The Los Angeles Lakers, coming off the Dwight Howard debacle which intertwined nicely with the disgraceful decision making process behind their current coach, have now declared themselves out of the LeBron James enticement business. I don’t think that will be enough to stop a year’s worth of speculation as to where LeBron may be going off to next year, including occasionally from yours truly, but it did provide some insight into the internal thinking of the utter mess that is the Lakers at the moment.
We’re currently at the point of “The Godfather” where the family business has been passed from Vito Corleone, meaning Jerry Buss, to Sonny Corleone, meaning Jimmy Buss. Lakers fans are waiting for Michael Corleone, meaning Jeanie Buss, to come back and straighten things out.
So while we’re witnessing the drama in the front office, it was a mere blip in the news that there were leaks from the Lakers front office that they will refuse to get involved in adding the best player on the planet to one of the “Rolex Franchises” of the NBA. That’s right, someone was telling reporters â€“ off the record of course â€“ that the Lakers would not attempt to wine and dine LeBron James if/when he opts out of his current contract with Miami and examines his opportunities around the NBA.
There is only one argument to be made with a straight face as to why adding LeBron isn’t possible…
The nature of the new CBA makes it difficult to put a number of huge stars on the same team while remaining under the salary cap. It would require creative thinking and creative destruction to produce enough cap space to lure LeBron or any other high quality free agent. It is possible, but, I concede, difficult to do if you want to stay under the cap and away from a luxury tax penalty. The estimable Larry Coon has more on why it’s so difficult under the current CBA.
If you accept the premise that the Lakers are like every other franchise and should be adhering to the salary Cap in order to make money, then the comments about refraining from spending big on LeBron in free agency seem completely reasonable. LeBron is going to cost a lot of money and Kobe already makes a ton himself [Eds. note: Kobe’s contract is up at the end of the year]. So do several other veterans on the books.
I, however, do not accept that premise.
The Lakers organization is one of the most profitable in all of sports. How profitable? See Forbes’ recent estimate. The Lakers, despite being poised for a troublesome season in 2013-2014, are going to be extremely profitable coming off a $3.6 billion local television deal. They can afford to go over the salary cap for LeBron, hire Phil Jackson for the biggest payday in all of coaching, pay the luxury tax penalties, and still be making more money than I can even comprehend. They just don’t want to.
There seems to be a new ethos among modern executives, both in sports and elsewhere, that the goal of every season is profit maximization. Meaning that if the Lakers could make $500 million in profits this year after paying Phil Jackson and LeBron and the luxury tax to be primed to win another NBA Championship OR making $510 million while fielding a 30-win team going nowhere, it’s wise to do the latter. For a hedge fund manager, this is an easy calculation. But for a family owned business like the Lakers â€” whose supremacy comes from providing glitz, glamor, but most importantly winning â€” it’s akin to malpractice.
Now that we’ve taken money out of the equation, the other arguments against pursuing LeBron James are merely ridiculous.
Could Kobe Bryant and LeBron co-exist? Many would argue no, but I’d argue the opposite. Yes, in the half-court, Kobe is going to jack it up. But LeBron creates shots for others and has a game modeled more like Magic Johnson than Michael Jordan. Once Kobe learned that his life would be easier allowing LeBron to help create, only an utter lunatic would be that myopic and self-absorbed to turn down that help. Kobe may be all about Kobe, but he’s also all about winning. He’s also played in a system wherein the offense didn’t run entirely off of him, The Triangle, but rather with a talented big man in the post as the focal point. LeBron plays a total team game. Case in point: his improved post game over the last two seasons. He’s a fantastic passer and rebounder and isn’t obsessed with taking shots, but in making the right basketball play. One other important factor: LeBron James is not Dwight Howard. He is as driven to win as Kobe, though from all indications is a more pleasant teammate, which is another reason the Lakers should be salivating over the notion of landing him.
LeBron and Kobe have played together before, and the on-the-court product was exquisite: Check out these highlights from the 2012 London Olympics. They’re all great, but there’s a bit of a LeBron to Kobe show midway through.
You can imagine LeBron cutting to the hoop and hitting a spotting up Bryant, or LeBron attracting a double in the post and creating openings for Steve Nash and easier shots for Pau Gasol. The question you have to ask yourself is this: is the talent that would surround LeBron in LA better than it would be in Miami? Is Pau Gasol better than Chris Bosh? Does Kobe Bryant have more left in the tank than Dwyane Wade? Those questions should be something LeBron considers before staying in Miami, or perhaps, looking elsewhere.
The other question is: which of those players will still be with the Lakers post 2013-2014?
What If LeBron Says ‘No’?
Then you look elsewhere. I’m all for institutional pride, and it’s never fun to be turned down by someone you fancy, as I know from repeated personal experiences, but the Los Angeles Lakers are not me. The Los Angeles Lakers are Leonardo DiCaprio. Does an occasional supermodel break up with Leo? Yes. Does DiCaprio let that get him down?
No. No he does not.
He deals with a breakup with Gisele Bundchen by dating Bar Refaeli. Furthermore, the Lakers are among the teams that can be BLOWN UP after this season. Here’s a full list of all the available free agents next year. The free agent class of 2014 has lots of intriguing prospects. For those playing the long game, there is no long game here. Kobe Bryant has a limited window to “WIN NOW” and given the Laker fan base, that’s precisely what the Lake Show should be thinking.
The Los Angeles Lakers owe it to their fan base, arguably the most rabid in the NBA, to live up to the standard that Jerry Buss has set. Laker fans I talk to are much angrier at the notion that their team isn’t going to take a shot at LeBron than they would be if the Lakers took a shot and got turned down. That’s completely logical. If they get turned down, there are a number of other pieces available for acquisition. There’s Zach Randolph, Paul George [Eds. note: George may sign an extension before the October 31 deadline], or DeMarcus Cousins. Kevin Love has a player option after the 2014-15 season if the Lakers want to play the long game. But it’s dangerous to play the long game. With so much in flux for the Lakers after this season, the entire Lakers roster is seemingly up for grabs; the smarter option is to build a team to win now.
One note, the single free agent the Lakers should not pursue is Carmelo Anthony. There are not enough basketball’s on the planet for a team with both ‘Melo and Kobe.
What about the Draft?
There is no reason the Lakers cannot walk and chew gum at the same time. The Lakers need to get younger, and the 2014 Draft is, according to the experts, filled with talented players that can help the Lakers reload. Based on some projections, the Lakers could be in prime position to land a lottery pick to compliment a free agent signing, be it LeBron or any of the other notable free agents that are up at the end of this season. The reality is that our perspectives will change after the current college basketball season, but it’s intriguing to consider any number of these players coming aboard the Lakers as a potential savior.
The NBA draft plays into a narrative the Lakers could use to their advantage, if they’re smart. If they land a fantastic player in the draft, they can go into free agency selling a product that LeBron or someone else might be willing to buy. What Laker fans cannot allow is for a new draft pick to be sold as the panacea and another reason not to spend money or make a run at a top 2014-15 free agent. To be clear, I’m not advising the Lakers to overspend for a lackluster product. But I find it hard to believe there isn’t a way for LA to attract a player that will help them challenge the Thunder and the Rockets in the West, if, and it’s a big if, they are actually trying to win now.
That’s the big “If.”
Off-the-record statements in September does not a strategy make, and the Lakers have plenty of time to reconsider their position on the 2014 free agent class in the coming months. Fundamentally, what has to be considered is whether they are willing to stay in the championship hunting business. They should be, because with that fan base and with the revenue they have coming in from their TV deal, they can afford to be.
Salary cap be damned.
What do you think?
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