After the 2013-14 NBA season concludes, the Los Angeles Lakers will have to transition into the post-Kobe Bryant era. And when that time comes, they should focus on pursuing Carmelo Anthony much more heavily than LeBron James.
During the 2014 offseason, the Lakers will have all the money in the world to play with. Steve Nash has the only guaranteed contract on the books, but the Lakers can use the collective bargaining agreement's stretch provision to ensure that he's only owed $3.2 million for the 2014-15 campaign. Only Nick Young can add to the financial expenditures, as he has a player option on the second year of his deal.
If the Lakers sign Kobe for under $15 million, they will have enough money to chase two max-contract players.
The protasis of that conditional statement is important, as Kobe will certainly have a significant role in the beginning of the post-Kobe era. He will be on the roster in hopes of winning yet another championship, but I'm calling it the "post-Kobe era" because the new signings will be the ones who remain in purple and gold as the next star players after the Mamba coils up in retirement.
According to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst, the Lakers already have a great idea of which players they'd like to fill the role:
The Los Angeles Lakers, whose plan to re-sign center Dwight Howard did not pan out this offseason, are poised to rebuild fast by focusing on the two biggest free agents of 2014—LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, front office sources have told ESPN.
Opinions are split on whether the Lakers can actually land James or Anthony, with one source calling it "realistic" and another saying it was "far-fetched at this point." Nonetheless, the Lakers have made it clear they are positioning themselves for a run at one and perhaps even two of the superstars who could become free agents in 2014, by refusing to commit to any contract past this next season, multiple sources have said.
Now, I don't know how much of a breaking news scoop this is. I mean, who isn't going to pursue signing the two best free agents in the loaded 2014 class if they have the money?
However, the Lakers would be better off chasing Melo, who, for two main reasons, is a much more likely target than LeBron.
Likelihood of Leaving Old Team
Neither Melo nor LeBron is guaranteed to become an unrestricted free agent after the next season ends. Each will still be under contract with their old team, although they both possess opt-out clauses that could allow them to hit the open market.
For the Lakers to have even the most remote shot of landing the stars, they have to be willing to leave their old teams.
Now, let's look at the two situations:
Player A has the ability to stay put, playing alongside his best friend for another season (or more) in a city that has fully embraced him. His teammates' level of play has declined since he originally agreed to come to the new team, but he's won two championships in a row and may have secured a third by the time he has a chance to opt out.
Player B could also remain in his major market. Just like Player A, he's playing alongside two declining stars, but they're moving in the negative direction more rapidly. However, he has yet to win anything more than a single playoff series, and the media could turn on him if that doesn't change in the 2014 playoffs.
Player A, who is quite obviously James, is still in a great position in South Beach. He's fully embraced by the media and the fanbase (both the diehards and the bandwagon fans), gets to continue building his relationship with Dwyane Wade and knows that Pat Riley will do what it takes to bring home more jewelry.
The same can't be said about Anthony, or Player B.
We've known for a while that James Dolan isn't exactly the greatest owner when it comes to building a championship team, and the latest news reflects just that. Assuming Stephen A. Smith is correct (h/t Deadspin), Dolan was actually considering trading Iman Shumpert because he'd had a few poor performances in summer league.
That's not an owner who's doing a good job of convincing his star players to remain with the organization, even if Anthony does call New York City home.
Unless Amar'e Stoudemire somehow loses his mind and decides that he's better off testing free agency than making $23.4 million in 2014-15, the Knicks aren't going to have much financial flexibility. Their spending will be limited once more, and so too will the openness of the championship window.
With the current roster, New York remains a great regular-season team capable of earning a solid playoff seed, but there isn't much hope of postseason success. Unless Stoudemire's knees magically heal and Shumpert becomes an All-Star, it's hard to put the Knicks on the same level as the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls or—yes, even though Knicks fans hate to hear it—Brooklyn Nets.
The situation just isn't as appealing for Melo, which makes it far more likely that he'll choose to spurn his current team and seek a fresh start. In L.A., the grass is purple and gold, but it could still be greener.
Kobe Bryant's Desires
At this point, the list of players who would rather not team up with LeBron James is a pretty short one. Off the top of my head, I'm guessing it would be comprised of Delonte West and Joakim Noah, and even they might not hesitate too much if given the opportunity to play alongside the game's premier superstar.
Though it might be tough for their egos to coexist, I'm sure Kobe would still love to team up with LeBron. The head-to-head battles during practice would be just as compelling as the actual games.
However, the Mamba has made it quite clear over the years just how he feels about Carmelo.
Near the beginning of this past season, right as the Lakers and Knicks were gearing up for a clash in Madison Square Garden, the New York Post's Marc Raimondi wrote the following:
The Lakers star said Anthony, the Knicks’ MVP candidate, is the "most difficult" guy for him to guard in the league, even harder than LeBron James, he told ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith on Tuesday.
"For me?" Bryant said. "Yeah."
Bryant called Anthony, who is averaging 27.7 points per game this year, "a bull" and says he "does it all."
"I’m [180 pounds] soaking wet," said Bryant, who is Melo’s teammate on Team USA. "Going up against that bull, it’s fun, but it’s hard."
That's some solid praise from Bryant, but it's hardly the most effusive compliment he's levied in Melo's direction over the years.
Back in 2011, when asked by Hoopsworld's Alex Kennedy which player he'd most like to team up with, Kobe said this:
I would actually like to play with Melo. 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.
The two are friends as well, and Kobe has even helped the Knicks superstar improve his game.
Which is most likely for the Lakers?
According to Newsday's Al Iannazzone, the two scorers talk often, and the Mamba helped Anthony handle criticism during Linsanity, when the widespread belief that the Knicks were better off without Melo on the court suddenly sprouted up.
Even though LeBron is quite clearly the better player of the two stars reported as Lakers targets in 2014, that doesn't make him the best option for L.A. to pursue. The Carmelo-Kobe relationship and the likelihood of LeBron staying in South Beach (or going back to Cleveland) pushes Melo to the forefront of the chase.
There's still quite a bit of time left before any of these hypothetical moves can actually happen, but don't be surprised when the idea of Anthony ushering in the post-Kobe era begins to gain steam.