Maverick Carter made his way around the Staples Center floor last Sunday, saying hello to friends and associates alike before finding his courtside seat for the Sunday affair between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers.
When you’re the 36-year-old business manager of LeBron James, a Los Angeles-based confidante who grew up with the Cleveland Cavaliers star in Akron, Ohio and who has become a mogul in his own right during his famous friend’s historic rise, eyes tend to follow you in settings such as these. That was the case for Carter, whose presence piqued the interest of Lakers fans who have been hearing for so long that the game’s greatest player could sign with their favorite team in free agency next summer.
But as the Rockets ran roughshod over the Lakers that night, with James Harden and Chris Paul combining for 57 points and 15 assists while young Lonzo Ball failed to hit even one shot for the struggling home team, a forest-for-the-trees question emerged: What if it was the Rockets, and not the Lakers or James’ hometown Cavs, who landed James seven months from now?
The prospect isn’t as outlandish as you might think.
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While James has made it clear that he won’t deliberate his uncertain future until the Cavs’ season is complete, there is strong belief in Rockets circles that they’ll have a legitimate shot at landing the four-time MVP this summer. Rival executives also believe the Rockets will have a real chance. And once you really look at it, when you get past all the noise about the Lakers and even the compelling case for the up-and-coming Philadelphia 76ers, it makes all sorts of sense.
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Through all the talk of how James’ business dealings and entertainment interests in Los Angeles are the proverbial bread crumbs to his path there, or that his recent purchase of a $23 million home in Brentwood is another clear sign that he’s coming, there’s one major factor being severely overlooked: James’ desire to win it all again. Leaving the East after 15 seasons to try to win out West would be bold, with the defending champion Golden State Warriors looking like a budding dynasty on that side of the league’s ledger.
All roads lead to Houston with that kind of logic, especially when you factor in the convenience that one of his closest friends on the planet (Paul) is dominating alongside the MVP frontrunner (Harden), who won a gold medal with James in the 2012 London Olympics. As the season’s halfway point nears, no team looks more capable of challenging the defending champs than this revamped Rockets squad.
Not only are they 19-4 heading into Saturday’s game against Portland, but they’ve discovered the defensive identity — the Rockets are fifth overall in defenseive rating — that is typically required of would-be champions. They also have a deep-pocketed new owner in Tilmann Fertitta, who paid a league record $2.2 billion to buy the Rockets in September, as well as synergy between the front office and coaching staff that superstars covet, led by always-aggressive and creative GM Daryl Morey and innovative coach Mike D’Antoni.
Adding LeBron to that mix would be nothing short of basketball magic. No matter what it means for his business interests.
BASKETBALL OR BUSINESS FIRST?
As Carter said in an early November interview with Rich Eisen, and as those who know him best have always said, it’s the basketball portion that will dictate James’ decision above all else. Even with Carter spending his days running the Los Angeles-based “Uninterrupted” platform and Springhill Entertainment companies that they founded together, he insisted that James’ precious playing days will remain the priority.
“These days it doesn’t matter (where you play for business purposes), because you can be known and be a star from anywhere – anywhere in the world,” Carter told Eisen. “I mean, could (James) sell a few more sneakers if he was in a gigantic market like Boston, Chicago, New York, or LA? Maybe. But not as much as if he wins. What matters the most is if he wins. When you win as an athlete, that matters the most.”
When Carter was pressed about the possible synergy between James’ basketball and business interests both being in Los Angeles, he pushed back against the narrative.
“I understand people keep saying that and thinking that, but the reason it doesn’t make sense is because if he does play in L.A., or he plays on the moon, he can only shoot movies for three months,” he continued. “Even if he played in L.A. and he wanted to be in a movie, he can’t shoot from basically September to June. … We’re doing fine without him living here and playing here. He has a home here in the off-season. He lives in L.A. in the off-season. Our company, we have 10 shows in deals, two shows with Netflix, a show with HBO and none of them are starring him. He’s just the E.P. (executive producer) on them running the company, as a founder of the company with me, so the company doesn’t need him to be here.”
MAKING THE MONEY WORK
As for how Houston could find a way to give max salary contracts starting at $35 million annually to both James (who has a player option worth $35.3 million for next season) and Paul (who will be a free agent) without the necessary cap space, Morey would indeed have to become a salary cap gymnast. The NBA salary cap is expected to be $101 million next season, and the Rockets are, well, capped out. But Morey is one of the league’s renowned risk takers, the kind of relentless executive who might already have hypothetical trades lined up for players like Ryan Anderson and others who would have to go for the Rockets to be able to sign one of the greatest players of all time in James.
It’s also seen as possible that, like Kevin Durant did last summer with the Warriors, Paul could take less money to make James’ salary fit.
This is the way of today’s NBA, the where-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way approach to star collecting. Andre Iguodala did it with the Warriors in the summer of 2013, when Golden State general manager Bob Myers sent a bevy of players to Utah to make room for the veteran. Paul did it in late June, opting into the final year of his deal and forcing a trade to Houston when he made it clear to the Clippers that his time there was done. If LeBron decides that Houston is where he wants to be, he will find his way there.
Yet for now, with the official recruiting season so many months away and James surely analyzing the league-wide action in ways he’ll never share, the Rockets can’t do much better when it comes to putting on an impressive performance. Only time will tell if it’s enough to make Carter a regular at the Toyota Center next season.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @sam_amick.
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