The Lakers don’t have to say it and can’t under the rules, but they’ve got to be pulling for the Indiana Pacers to beat the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. They’d probably even root for the San Antonio Spurs to win the title if that means the Heat loses in the NBA Finals.
The reason, of course, would be a shot at future free agent LeBron James.
If James wins his second title in as many years, he might be more likely to stick around in Miami for the duration of his career. The All-Star forward can opt out of the final two years of his contract after next season, making him a potential unrestricted free agent in 2014.
Should the Heat lose, with diminished performances from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James might consider a change. Wade and Bosh are set to earn more than $60 million apiece over the next three seasons, although they too possess similar contract options as James.
The Lakers have managed their salaries so that only Steve Nash is under contract at $9.7 million for the 2014-15 season. That can shrink to a completely empty roster if the Lakers implement the stretch provision to cut Nash — reducing his cap hit in 2014 to only $3.2 million.
Some Lakers fans are not fond of James, given their loyalty to Kobe Bryant, but the team has to think about the future. While Bryant has vowed to return to form after surgery to repair his torn left Achilles’ tendon, he has also hinted that he’s not too far from retirement.
Why wouldn’t the Lakers go after the best player in the league in James — a four-time most valuable player — especially if Bryant is retiring?
The NBA recently gave teams a projection of $58.5 million for next season’s salary cap and $62.1 million for the summer of 2014.
The Lakers are waiting for the decision of center Dwight Howard, who will hit free agency in July. If he re-signs, he could make up to $22.05 million for the 2014-15 season.
If the Lakers kept Howard but shed every free agent, including Bryant, Nash and even their 2014 first-round draft selection, they’d have approximately $31.2 million in cap space. (Note that the league includes an empty roster charge on a team’s cap for open spots up to 12 players, $507,336 each in 2014.)
James would be eligible for a deal starting at $20 million, leaving the team with about $11.7 million in space to keep shopping. With that, the Lakers would still have the ability to sign a high-level free agent to join Howard and James.
Once the Lakers go over the cap, they gain the new room exception worth $2.7 million, which can be used to attract a solid role player.
It might be pie-in-the-sky thinking, but then chasing after Shaquille O’Neal, Pau Gasol, Howard and Nash in many ways seemed fanciful at the time.
There’s no guarantee James opts out after next season. There’s no guarantee he chooses the Lakers if he does. There’s no guarantee Howard re-signs this summer. The Lakers can only manage their books in preparation for an opportunity that might never come.
Nonetheless, if all the pieces were to fall into place, the Lakers would have a team with two superstars, a third, high-level player and a solid veteran. The rest of the roster would be filled with players on minimum contracts.
Should Howard leave, James could still sign for $20 million and the Lakers would still have up to $33.3 million in cap room to build around him, if they completely maximize their space.
Currently the Lakers are hampered by significant luxury taxes. If they keep the core of the existing roster together, they may be looking at some $60 million to $80 million in taxes.
In the vision of a LeBron James 2014 summer, the Lakers would be likely to remain under the tax threshold for both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. For 2015-16, they would gain the full mid-level and bi-annual exceptions, along with the ability to bring in players via sign and trade.
For the next three seasons after 2015-16, the Lakers would presumably drift into the tax but wouldn’t qualify for the dreaded “repeater tax.” They also aren’t likely to end up some $30 million over the tax line (as they were for the past year).
The team would have a full five-year window, starting in 2014, to pursue championships without major financial hardship.
Additionally, the owners and players’ union can opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2017, which might once again change the economic landscape of the NBA.
As the Lakers stand today, they have very limited options to improve until 2014. If Howard re-signs, the team might feel the need to deal Pau Gasol to reduce their tax burden.
Should Howard depart, Gasol is far more likely to finish the last year on his contract with the Lakers as the team’s center.
While the Lakers might like to vow sweeping changes to Howard if they could, to sway him to stay, they would want to avoid making empty promises.
Next season may be a challenge, even if Howard returns, depending on how quickly and successfully Bryant returns from injury. Any Gasol trade is wholly dependent on at least one of the 29 other teams in the league to make a deal that works for the Lakers.
There’s always a chance they land major impact talent immediately for Gasol, but that may be a stretch given his age and impending free agency (also in 2014). Then again, General Manager Mitch Kupchak was able to spin Kwame Brown (and second-round draft pick/future All-Star Marc Gasol) into Pau Gasol.
Anything may be possible but the team can offer Howard only their brand, track record and ask for his trust.
Championship teams are rarely built in one off-season (although the Boston Celtics accomplished it not too long ago). Waiting for James may be the path the Lakers walk instead of taking a stab at further mediocrity.
James could just as easily stay in Miami, re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers or end up with another team making the chase.
The Lakers are at a clear crossroads, but there’s not a lot else to be done on June 3 other than pull for the upstart Indiana Pacers.