The walk from the visitors' locker room to the team bus at Madison Square Garden is long and dreary, as walks to team buses go. There's a lot of gray, a lot of concrete, and a wintry gust blasting up the ramp from the loading dock.
It's even drearier when your season has gone bust, when your team has been reduced to a punch line. And worse still when you are that player, for that team.
"I'm good, great," LeBron James says as he strides down the ramp, but he's just being polite, in the way that people usually do when asked, "How are you?"
But no, things are not good for James, and not great for his Los Angeles Lakers on this mid-March afternoon. They've just suffered their 39th loss of the season—to the tanking New York Knicks, no less—and will soon be eliminated from the playoff race.
Their season was actually lost months ago—derailed by misfortune (James' groin injury), then torpedoed by trade rumors that shook their resolve. But at 34, James has seen it all, and so he presses forward, into that bitter breeze, and summons an optimistic prediction: Help is on the way.
The Lakers will be flush with salary-cap room this summer, enough to sign another superstar, and several are expected to be on the market: Kevin Durant. Kawhi Leonard. Kyrie Irving. Jimmy Butler. Beyond that group, a second tier of stars: Klay Thompson. Kemba Walker. Khris Middleton. Tobias Harris. DeMarcus Cousins. Al Horford. Nikola Vucevic.
The Lakers will leverage the usual charms: sunny skies, palm trees, Hollywood hook-ups. All those banners. All that mystique. And they have LeBron, the greatest player of his generation, as chief recruiter. It's a role he'd rather not play, though circumstances may require it.
"I've never played fantasy basketball," James says. "But I will be as active as I need to be for this franchise to get better. That's why I came here. I came here to win. And obviously, we need to get better, as far as our personnel. We have an opportunity to get better. And there's a lot of talent out there, and a lot of guys that can help our franchise. So I'll be as active as I need to be for us to get better and go from there."
This has always been the Lakers' way: Clear the decks, polish the trophies and watch the stars come striding in. Even if they've lost a little luster in recent years—six seasons without a playoff appearance—their allure remains potent.
There's just one hitch in this scenario. Actually, three.
There's another L.A. team, armed with even more salary-cap room, a strong roster and all the same sunshine. There's a New York team, teeming with history and blessed with a famous arena, with room to sign two superstars. And there's a vibrant young team in Brooklyn, also poised to make a free-agent splash.
That's four franchises, in the NBA's two glitziest markets, going head-to-head-to-head-to-head, for one of the glitziest free-agent classes in modern times. It's never happened before.
Since the creation of the "max" salary in 1999, the Lakers, Knicks, Nets and Clippers have at various times had room to chase the game's biggest stars. But never in the same year.
For that matter, there's never been a single summer when all four were attractive enough to merit consideration. They are now. Which means there's never been a clash of the titans quite like the one we'll see in July.
It might just break Twitter.
And it could make it that much tougher for the Lakers, long regarded as the league's sexiest franchise, to land a running mate for the King.
Spotlight-thirsty superstars will have multiple options.
Want to chase titles? Join LeBron, the guy who made eight straight Finals.
It's a critical summer for myself. ... Because I want to compete and I want to compete now.
— LeBron James
Want to play for a championship coach and the league's wealthiest owner, with a roster that's already winning? The Clippers have a captivating pitch.
Want to revive a storied franchise, and bring along a fellow star? The Knicks will roll out the red carpet.
Want to author your own story, with a spry and talented young cast? The Nets can make that happen.
Each team could become a contender with a signature or two. Each can offer the perks of a big-city lifestyle—high-end restaurants, culture, nightlife, endorsements, a massive TV audience.
The stakes are considerable for all, but perhaps highest for the Lakers. James will be starting his 17th season next fall, and though he continues to produce at an MVP level, that cannot last forever. The 17-game absence that followed his groin injury was the longest of his career. He has no time to wait.
"It's a critical summer for myself," James says. "Obviously, the franchise is going to live forever. But for me personally, it's very critical, because I want to compete and I want to compete now."
An entire canon of conventional wisdom will soon be put to the test. Do the big markets still have an advantage? Does Hollywood trump Gotham? Does Lakers mystique trump the Clips' gritty ethos? Does the Knicks' historical stature trump the Nets' superior roster? Or will the younger siblings seize the moment?
Does LeBron still have the cachet to land a co-star and leap back into title contention at age 35? Or will the stars flock elsewhere?
If you want rumors and predictions, they're not hard to find in this gossipy league.
Rival executives will tell you, without hesitation, that Durant is bound for the Knicks; that Irving is likely to join him; that Leonard likes the Clippers; that Butler might choose the Lakers—unless he chooses the Nets.
Of course, they all might stay put. (Well, except for Durant. Virtually everyone believes he's leaving the Warriors.) No one knows for sure. Predictions are flimsy.
But if the stars want to win—immediately, sustainably and in one of the two major markets—their best options are the Nets and Clippers. That was the consensus among 10 executives and scouts polled for this story. (All agreed to speak on condition of anonymity.)
B/R asked the 10 people to rank the four teams, based solely on basketball considerations: roster, coaching staff, front office and ownership. Seven named the Nets and Clippers as the top two teams, in one order or the other. Three named the Lakers as the top choice. The Knicks were ranked last by eight of the 10 people. The other two ranked them third.
Their broad assessments were largely consistent, regardless of how they ranked the teams:
• Rivals universally praised the Nets and Clippers as well-run and well-coached, with soundly built rosters and the flexibility to keep adding talent.
• The Lakers were viewed with considerable skepticism, based on their poor roster, the shaky status of coach Luke Walton and a general lack of faith in the front-office tandem of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. Those who picked the Lakers as the top "win-now" option pointed to a single, overriding factor: LeBron.
• The Knicks drew consistently low marks because of a lack of proven talent, doubts about their young prospects and the generally poor reputation of owner James L. Dolan. The front office leadership also draws skepticism from rivals. Coach David Fizdale is viewed as promising, but unproven. The Knicks (15-62) are on pace for the worst record in franchise history.
"Brooklyn and the Clippers have a decided advantage over the two marquee names," said a veteran general manager, "because they've done far more in the last few years to position themselves to be sustainable than either New York or the Lakers."
The latest franchise rankings by ESPN underscore the point: The Clippers ranked fifth in "management," which encompassed ownership, front office and coaching. The Nets tied for 14th. The Knicks ranked 21st, followed by the Lakers at 22nd.
The Nets no longer bear the burden of playing in the New Jersey swamplands, in a decrepit arena. The Clippers are no longer the cheaply run laughingstock they were under former owner Donald Sterling.
"The amazing part," said former Nets assistant GM and current ESPN analyst Bobby Marks, is that the two longtime underdog franchises "are going to be probably one and two as far as the leaders in the clubhouse to attract one of these players."
The Clippers (47-31) are sixth in the Western Conference and headed to the playoffs despite trading their best player two seasons in a row—Blake Griffin last year, Harris this year. They've been widely praised for the returns they got in each deal, acquiring both immediate help and future draft picks.
They earn high marks for leadership at every level: Steve Ballmer is not only the NBA's richest owner, but possibly its most passionate. Coach Doc Rivers, who won a championship in Boston, is universally respected. And rivals have high regard for the front office, led by team president Lawrence Frank, with Jerry West as a top consultant.
The Clippers project to have $57.5 million in cap room—enough to sign one max player with about $20 million to spare. They have the flexibility to sign one superstar (say, Leonard) and still retain veterans Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, top pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and prospects Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet, according to B/R cap expert Eric Pincus. It's possible they could also re-sign free agents Patrick Beverley and Ivica Zubac.
To sign two max players, the Clippers would have to trade Gallinari and possibly Robinson (for zero return), but they could still retain Williams, Harrell, Gilgeous-Alexander and Shamet, according to Pincus.
"They might be the best situation," one veteran scout said. "The organization's good, a lot of money, you got a good coach, good coaching staff. … You got a good young nucleus, with some veterans. They're poised to make another step, for sure."
The Nets are like a younger, less accomplished version of the Clippers. At 39-39, they've far exceeded expectations and remain in the playoff hunt. D'Angelo Russell made the All-Star team in February. Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris have had breakout seasons. Caris LeVert showed signs of stardom before a leg injury in November.
Rivals heap praise on coach Kenny Atkinson for developing the Nets' young core and cultivating a winning culture in what was considered, not long ago, the NBA's most hopeless situation. General manager Sean Marks earns plaudits for consistently finding gems late in the draft (Allen, LeVert) and in free agency (Dinwiddie, Harris). (Marks is reportedly nearing contract extensions with Atkinson and his staff, per ESPN.com.)
"Brooklyn is well-managed," said one veteran GM. "That's a fact. Sean has done an unbelievable job. We thought it looked like doomsday."
The Nets are projected to have at least $30.2 million in cap room, per Pincus, and up to $68 million if they let Russell leave in free agency, which seems unlikely. They can sign a max player (say, Butler), re-sign Russell and still keep their young core of Allen, LeVert, Dinwiddie, Harris and promising rookie Rodions Kurucs, according to Pincus. If they decide to let Russell walk, the Nets could open two max slots and still keep most of that group.
"I think they've turned around the Brooklyn era," the scout said. "They're one or two steps ahead of the Knicks."
It's not just that the Knicks are losing, or that they're missing the playoffs for the sixth straight year, or that they're on their sixth coach and fourth front office in eight seasons—although rivals cite all of those factors. More concerning, at least for this discussion, is that the Knicks simply lack talent.
Who would want to go play with the Knicks? Who are your teammates? Knox isn't even that good.
— Anonymous NBA executive
Their last two lottery picks, Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, have greatly underperformed. They traded their lone All-Star, the disgruntled Kristaps Porzingis, as part of a cap-clearing effort in February. The key prospect they received in return, Dennis Smith Jr., gets mostly poor reviews from scouts.
"Who would want to go play with the Knicks?" another executive said. "Who are your teammates? Knox isn't even that good."
Rivals do love Mitchell Robinson, the springy, shot-blocking center the Knicks drafted in June—"the sexiest thing they have to sell," said one GM—but that's about it.
Brooklyn also won the debate in a recent discussion on ESPN's The Jump, with Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady both naming the Nets when asked which New York team was most attractive to free agents.
"I think the most intriguing team right here is the Brooklyn Nets," Pippen said. McGrady concurred, adding, "They just need a star."
If the Knicks do land Durant and Irving, it would require all of their cap room—forcing them to renounce the rights to veterans like DeAndre Jordan—and leaving few options to build a sound supporting cast. Their best bet, rivals say, would be to trade some of the young pieces, along with draft picks, to acquire proven veterans. (The Knicks' best asset is their first-round pick this June, which will fall between first and fifth, assuming they finish with the league's worst record.)
But few rival executives believe the Knicks will make it work—a reflection partially on the front office and partially on the owner.
"New York has been bad for 17 years," the first executive said. "Why is that? It comes from Dolan. It comes from the top."
Really, the debate shouldn't be that complicated.
Of the four big-market behemoths, only one has a four-time MVP, three-time champion and surefire Hall of Famer.
"If anyone was basing a decision on winning, they should pick LeBron," a longtime GM said. "If you really want to win, you need two great players. So the Lakers win."
The Lakers don't even need to sacrifice any key players to make room for a second star. They'll have $35.4 million in cap room, per Pincus, after renouncing rights to Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Reggie Bullock, Lance Stephenson, Tyson Chandler, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Mike Muscala.
Of course, joining LeBron brings its own concerns.
Although James is still playing at an MVP level, it's unrealistic to think that will last another three to four years, as he moves through his mid-30s.
Though James generally elevates his teammates, he also dominates the offense—a potential problem for other ball-dominant stars like Durant, Leonard, Butler and Irving (who, notably, forced his way off LeBron's team two years ago). It's considered a given in NBA circles that Durant and Leonard won't even consider the Lakers. Butler? Maybe, if other options dry up. Irving? It seems like a stretch.
"Not many of these wings or point guards are going to want to partner with LeBron," said an assistant GM. "LeBron's best chance at getting another star with him is going to be Anthony Davis, Boogie Cousins, the bigs."
The Lakers already failed to pry the disgruntled Davis from New Orleans in February, and though they will surely try again this offseason, no one around the league expects a different outcome. The Pelicans have already rejected the Lakers' best offer, including prospects Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram; there is no reason to believe they'll like them any more this summer.
Rival executives generally have little faith in the Lakers' inexperienced front office, given the many mistakes they've made in the last year: the failure to acquire shooters to put around James; the lack of quality big men; the decision to let Brook Lopez and Julius Randle leave; the bizarre swap of Zubac for Muscala.
Rivals also consider the Lakers to be behind the curve in areas like analytics, sports science and player development. And then there's the question over who will be coaching them next season. Most people expect Walton to be fired.
Playing with LeBron generally means more drama, more media coverage and, often, unreasonable expectations.
"And if they win, [LeBron] gets all the credit," the assistant GM said. "If they lose, you get all the blame."
A funny thing about those free-agency rumors: No one predicts that Durant will choose Atlanta. Or that Leonard might sign with Sacramento. The belief in big-market exceptionalism remains strong.
But it may be fading.
"We're not really scared of big markets anymore, to be honest with you," the assistant GM of a small-market team said. "I think it's because those teams haven't really been good."
In an age of social media, satellite TV and NBA League Pass, players don't need L.A. or New York to build their brands or expand their endorsement portfolios. Russell Westbrook can pitch Sprite from Oklahoma City, the nation's 45th-largest media market.
The promise of greater marketing opportunities in New York and L.A. "is not real, or as real as some might think," said longtime player agent Happy Walters. "Is it an advantage over a tiny market? Maybe," Walters said, but more so for lifestyle reasons.
And the stars will have other choices this summer, if they want them. Dallas, with Rookie of the Year favorite Luka Doncic, can create room for a max player. So can Sacramento, Chicago, Indiana and Atlanta.
Winning in New York or L.A. does still hold a special allure, said longtime agent Mark Bartelstein, but players these days are more concerned with winning at a high level and enjoying their environment—both the team and the city.
"Are they also investing in you to help you reach your fullest potential?" he said. "Those are the things to me that are critically important."
Case in point: Paul George, a Southern California native who had openly expressed a desire to play in L.A., re-signed in Oklahoma City last summer, rather than join the Lakers.
"The way I look at this is a test," said salary-cap expert Larry Coon, the author of the salary cap FAQ. "The people have always had that assumption, that those marquee teams in the L.A.-New York markets, the two biggest markets, are where free agents would go. And the Lakers especially have always said, 'We're L.A. We're the Lakers. People will sign here.' ... Where do the chips fall?"
These things are always more complicated than they appear, of course. If winning were really all that mattered, Durant would stay with the Warriors, Leonard would stay with the Raptors, Irving would stay with the Celtics and Butler would stay with the Sixers. All four are already in a position to contend for titles.
If the Knicks and Lakers get the guys, it means mystique and market really will matter more. That's terrifying.
— Anonymous NBA general manager
But other factors will inevitably come into play: money, role, shots, control. And yes, potentially, the glamorous sheen attached to the Lakers and Knicks. After all, James chose the Lakers last summer despite all of their dysfunction. Even Nets and Clippers officials admit their teams are viewed as stepchildren in their own cities.
"The Lakers can show up with a dead body in the room and not get arrested," one rival official groused. "It's just the nature of the business we are in that they are perceived in this holy-grail-type situation."
And while league insiders criticize the Knicks and Lakers for their haphazard leadership, the players themselves don't necessarily consider an owner's reputation, or a GM's salary-cap acumen. The best agents try to guide their clients in these areas. But not all do their due diligence.
Which is why some rivals say it would be unsurprising—and disheartening—to see Durant choose the Knicks, or Leonard choose the Lakers.
"If the Knicks and Lakers get the guys," said one GM, "it means mystique and market really will matter more [than which franchise is run the best]. That's terrifying."
In the NBA, stars need stars to win titles. It's an axiom James has lived.
Yet James chose the Lakers last summer without a certified co-star. He needed Ball and Ingram to blossom into starring roles. They didn't.
Still, the Lakers were fourth in the West when James injured his groin on Christmas Day. It changed everything.
"My injury was the worst thing that could have happened to our team at that point in time," James told B/R. "Because I have a month-to-month leadership [plan] of how I lead. And I was right on point."
The injury cost James 18 of the next 19 games, wrecking his agenda.
"You can lead a little bit in a suit," he said, "but if you ain't the coach, you can't really. It's different. You can't do it.
"So being out 18 games, the longest of my career, was devastating," he said, "not only to me personally, but to our team."
Without a second star, the Lakers had no room for error. James had no one to lean on. Without another star, the Lakers have no chance of contending anytime soon—which would render the acquisition of James a rather empty exercise.
In another time, the Lakers could strut into the free-agent market with confidence. Not so today, not with the Knicks and Clippers and Nets all in the hunt.
"It's like a do-or-die thing for them this year," Coon said. "Because what's LeBron's reaction going to be if they can't land somebody? If it's another season like this next season? You're gonna have an unhappy camper there."
If the Clippers or Nets strike out on the marquee names, they can simply shrug and continue on their merry way, confident they are already competitive and on the right path. If the Knicks whiff, they can call it "a long-term rebuild" and save their cap room for 2020. But the Lakers cannot afford to whiff.
James turns 35 in December. He has three years left on this contract. He has no time to waste.
"So it's very critical to me and my future," James says of acquiring another star, as he stops midway down the Garden ramp. "And I'm positive and very optimistic that Magic and Rob and the franchise will be great."
James has heard the speculative chatter—that other stars don't want to join him. That they'd have to sacrifice too much to play with him. That the Lakers have lost their magical charm.
"They got me," James retorts, laughing. "I'm very confident. And I'm confident that players want to play with me. I'm very confident in that."
The bus is waiting down the ramp. James turns and strides into the bitter breeze, comforting himself with the promise of summer.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017.
Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.
Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
Basketball Hall of Fame writer Harvey Araton joins Howard Beck to discuss Araton's new book about the evolution of the modern NBA, why Michael Jordan was a jerk in the best way possible and whether the Lakers should have shut LeBron James down early this season. All that and more on The Full 48.