There's a scenario where the Lakers could have a starting five of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Pau Gasol and Greg Oden for 2014-15. Or they could just have Kobe, slowly dwindling in his post-Achilles surgery twilight, turning grumpy in his late 30's as he jacks up 25 shots a night for a loser.
This is what free agency 2014 will bring, lots of dreams both realistic and unrealized, a summer where plenty of good-to-great players could change teams, or one that ends in a deflating whimper.
Why bring it up now? With 12 months to go? When there's an entire season to play before that one? When the 2014 draft the month before that point arguably will be more suspenseful, and possibly more life-changing, for a handful of franchises? Well, we bring it up because general managers are certainly raising the conversation within their organizations and among each other.
We bring it up because, hey, it's July. You'd rather discuss how Andrew Goudelock is tearing up the Vegas summer league for the Bulls? Didn't think so.
This is much more interesting, even now, because it involves big names and dynamic franchises. It's more interesting because it could signal the end, or the beginning of the end, of the Heat dynasty, if "dynasty" means winning two straight titles. And it's more interesting because it will have heavy implications for the Lakers, who lost out on the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and are desperately trying to salvage Kobe's final two or three years.
The Lakers will be the team with the most on the line in the free agent summer of 2014. Yes, even more than the Heat. Miami is almost assured of keeping one of the Big Three; Dwyane Wade appears to be a lifer there, and anyway, few teams will be willing to drop major coin on a player in his mid-30's with a history of aches. Besides, Miami isn't an authentic basketball town, not in the traditional sense. Everyone knows that.
The Lakers are the franchise of Showtime, of 33 straight wins, of Captain Skyhook, of Jerry West and Magic Johnson. The Lakers are the most important -- if not most valuable -- franchise in the NBA. The league is better off when the Lakers are stacked enough at least to be a playoff contender. For example, Los Angeles might be blessed right now and in the near future with the Clippers, who are building something special, and who are definitely not the Lakers by any stretch.
Although his current deal runs only through next July, it makes zero sense to give a contract extension to Kobe, who turns 36 before the '14-15 season, unless the Lakers are prepared to surround him with quality parts. That's a disaster waiting to happen. Besides, the Lakers don't outright own their 2015 first-round pick, further proof that they're in win-now mode as long as Kobe is in uniform.
They've already cleared payroll space to make a run toward at least two major free agents, with enough money left to add two B-list guys through free agency or trades, while keeping Kobe. So they'll be major players who'll use every advantage at their disposal: West Coast lifestyle, big market, tradition, possibly Phil Jackson (if Mike D'Antoni gets fired), etc. But they'll hardly be the only team with checkbook in hand.
The Heat obviously will want to keep their run intact, and Miami has the wherewithal to do so. Micky Arison is a billionaire who'll pay the luxury tax for a title contender. Pat Riley still has pull as team president. There's also the Hawks, Celtics, Cavs, Mavericks and possibly one or two other teams, depending on if they clear cap room between now and then, who can make a serious move.
The summer of 2014 comes down to one player, and we know who that is -- but for the sake of argument, let's run through the full shopping list for next offseason:
LeBron James. There's only one thing for certain: LeBron will exercise the early escape clause in his contract and become an unrestricted free agent, if only to get a raise from Miami. But will he actually consider a move? LeBron won't go there right now, partly because he got burned by The Decision, partly because he probably doesn't know himself. Lots of things can change in the next year to influence him one way or another.
That said, it's hard to see LeBron leaving Miami. He has an owner and GM he likes and respects, and he knows they'll do everything to make him feel comfortable. But can Miami keep surrounding James with winning parts? Wade almost certainly will stay, but he's getting old. And then there's Chris Bosh (more on him below). The betting money says LeBron leaves Miami only for Cleveland, and only because he'd rather be closer to his sons, who live in Akron during the season. Oh, and the Cavs are putting pieces in place, just in case.
Carmelo Anthony. He can opt-out next summer, and while that would mean leaving $23 million on the table, Melo is one of the few who could recoup that money easily. Still, it had long been his desire to be in New York, and he and his wife are deeply rooted in the city and the lifestyle -- plus, the Knicks will pay whatever it takes. It's tough to see Melo ditching all of that to be a second option for Kobe or LeBron. It'd be too much for his ego.
Chris Bosh. With two titles, and maybe three by next summer, Bosh might decide enough is enough and leave Miami to join a team that'll make him the centerpiece. Even Bosh admits he misses that, the role he had in Toronto. If a team gives him $15 million a season, and all it takes is one, he could be gone.
Dirk Nowitzki. Someone will have to pay him good money into his 40's for Dirk to leave Dallas, and that doesn't seem logical. If he didn't have a title, then maybe he'd seriously consider leaving. But he does, so he likely won't.
Pau Gasol. He's still a solid player, at best a borderline All-Star, and in the right system, he could make a difference.
Luol Deng. He's a good defender with a three-point stroke to match and will command attention, though probably not at the $14 million he's making now. The Bulls, who print money, can afford to keep him.
Zach Randolph. Z-Bo can leave $16 million on the table in Memphis, a sizeable amount for someone who'll be 33. He loves Memphis, though, and while it would be a shock if the coupon-clipping Grizzlies gave him an extension beyond 2014, he might play out the contract and take his chances in 2015.
There's also a number of restricted free agents who might not have extensions in place before 2014, and while a few will get max deals or close enough from their present teams, they're worth mentioning, anyway:
Paul George. On the open market he'd be second only to LeBron -- yes, ahead of Melo -- in earning power. The Pacers can match any offer, but Indiana isn't a large-market, super-revenue team, and the Pacers are already paying eight figures for Roy Hibbert and David West. George could push them close to luxury tax land or, if nothing else, make it hard for them to add significantly to the team once they max him out. That's why the Lakers and others will try to steal George. It'll be difficult if not impossible, because George seems made for Indiana and vice versa.
John Wall. He's currently in talks with the Wizards about an extension. Is he a max player? Not in the eyes of most teams, but Washington probably has no choice but to give in.
DeMarcus Cousins. He's the X-factor next summer, a mix of talent and trouble that has teams both interested and cautious. Some team could come along and, suspecting Cousins is on the road to maturity, make a massive offer that causes the Kings to blink.
Greg Monroe. A good, young, big man is always on radar, and Monroe fits the description, because he's capable of being a double-double guy. Still, after signing Josh Smith, the Pistons managed to keep a few extra dollars around for Monroe, a big part of their rebuilding plans.
A few other potential free agents are worth mentioning, like Oden, Andrew Bogut and Amare Stoudemire, players with health issues who'll either refuse to opt-out (Stoudemire would be crazy to do so) or get secondary interest (Bogut and Oden). And the following year will see Kevin Love hit the market with the opportunity to escape Minnesota.
But the free agent summer of 2014 is only 12 months away, never too early for NBA teams to prepare and dream, and to wonder what LeBron is thinking.