Trying to guess what another human being will do is usually very foolish. We’re not in that person’s head, do not know what he or she values, what might motivate them to choose option A over option B. There are simply too many unknowns to try and guess what choice will be made in any given situation.
In saying that, when dealing with sports there are usually two things that matter most: money and winning. In today’s NBA, for the top stars, the latter is usually more important than the former as long as they are still getting paid somewhere near what their maximum salary is.
This brings me to LeBron James and, to a lesser extent, Carmelo Anthony. After Anthony informed the Knicks that he would opt out of the final year of his contract on Monday, LeBron told the Heat the same on Tuesday. Both will be free agents and instantly jump to the top of every team’s list as the most sought after targets on the open market.
If you are a Lakers fan, this probably excites you. After all, this is the moment the team has supposedly been building for over the last several years. It is why nearly every player’s salary came off the books this past summer; why the front office has preached “flexibility” as often as possible when it comes to explaining nearly every roster move they have made recently. The Lakers want to sign star players and rebuild as quickly as possible. Now, two of the biggest stars in the league (and two excellent players — LeBron’s case, the league’s best) are there for the poaching. Again, this is the Lakers’ moment.
There’s only one problem. Despite having money to spend, the Lakers still aren’t necessarily in a very good position to snag LeBron or Anthony, much less both.
Don’t get me wrong, there are ways to get there and these are the ways that the fans who believe this is possible will rattle off from now until some point in July when everyone’s minds are made up. In no specific order:
- The Lakers have the ability to free up around $30 million in salary cap space to chase two star players. If LeBron and/or Melo take less than their max salary, they can sign with the Lakers and the team will still have room to chase another big time player (or, in the case of the LeBron AND Carmelo dream, both can sign for around $15 million each).
- This is the Lakers. They have the franchise history, the Los Angeles market, the stars in the stands and banners in the rafters. Not to mention, they always treat their superstar players well and will always go the extra mile to accommodate them. This matters to players and when the front office pitches players, they will remind them off all the above.
- The Lakers have not yet hired a head coach. To outsiders, this may seem like a deterrent, but this is just one more sweetner the team can offer any prospective free agent. We want your input on who the next coach should be.
I do not deny there is some merit in thinking this way. There is nothing outlandish in the bullets above and any actual pitch the Lakers make to one (or more) of the top free agents will include this logic.
However, what this line of thinking ignores are some of the basic realities about team building and what the Lakers would need to do in order to get to the point where some of the above statements are even true. For example:
- In order for the Lakers to get upwards of $30 million in cap space, they would need to renounce every free agent on their roster while trading Steve Nash and the #7 pick while taking close to no salary back in return. The former is expected at this point and is only a formality. The latter, while doable, isn’t so simple. The Lakers would likely need to use the #7 pick as sweetner to take on Nash’s deal which makes the process easier, but also uses a very good team building asset in a poor manner. The idea in chasing star free agents is at least somewhat connected to how close a team is to winning. Getting zero return on a good asset makes you further away from a better foundation to help lure good players.
- The history of the Lakers is one thing, but the present can be perceived as quite another. As I wrote when discussing Phil Jackson taking the Knicks’ job, there is a perception that Jim Buss is not good at his job. Whether this is true or not doesn’t mean as much as the idea having traction. I don’t think whatever views are held of Buss erase the Lakers storied past, but if players are concerned about ownership or the direction of the franchise, that will affect the pursuit of free agents.
I don’t say any of this to say that the Lakers should not try to sign the best free agents. Having LeBron hit the open market is exactly why they have a max salary slot open heading into the summer. They wanted to be able to sign any single player of their choosing at any salary he can command under this CBA. Now that this is actually possible logistically, you bet they will try to make their pitch. If they can convince guys to take less and try to sign more than one of these players, more power to them.
Just don’t expect the Lakers to come out victorious in this and have LeBron and/or Carmelo actually playing at Staples as part of the home team next year. Because much like looking in your side mirror while driving, as close as the Lakers may seem they are still quite a ways away from luring one of the top free agents. Yes, they can offer the money (at least to one of them), but offering the chance to win right away is much more complicated.