While the Lakers pine for LeBron, his next home remains a mystery

ByRamona Shelburne and Brian Windhorst ESPN logo
Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ever since she chose her seats nearly two decades ago in the second row across from the home bench at Staples Center, Los Angeles Lakers co-owner and president Jeanie Buss has entertained celebrities, business moguls and NBA power brokers there. Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig is a frequent guest. Her former fiancé Phil Jackson sat there for a half on the night Shaquille O'Neal's jersey was retired. On any night, you might find Larry David, Snoop Dogg, Jimmy Connors or P.K. Subban in that prime seat.

Sitting with Buss at a Lakers game -- even for a few minutes -- is making it in L.A.

NBA agent Rich Paul got the invitation on the night of Oct. 23. He had just settled into the third row behind the visitors bench to watch the Lakers debut of his client Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Paul, of course, also represents the biggest star in the NBA -- LeBron James -- who is expected to become a free agent after the season. And as we saw when he was a free agent in 2010 and 2014, James has the ability to change the balance of power in the entire league.

So when Paul, wearing one of his trademark high-end leather jackets, walked over to Buss' seats and sat next to her during the first half, NBA Twitter began to buzz.

Buss was sitting with LeBron James' agent. LEBRON'S AGENT!

Was the fantasy of sports talk radio -- that LeBron will consider the Lakers in free agency -- legit? Or was this just another celebrity photo op at a Lakers game meant to wag the dog?

Intentionally or not, LeBron has also fueled the Lakers rumors on several occasions. In July, he showed up to a Lakers summer league game in Las Vegas and sat courtside to watch Lonzo Ball in the midst of winning MVP. In September, he and his wife toured a private high school in nearby Sherman Oaks. And what about the second home in Brentwood -- the brand-new one with the upgraded amenities that was even nicer than the mansion he owns on famed Rockingham Drive -- that he was in the process of purchasing?

The coup de grce would come on Oct. 27, when LeBron wished Ball happy birthday on Twitter and proclaimed him a "young [king]."

But on this night, the visual of LeBron's agent sitting next to the Lakers owner was enough to spin the NBA world off its axis. Forget that Paul sometimes sits courtside in Washington with Zach Leonsis, the son of owner Ted Leonsis, where client John Wall recently got a $170 million extension. Or that Paul occasionally sits with 76ers part owner Michael Rubin in Philadelphia, where he represents star rookie Ben Simmons. Or that a few days later, Paul was in Denver, sitting with Nuggets GM Tim Connolly.

Paul sitting with Buss had to mean something. Or nothing. Or everything.

"If you know me," Paul told ESPN. "You know it doesn't mean anything other than I enjoy their company."

When the Lakers signed Caldwell-Pope this summer, it was widely believed that at least some of their motivation was to use the season to show him and, by extension, Paul what the Laker life was all about -- well, what the Laker life was like after Buss boldly fired her brother Jim Buss and longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak in February, replaced them with Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, who then drafted electric rookie Lonzo Ball, whose overzealous father had seemingly spoken his path to the NBA's glamour franchise into being.

But Buss felt boldness was necessary after the Lakers had fallen into the lottery four years in a row. Los Angeles is a town that doesn't tolerate mediocrity for very long. Be interesting or be forgotten quickly here. And with Kobe Bryant two years into retirement, the Lakers were flirting with irrelevance. They needed new energy and new stars as soon as possible. Enter Ball, who has drawn comparisons to luminaries like Johnson and Jason Kidd. And enter salary cap space, which the Lakers have made little secret they intend to use to pursue superstar players -- like James and Southern California native Paul George -- in free agency next summer.

It is a delicious fantasy. And yet, in the modern NBA, where superstars change teams and seismic shifts in power seem to shake the league every summer, it's certainly not impossible. Lakers history is filled with similar feats of engineering, most recently in 2008, when they plucked Pau Gasol away from Memphis to team with an in-his-prime Bryant for two NBA championships.

So imagining James' last act coming in purple and gold isn't without basis. But as of now, it's also a longshot, according to league sources. Still, expect the atmosphere, and the intrigue, to be as thick as the winter storm battering Cleveland when the Lakers and Cavaliers play Thursday night.

But history also offers lessons on the difficulty of projecting James' intentions in free agency.

LeBron James has been a free agent four times in his 15-year NBA career. He took more than a week to decide both times he changed teams -- in 2010 and 2014 -- and each choice was downright shocking when he delivered the news.

How the season ends always factors heavily into James' decision making. This summer should be no different.

If the Cavs are back in the Finals, and the team is still the class of the Eastern Conference with a potential top lottery pick on the way, it's easy to see LeBron staying in Cleveland.

If the Cavs bow out early, or seem as if they are falling off, it's easy to see LeBron leaving again and finishing his career elsewhere, having made good on his promise to deliver a title to his hometown in 2016.

He will be 33 years old at the end of this season, with somewhere close to 52,000 minutes played -- already more than Michael Jordan played in his career. And LeBron has stated on numerous occasions that Jordan's six championship rings are the historical benchmark he is chasing. So bet on wherever gives him the best chance to do that being the place he plays out his final years.

Also sticking to past protocol, James himself has resisted any attempt to comment on his impending free agency. Before the season, he said he "won't ever cheat my teammates or cheat the franchise ... by talking about free agency all year long, because I'm not gonna give energy to something I can handle in the summertime."

"LeBron is focused on this season and winning a championship," Paul said. "At the appropriate time, we will explore all the options. Now is not the time."

About the only thing you can safely predict is that James will have and use every bit of his seemingly unlimited leverage in all negotiations.

James has signed three deals with the Cavs just since 2014. In each of those deals, Paul and his partner Mark Termini have prioritized getting James maximum money, not just for that season, but timing the deals so James can maximize his earning potential for the rest of his career.

Their position has always been to sign for the max and to maintain maximum leverage over both James' career and the franchise. In fact, when James left the Miami Heat and returned to Cleveland in 2014, there really wasn't a negotiation at all. Paul and Termini met with his suitors -- the Suns, Lakers, Bulls, Mavericks, Heat and Cavs -- and told them to be prepared to offer a max contract and not a penny less. If James chose their franchise, he would subsequently decide how many years he'd sign for. Several of the teams walked into the meeting without max cap space, including the Cavs, and it forced action. (Cleveland traded three players and offloaded $10 million to clear space for James in 2014.)

The middle of the regular season is not the time for final decisions, but James' position on maximum contracts hasn't changed, sources said.

Here's what that means: Teams who hope to pitch James next July ought to plan to have the max to offer, which is projected to be about $35 million. For now, there are no plans for James to grant a Kevin Durant-esque discount to any team so that friends can get paid or a better roster can be constructed.

Something else a team will need: stars. The last time a team was able to pry James away from his hometown, it took an incumbent star, Dwyane Wade, and a joining star, Chris Bosh.

The Lakers will have big cap space next summer. But they don't have enough to add a second max player without making several big trades or waiving-and-stretching Luol Deng and the $37 million remaining on his contract. And despite the promise of their young players like Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, none of them are surefire All-Stars yet.

Other teams that are believed to want to pitch James also have some challenges at the moment.

The 76ers -- a team that has become a trendy option for James' prognosticators -- with young stars in Simmons and Joel Embiid, don't currently have the max cap space. The Rockets have also been added to the James futures market with their new star duo of James Harden and Chris Paul looking awesome. But three key players -- Paul, Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza -- will be free agents next summer, and there isn't enough room for all of them if James gets his max.

There's reason to pay attention to the Houston connection. James and Paul have been friends since high school, won two gold medals together and recently led the players' union through CBA negotiations with Paul as president and James as VP. They are in position to be free agents at the same time for the first time in their careers next summer.

However, league sources called the concept that James and Paul want to spend their golden years as teammates an overstated assumption.

Other teams could be tossed into the mix for the sake of conversation -- the Spurs or the Knicks, for example -- but the same problem remains. There isn't enough proven talent or a clear path to the needed $35 million in cap space for James' check.

The Cavs have their own challenges. Without Kyrie Irving, how Isaiah Thomas fits with James is going to be vital. So too will be the decision of whether to trade or keep the Brooklyn Nets' first-round pick next year. The Cavs also have the oldest team in the league. But they can do what no other team can: offer a five-year deal that would smash all salary records. Or not. James could do another short-term deal and push the decision back to 2019.

So six months from free agency, what does it all mean? It means nothing is assured and anything is possible. That is enough to keep the Cavs worried and the other suitors on their toes. And it's enough to keep the Cavs confident and the others concerned. Welcome to the reality of James' free agency.

"The most dangerous thing in the NBA is LeBron as a free agent," one league source said.

In 2010 and 2014, the entire league effectively shut down until James made a decision.

At this stage of James' career, a roster with two-way players who could help battle his rivals in Golden State would be a huge plus. Other playmakers who can take the burden off James would help as well. That's the reason James and George, the other marquee free agent next summer, have been linked. James aggressively recruited George behind the scenes last summer, selling him on a future together in Cleveland, but the Cavs deal mysteriously fell apart before George was dealt to Oklahoma City.

In the past, James and his agent have granted meetings to teams with grand plans like this. But when it has come down to it, he always has chosen only the most premium option or home.

While the Lakers came into this reboot short on patience for their great expectations -- L.A. is still worried it won't have an All-Star when it hosts the All-Star game in February -- it seems obvious their young core needs more time to develop before a determination can be made about their contender worthiness.

Ball has shown flashes of the dazzling playmaking ability that earned him comparisons to Johnson and Kidd. He also has shot poorly (a league-worst 32.7 percent from the field), been too passive offensively and seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility of leading a glamour franchise like the Lakers.

His father's boisterous pronouncements have felt more burdensome than entertaining with each passing day. In fact, sources told ESPN that Johnson and Pelinka recently met with LaVar Ball to discuss his frequent comments to the media about his son's performances, head coach Luke Walton's use of him and everything else under the sun. The Lakers brass left the meeting confident that LaVar would temper his comments in the short term, sources said. However, within a week, LaVar had done several new headline-grabbing interviews with national outlets like CNN and NBC's "Today" show.

And yet, LeBron had this to say about Lonzo after Lonzo topped his record of youngest ever to have a triple-double: "I definitely think back to when I was that young," James said, according to ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "There's not many games that I can remember when I was 20 years old or 19 or even 18. So first of all, congratulations to him.

"I think he's going to be a really, really good point guard in our league, probably a great point guard if he continues to work on his craft, which it seems like he does. They got a good one."

It was the kind of quote that sends Lakers fans to their computers to Photoshop images of a Lakers jersey onto James' body. The kind of quote that sends NBA Twitter into a frenzy and makes rival executives cringe at the thought that the Lakers' rebuild might fast-forward if they get James and George this summer.

The kind of quote James has to know will go viral and start a new round of intrigue about his future.

All of which has to mean something. Or nothing. Or everything.

Related Video