quick to embrace Carmelo Anthony quickly turns on him. 

Melo is the scapegoat, much like LeBron James was after losing a championship during his first season in Miami. The subject of constant vitriol and enduring questions like "Why can't Melo carry a team to a title?" that conveniently ignore the shortcomings of his supporting cast, Anthony chooses to use his early-termination option. 

It's no secret that Anthony loves the spotlight, but no one can take too much negative attention. So, where do you go if you're seeking a comparable spotlight to the one produced by Madison Square Garden and "The City That Never Sleeps"?

Los Angeles, of course. 

The Lakers present Melo with a perfect fit, assuming he's willing to leave his hometown behind and take less money. As B/R's Dan Favale points out on Twitter, he'd be losing a lot of cash. 

Anthony could be a star in one of the league's biggest markets (again), and he'd get to play alongside Kobe Bryant. The two are friends, and who could forget this quote that was delivered to Hoopsworld's Alex Kennedy back in 2011:

Another player that Jordan has directly influenced is Carmelo Anthony, who also came up during the question and answer session. Bryant said that the Lakers were never close to acquiring Anthony at last year’s trade deadline, but that he would have been thrilled with the move. In fact, Bryant was asked which current player he’d most like to team up with and he chose Anthony.

“I would actually like to play with Melo.” Bryant said. “Championships are won on the inside and I’m always thinking about winning the title. I would love to play with Melo because I would know that I have an inside presence. That’s really been the biggest strength with our Lakers team. We have a lot of guys who can play in the post, and that’s how you win championships. I can post, Lamar [Odom] can post, Ron [Artest] can post, Pau [Gasol] can post and Andrew [Bynum] can post. Teams are usually lucky if they have one guy that can control the block. But yeah, I would love to play with Melo.”

There's no beating around the bush from the Mamba, who makes his desire quite clear. And after Anthony won a scoring title, one would have to imagine the desire for future partnership has only grown stronger. 

1. LeBron James

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Team: Miami Heat

Position: SF/PF

Age: 28

Per-Game Stats: 26.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks, 31.6 PER

 

Can you imagine LeBron James and Kobe Bryant teaming up for the Purple and Gold? 

If you thought that LeBron was the subject of ridiculous amounts of hatred following the infamous "Decision" to take his talents from Cleveland to South Beach, imagine what would happen if he opted out of his contract and left for Hollywood. 

The Internet might explode. 

It's an outlandish possibility, but it remains a possibility. The best player in the world, LeBron, is set to lead his Miami Heat on a quest for a three-peat, but what if he falls short? He signed up to play with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, not a soft version of the former Toronto Raptor and a knee-less version of the shooting guard. 

If LeBron suffers an early exit in the playoffs, his legacy won't be destroyed. But the Miami portion of his career may be done. 

And if that happens, the Lakers will be in heavy pursuit of the 28-year-old forward. He's the ultimate prize, and championship hopes will follow wherever he goes. 

Melo might be a more realistic target at this premature stage of the discussion, but LeBron is unquestionably the player the Lakers would choose if they got their pick of the litter. 

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