After the Cavaliers' 121-112 win over the Lakers on Dec. 14., James imparted private advice to rookie point guard Lonzo Ball.
Brandon Ingram has begun to emerge as the team's primary scorer, as evidenced by his toe-to-toe battles with Kevin Durant in two overtime losses to the Golden State Warriors. Rookie Kyle Kuzma scored a career-high 38 points Wednesday in a road win over the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers (11-18) are showing impressive flashes of what they could be, but it's premature to consider Los Angeles a favorite for James' services. The hypothetical marriage is seen as a "long shot," according to Ramona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.
Executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka need to have contingency plans in place.
As the Oklahoma City Thunder (16-15) and New Orleans Pelicans (15-16) struggle to find their stride, the Lakers should keep close tabs on Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins. Like James, George has a $20.7 million player option with the Thunder for the 2018-19 season that he is likely to decline, while Cousins' deal with the Pelicans ends after the current season.
Based on the NBA's current salary-cap projection of $101 million for the 2018-19 season, both players will be eligible for contracts starting at around $30 million. The Lakers can afford to sign one of the two without breaking up their youthful core. They'd be able to re-sign pending restricted free agent Julius Randle with another $6.4 million to spend (less if they keep Ivica Zubac, Thomas Bryant and/or Tyler Ennis).
Instead of Randle, Los Angeles could have $18 million to spend, perhaps to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brook Lopez or to acquire another team's free agent altogether.
Both Johnson and Pelinka have claimed the Lakers will have two max slots available next summer, but that currently isn't accurate, not without a move to open space that sheds the $36.8 million owed to Luol Deng and/or the $25.9 million to Jordan Clarkson over the next two seasons.
The Lakers could have the space to bring in both George and Cousins to play alongside Larry Nance Jr., Josh Hart, Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and even one of Clarkson or Randle, depending on how the team escapes Deng's contract.
Considering James will turn 33 on Dec. 30, George and Cousins—both of whom are 27—may give the Lakers more longevity on their dollar. Neither has LeBron's NBA Finals experience, but both would represent a significant upgrade in comparison to the incumbent talent.
If landing James and one of the two is plan A, George and Cousins without James might be plan B.
As the Feb. 8 trade deadline nears, the Lakers should consider making a play for their targets before free agency. The Cavaliers are going to ride or die with James, even if he leaves the franchise in July. The chance to win another title is worth that risk.
Can the same be said of the Thunder and Pelicans, with both teams hovering around .500? What could the Lakers offer, knowing they may be able to lure George and/or Cousins in free agency?
Los Angeles would be better off waiting if the price includes Ball, Ingram or Kuzma, but Randle would be the key piece the Lakers can afford to dangle.
That assumes New Orleans or Oklahoma City is interested in the Kentucky forward, who has blossomed this season as the team's backup center. Few teams will have much available cap space this summer, meaning Randle's restricted rights could be valuable to either franchise.
To make a deal with the Pelicans, the Lakers would need to send out at least $13 million in salary to acquire Cousins. Randle is earning just $4.1 million, which means they'd have to include other players with him, be it Caldwell-Pope or a bigger package with Corey Brewer, Tyler Ennis and Zubac. Roster space could be problematic for New Orleans in a four-for-one trade.
A deal could expand to include a pair of bad contracts, with Omer Asik going to the Lakers and Deng to New Orleans. That wouldn't entirely erase the Deng mistake, but Asik's contract is more forgiving, with $23.3 million owed over the next two years (including only $3 million guaranteed for the 2019-20 season).
Cousins would still be an unrestricted free agent after the season with a cap hold of $27.1 million. That could give the Lakers $30-35 million left to spend, be it on George or even James in free agency. Trading for Cousins at the deadline essentially would give the Lakers an additional $3 million in cap space in July, before they re-sign him at the max of roughly $30 million.
George has a higher salary, as he's earning $19.5 million with the Thunder this season. The Lakers would need to send out at least $14.5 million in salary to acquire him in a trade. As a free agent in July, George's cap hold would be $29.3 million, around $1 million below his maximum salary.
Cousins would be slightly friendlier from a salary-cap perspective, but it isn't as though the Lakers will have a friendly menu of choices before the trade deadline. The Pelicans and Thunder would much rather bolster their own rosters with hopes of retaining their respective All-Stars this summer.
Clarkson, who runs the point for the team's second unit while providing 14.1 points a game, might appeal to other teams as well. He's earning $11.6 million this season with two additional years left on his contract. The Lakers could trade him in lieu of or in conjunction with Randle.
As far as draft picks, the Lakers owe their 2018 first-rounder either to the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics. Los Angeles cannot trade its 2019 first-round pick until after the 2018 draft. In the meantime, the Lakers can freely trade away first-rounders starting with the 2020 draft.
Other top potential free agents in 2018 include Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Jabari Parker (restricted), Carmelo Anthony, Aaron Gordon (restricted), Clint Capela (restricted), Zach LaVine (restricted), Greg Monroe and Nerlens Noel.
Ultimately, the Lakers can afford to wait. If they miss out on James, Cousins and George, they still have spending power for one or two max contracts to go with a nice group of young, developing players.
While the Lakers would love to have an All-Star on their roster before Los Angeles hosts the All-Star festivities at Staples Center in mid-February, they may have to wait until the summer for a blockbuster acquisition.