LOS ANGELES — For much of the past decade, the Los Angeles Lakers have wished upon LeBron James. And now, for the first time, the Lakers have the salary-cap room to get in the ballpark at the same moment James is a free agent.
They are owed congrats on getting at least that much accomplished, as timing just that much has been heretofore impossible—except the Lakers probably won't even get in the batter's box to take a real swing at James, much less connect squarely with him.
James is the guy the Lakers have tried to leave their door open for in the past, present and future. Yet there are no indications that the Lakers are contenders to land him—if he even seriously considers leaving the Miami Heat after four Eastern Conference titles in four years.
If James re-signs with the Heat, that might be that as far as the LeBron-to-Lakers dream goes. It was in Jim Buss' mind as far back as 2005, when the Lakers had traded Shaquille O'Neal and were rebuilding around Kobe Bryant, but they were unwilling to guarantee any contracts besides those to Bryant and Lamar Odom beyond '07.
None of that came to pass, obviously—and the Lakers rebuilt on the fly in fantastic fashion anyway, which just goes to show that there are always other fish to fry in the assembly of a championship roster.
With James still an unlikely get now, the Lakers are looking at his Heat teammate Chris Bosh to a far lesser extent and the Knicks' Carmelo Anthony—remember, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said Thursday about this free-agent class that "in terms of the best of the best, there is only a couple (or) three"—with Anthony at least looming as a remote possibility.
His and wife La La's affection for Los Angeles and their friendship with Bryant and wife Vanessa are legitimate elements to the equation.
If Bryant is able to lure Anthony away from potential mentors Phil Jackson in New York and Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, as well as top guns Dwight Howard in Houston and Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, it would be quite a twist for the Lakers' fortunes and Bryant's reputation as repellent to other established stars.
It could also set off a chain reaction whereby the Lakers look like potential title contenders again with Anthony and Bryant, and then become actual title contenders when other free agents decide to join them, assuming the Lakers become willing to offer long-term contracts to win now instead of saving that space.
It's about the only scenario, notwithstanding some sudden shift from James in Plan A, whereby the Lakers turn it all around this summer faster than anyone imagined.
Remember, Plan B worked out great for the Lakers in their last rebuild.
The Lakers didn't win a playoff series for three consecutive years—'05, '06 and '07—before turning it all around and losing only one playoff series for three consecutive years—'08, '09 and '10. They didn't do that by signing a big fish as planned; they did a lot of little things right and then cashed in their assets for Pau Gasol via trade.
The Lakers haven't won even a playoff game for two years now, and unless Anthony comes, a third year of that might well be in the offing.
After losing their big 2012 trade bets on Howard and Steve Nash, the Lakers don't have the assets to go down that trade road again, which is why they remain determined not to squander this saved cap space on free agents who aren't the best of the best.
Even Anthony, with his middling defense and similarity to Bryant on offense, is a bit of a question mark. But there's also valid reason rising teams such as the Bulls and Rockets believe the explosive Anthony, 30, could be their final piece.
Because other clubs have more to offer Anthony, the Lakers were covering their bases in more ways than one in the opening hours of free agency late Monday night.
The Lakers want their fans—and Bryant—to know they are trying to go big.
On the other hand, the Lakers are more likely to have to go home and wait for lower-tier free agents to settle for their rich one- or two-year offers, and they want to be able to remind those guys that the Lakers reached out to them early in the free-agent period, too.
With team management determined not to lose future cap space in this free-agency period without a clear shot at a title, it would qualify as a small victory if a couple of those good-but-not-great guys fell through the cracks, felt disappointed by the caliber of their long-term offers and saw the benefits of becoming temporarily overpaid and hugely publicized Lakers next season.
And with the likelihood that the LeBron-to-Lakers recurring dream isn't coming true, the Lakers will have to be satisfied with doing the best they can in this harsh light of day.
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