The Miami Heat may be gearing up for a three-peat attempt as the Lakers embark on what”s regarded as a stopgap campaign by even the most optimistic fans, but they still have one thing in common: Summer of 2014. For the Lakers, it represents a chance to redirect the ship towards smoother waters via free agency. For the Heat, free agency carries the threat of losing LeBron James. Could these worlds collide to make Laker fans smile worldwide?
Well, according to a handful of ESPN.com writers asked to handicap the odds of LeBron bolting for the Lakers, not so much:
Adande: 5 percent. Take what I said about Pat Riley above and apply the opposite to Jim Buss. And LeBron has spent enough time around to know Kobe won”t hand over the keys to the Lakers as easily as Wade handed over the keys to the Heat.
Haberstroh: 5 percent. Let”s say Bryant suffers another career-threatening injury; the Lakers somehow trade for to put Gasol alongside his countryman, ; and the Heat”s season ends in turmoil. Then maybe it could happen. Maybe.
Stein: I”ll go with 1 percent … only because you never say never in this league. But I cannot fathom LeBron joining the Lakers. He was savaged for The Decision, hated all that negativity and would expose himself to getting hammered on a similar scale if he made that move. I firmly believe he”d be branded as one of sports” all-time heartless mercenaries if he decided that he needs a move to Lakerland after just four seasons on South Beach. All the informed whispers emanating out of L.A. suggest that the Lakers are going to chase him hard and think they have a legit shot. But I don”t.
Wallace: Far less than 24 percent. And I say that as a total play on Kobe”s jersey number. I don”t see LeBron wanting to play with Kobe, assuming Kobe stays. And I certainly don”t see the Lakers pushing Kobe aside or rushing him to make a decision to appease James. Besides, what can James do for the Lakers, from a legacy standpoint, that Kobe, Shaq, Magic, Kareem and haven”t? Now, the Clippers? Playing with CP3 and for Doc Rivers if other contracts are moved? Hmmm. That would be a completely different story.
Windhorst: Not great. First, I don”t think LeBron has much desire to play with Kobe. Their interactions with Team USA were often more utilitarian than anything. Second, the Lakers would have to attract at least one more young superstar to come play in L.A. to truly compete with what the Heat could offer. Getting someone to take the Chris Bosh role with Chris Bosh talent will not be easy, even for L.A. And don”t assume Kobe is a big hook at this point in his career.
Obviously, with nearly ten months before LeBron can terminate his contract (and he may not), a lot can happen. And these are just five guys” opinions… although Brian Windhorst has covered LeBron since his high school days and quite possibly knows the forward better than any basketball scribe. Tom Haberstroh and Michael Wallace have been around the team 24/7 since The Heat Index”s inception. J.A. Adande and Marc Stein are very credible. This is as legit a quintet as any. And four specifically cite Kobe as a deterrent for landing LeBron. This sentiment is nothing new, particularly in this neck of the woods, where Brian and I have said the exact same thing on several recent podcasts. Still, it”s telling to see others independently arrive at the same conclusion.
By the way, there are reasons independent of Kobe to question the Lakers” appeal for LeBron. Their immediate future is cloudy with Jim Buss controlling the conch. (For more on this, check out Ramona Shelburne”s profile of the man beneath the baseball hat.) Save one mother of a purple and gold stint, LBJ”s unlikely to be regarded as more than (at best) the fifth greatest Laker of all-time behind — in no particular order — Kobe, Magic, West and Kareem. He doesn”t need a bigger market. Quite frankly, the Lakers need LeBron a helluva lot more than LeBron needs the Lakers. My admittedly uneducated guess is he”ll stay in Miami and bet on Pat Riley, plus his own appeal, as rebuilding assets. Unless it”s to come full circle in Cleveland for professional and personal reasons, I don”t envision LeBron leaving because he doesn”t need to and seems happy.
However, you can substitute “Big Ticket Free Agent X In His Prime” for “LeBron,” and the points raised by these ESPN writers remain trenchant. Regardless of what Lakers fans think of Dwight Howard — and there are legitimate reasons for the dismissive opinions — Kobe was widely reported as a negative recruiting tool. Even if you think the Lakers dodged the bullet of an uncommitted franchise player (I”ve raised that point myself), I can”t imagine Kobe”s “take it or leave it” approach didn”t resonate around the league. Nor, for that matter, can I imagine that pitch inspiring the majority of players the Lakers will be trying to entice. With the possible exception of Carmelo Anthony (who raises his own myriad of questions), I don”t see many top flight players signing up for a Padawan internship under Kobe Wan Kenobi.
Maybe this attitude was a direct reflection of Bryant”s indifference towards Howard staying, but it fits the pattern established throughout his career. It”s not that he”s unwilling to adjust altogether, but even those instances are typically on his own terms. Ever since Shaq”s departure, Bryant”s gone out of his way to remind teammates and even coaches not named “Phil” or “Jackson” who calls the shots. The Lakers are “Kobe”s” team, and he appears decidedly uninterested in dialing back that influence. Nor will he ever have to, given how he”s a God among fans. Frankly, he”s earned this rare status. But flaunting it isn”t necessarily the smartest approach. Especially when he ain”t winning a sixth title without quality help. Teammates (prospective or otherwise) will be more accepting of an alpha dog in his prime continually flexing these muscles, especially when a title is a realistic goal. But when the alpha dog is 35, in the twilight of his career, coming off a serious injury, and there are holes in the roster? That may be another story.
Bryant is hardly the sole reason the Lakers could struggle in the immediate wake of Dr. Buss” death to remain the NBA”s premiere destination. But even more than Jim Buss, nobody potentially is more capable of offsetting the bumps. And without signs of flexibility, I”m quite concerned the Lakers” ability to land A-List free agents will directly coincide with Kobe”s retirement and not a second sooner.