LeBron, Carmelo hold the cards and Pau Gasol wants to play chess now (Part Two)

Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers, nightmare scenario.

By: Joe Mags

For fun but completely unlikely scenarios involving LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, check out Part One. This is Part Two. Check out Part Three here.

James and Anthony sign with Lakers; the other 29 teams rage against the machine.

Anybody who thinks this move isn’t on the table because of how ugly it would get is dead wrong.

LeBron James changed modern sports in 2010 with The Decision – both the choice and the form of the announcement – and teaming up with fellow 2003 Draft Class member and future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony for the duration of both their primes is absolutely on the table as a follow-up move four years later.

It’s actually simpler than almost any other scenario: LeBron and Carmelo both sign for the max in Los Angeles; and then the Lakers fill out their roster with cheap veterans and one-year contracts. 

No, that’s really it. The Los Angeles Lakers – you know, the American professional sports team with the most championships since 1960; the only NBA team that made $100 million last season according to Grantland; and the team that has Kobe Bryant on payroll, desperately looking for his sixth championship ring – can sign the two best free agents outright and ascend to the top of the league power rankings. 

Well, near the top. San Antonio would still be the team to beat, and it’s possible that playing in the West would humble this top-heavy Lakers roster over the course of 82 games and multiple playoff series. That potential starting lineup – Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo, Julius Randle and Pau Gasol – is freakishly talented. But where’s the rim protection? Where’s the point guard to take ball handling duties off LeBron James during the game? And who is backing up these guys – the Robert Sacre’s and Kent Bazemore’s of the world? That team is beatable.

Still, the league would go berserk. How could Adam Silver, in good faith, continue preaching about the parody of the NBA and between the larger and smaller markets? The Lakers would go from being one of the six worst teams in basketball to a team with nine championship rings, five regular season MVP trophies and 37 trips to the All-Star game in its starting lineup, all before hiring a head coach, and while pocketing $100 million in combined revenue because of its lucrative “local” TV network. 

The Atlanta Hawks won eleven more games than the Lakers a year ago, have a more talented roster already in place, cap space to boot, and play in the lowly Eastern Conference where ascension would be inevitable with LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony on board – let alone both of them. So why are they not even considering Atlanta, huh?

Minnesota, one of the smallest markets in the Association, has essentially been told by the larger markets and the media that caters to those markets that it doesn’t deserve Kevin Love – who, ironically, has been linked over the years to the Lakers. The Timberwolves have not been a perfect organization over the first six seasons of Love’s career, but they do play in the West – if they were an Eastern Conference team, they probably would have made the playoffs two out of the last three seasons – and the current administration has been slowly righting the wrongs of previous management

Teams like the Timberwolves and the Kings have poisoned images because of bad moves compounded on bad moves, but these franchises are not any worse historically at making personnel decisions than the New York Knicks under James Dolan, or the Los Angeles Clippers before they drafted Blake Griffin. What’s the difference? The Knicks are worth billions of dollars and the Clippers just sold for $2 billion; and even if Kevin Love was under contract for another five years in Minnesota, that franchise might sell for about $500 million.  

The New York Knicks will always be one of the most valuable franchises in sports because they are New York City’s team despite not winning a championship in 40 years; even after all of these championship seasons and first-class business decisions, the San Antonio Spurs franchise could NEVER be worth more than the Knicks or the Lakers. When Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili ride off into the sunset, it will be interesting to see how long the Spurs are “the Spurs” before they become just another lower market team. 

Why did I go on this long tangent? Because if LeBron and Carmelo sign on to play with the Lakers, then clearly the current contract structure is flawed. As Zach Lowe brilliantly touched on in June, the current system only works amongst the teams that are attractive to premier free agents generally. It will never matter if Milwaukee or Utah or Atlanta offers LeBron James the max-level contract because if every other team can offer roughly the same money then there is no advantage for LeBron to sign with a smaller market team – not if he can take the same money and the same years to play in a sexier market.

But what about rewarding the small market franchises that draft well? What does that mean – to give the one small market team every 20 years that drafts Tim Duncan or Anthony Davis the chance to pretend it’s a major market franchise for a decade or so? The Lakers get to be the Lakers every year.

Over the seventeen seasons Tim Duncan has excelled in San Antonio and the Spurs have ingeniously built around him, the Los Angeles Lakers have bullied their way to the same number of championships by purchasing Shaquille O’Neal and acquiring Pau Gasol in a largely one-sided trade. Did the Lakers “draft well” over that same period? Technically; they nailed the Kobe Bryant pick. But if Charlotte never makes the Vlade Divac trade, are the early-2000s any different for the Lakers – or do they just buy/bully a trade for some other elite young guard that could excel with O’Neal?

My point: Major League Baseball has a lot of problems, but the thing that I like about its business structure is that the best players can make whatever the market says they should. How American. In the NBA, LeBron James has never been the highest-paid player on his own team. In MLB, Miguel Cabrera was just signed to a 12-year, $352 million contract to CONTINUE BEING a Detroit Tiger.

Both of these facts are idiotic, but which one feels more correct? 

If Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet, should he not be paid the most money a single team wants to pay him for his services? If the future Hall of Famer were on the open market, every team would desire him, and any team that had money available to spend (Note: One of baseball’s major shortcomings is not having a salary cap) could offer him as much money as they could. Are teams from New York and Los Angeles at a predisposed advantage? Yes. Is anyone going to stop the billionaire owners of the Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros or Atlanta Braves from throwing the highest bid at Cabrera? No. 

That seems right. In the NBA, where every team has the same ceiling offer it can make to any given player, money becomes a non-factor in negotiations. Things like market size, team prestige and All-Star teammates become the most important negotiating points.

So of course Kevin Love isn’t going to stay in Minnesota; they can’t offer him $352 million – they can’t even offer him more money, practically speaking, than the Lakers.

Now how ridiculous is that?

Part Three: The reasonable and most probable scenarios for LeBron and Carmelo.

Joe Mags (@JoeMags_hoops) is a staff writer for pickinsplinters.com and interning for the Watertown Daily Times. Peace, love, recycle and ball.

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