Is LeBron the Lakers' next big target?

If Kobe Bryant hangs it up in 2014, the door is open for a new King of Los Angeles

Originally Published: October 18, 2012
By Brian Windhorst | ESPN.com

Lebron JamesAndrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesWith the Lakers expecting major cap room in 2014, LeBron may have another big decision to make.

No team reloads like the Los Angeles Lakers.

Their track record of leveraging their hometown appeal and history, plus applying shrewd management, over the past 30 years is virtually without peer.

With their latest coups -- the stunning Steve Nash sign-and-trade and a victory in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes -- just now coming together for the first time, could the Lakers already be plotting out the next one?

Opposing executives think so. As teams continue their long-range planning and work up opposition strategies, the Lakers remain just as much a threat in the transaction game as they are on the court.

Several teams' executives have told ESPN.com they believe the Lakers are positioning themselves to make a run at LeBron James in 2014, when the Miami Heat star can choose to become a free agent.

[+] EnlargeLeBron James and and Kobe Bryant
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesIn just two years, LeBron James could take over the starring role in Lakerland from Kobe Bryant.

Recently, Kobe Bryant told CBSSports.com that he sees himself playing only two more seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14) and then retiring at age 35. Bryant said similar things in an interview with Yahoo! Sports over the summer.

Bryant has two years left on his contract, and next season he is scheduled to become just the second player ever to earn more than $30 million in a season. The other was Michael Jordan.

Whether or not you believe the ultra-competitive Bryant will follow through with that retirement plan, his statements seem to be a sign that a contract extension or new contract is no sure thing.

In the wake of the Howard trade, much as been made of the massive luxury-tax bill the Lakers are facing next season if they're able to re-sign the big man. ESPN.com salary cap expert Larry Coon has estimated the Lakers could be on the hook for as much as $85 million just in taxes in 2013-14.

But look a little further, to that 2014-15 season, and you'll see something else: The Lakers' projected payroll is almost completely clear. Only Nash is signed for that season, at $9.7 million, though the Lakers will also be paying about $20 million to Howard if they can re-sign him this coming summer.

In July 2014, Bryant's $30.4 million, Pau Gasol's $19.2 million, Metta World Peace's $7.7 million, Steve Blake's $4 million and Jordan Hill's $3.5 million will come off the books. There likely won't even be any first-round draft picks filling up the cap, either, as the Lakers have already traded their 2013 first-round pick to Phoenix in the Nash deal.

Opposing teams that are making their own long-range free agency plans think they see the Lakers' plan coming into focus. As it stands, L.A. will have enough cap space to add a superstar like James.

"It's not a mistake that all those deals end the same year Kobe's does. They have probably been planning for their next phase for a while," said one general manager. "The Busses and [Lakers GM] Mitch [Kupchak] are always thinking about the next big deal."

No one knows this better than Bryant himself, who has been the beneficiary of the Lakers' aggressive maneuvers for 16-plus years.

"I knew how much the Buss family, Jeanie and so forth, wanted to turn it around," Bryant told CBSSports.com. "I've seen them do it. They rebuilt first by picking up Shaq. ... Then that era was over and they rebuilt again. And now they've rebuilt again. I've seen them do it before."

If Bryant does move on after 18 seasons, as he has openly talked about, they may be ready to do it again.

Whether or not James would be interested in listening to a Lakers offer in two years is impossible to predict now. Remember, in 2008, it was hard to see James ending up in Miami in 2010 even though Heat president Pat Riley, a product of the Lakers' way of thinking, was already preparing to make it happen.

At the moment, the Heat are loaded and poised to be title contenders for the next two seasons.

James is signed through 2016, but he can end his contract in either 2014 or 2015 if he wishes to. He has recently said that he's not thought about his contract decision in 2014, even though he recently switched agents. But observers around the league expect James to opt out of his contract in 2014, no matter what happens with the Heat over the next two seasons. That doesn't mean he won't stay in Miami, but it does mean he might be in play again.

"The agent part probably doesn't matter. LeBron is the best player in the league and he's making less than the max, so unless he's seriously hurt he's going to opt out in 2014, if only because I would assume he wants and deserves to get a true max," said one league executive. "Even if the Heat win the next two titles there's a feeling that LeBron is going to become a free agent in two years no matter what."

Just as during the period from 2008 to 2010, James' free agent plans will probably become a big topic over the next 21 months. They will definitely be a part of various teams' long-term cap planning. Presumably, that list of teams includes the Lakers.

Meanwhile, keep an eye on Chris Paul, LeBron's best friend in the NBA. James has wanted to team up with CP3 for seven years or more. In 2005, when Paul was about to be drafted, James asked the Cavs to attempt to move up to get Paul, but the Cavs did not have the assets to pull off such a trade.

Paul and James have only grown closer since, playing together on Team USA four times since 2006 and winning gold medals in 2008 and last summer. Paul will be a free agent in 2013, and his situation could influence James' plans a year later.

In any case, the Lakers are positioning themselves to be major players again, post-Bryant. Based on their long track record, there's no reason to believe they won't aim for the biggest star possible. In 2014, that likely will be LeBron James.

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