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Why LeBron James signing with the Lakers in free agency seems like it could really happen this time

Trying to map out why the King would consider taking his talents to a different Southern Beach.

NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Cleveland Cavaliers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The whole time I was in Las Vegas for NBA Summer League, the first question basically any other writer, podcaster, media member or fan would ask me was simple.

“So how real is all this LeBron to L.A. stuff?”

Anyone who reads my writing or listens to me talk on podcasts is probably aware that I’m naturally skeptical about this stuff. Seemingly every single relevant NBA player has been linked to the Los Angeles Lakers over the last several years, with varying levels of credibility to the rumors.

Unless you count Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov (and you shouldn’t), none of them have come.

So why would LeBron James be different? Why would arguably the greatest player of all-time want to be the Lakers’ first post-Kobe Bryant star? The why is not totally clear (even if there are reasons we’ll get to), but what is real is that there is a level of tangibility in the LeBron-to-L.A. connection that hasn’t been there for other stars.

Seemingly almost every credible national NBA reporter has either reported on or confirmed other reports that James’ interest in Los Angeles is real. Talking to several people in Las Vegas implied that many at least believe he’s considering it.

Whether or not that interest is high enough for him to jump ship is the question, but Kyrie Irving’s trade demand is the latest sign the Lakers — or at the very least bailing on the Cleveland Cavaliers — could be a more appealing option for James than first glance would leave many to believe.

Many have dismissed rumors of James leaving by saying he would never want to leave Cleveland a second time, or asking why he would leave the weaker Eastern Conference that’s at least in-part allowed James to go to seven-straight NBA Finals, and the last three with the Cavaliers.

The first reason James might bounce would be how much of a flaming dumpster fire of incompetence the Cavaliers appear to be organizationally right now. Owner Dan Gilbert just let go of David Griffin, the general manager James openly campaigned for on multiple occasions, and appears to be on the verge of installing his third-straight interim GM to run the show. That instability in the front office might be enough on its own to suggest James’ eyes could reasonably wander, but it’s not the only evidence.

There is also Irving’s trade demand that reportedly “blindsided” and “disappointed” James. While some in Cleveland have quickly dismissed it as being unconnected to James and more based in Irving’s desire to be a solo star. Other reports certainly make it sound like Irving sees some writing on the wall that James might be on the way out.

Whether that’s Irving having inside info or just based on him reading all of the media reports concerning James’ possible exodus is unknown, but the specter James being LeGone seem to be a factor in his thinking, based on the latest from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

In registering his preference for a trade, league sources said, Irving divulged to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that he's become increasingly uneasy about a future that includes a roster constructed to complement LeBron James -- a roster that could be devoid of James come free agency in 2018.

With James refusing to commit to Cleveland beyond the coming season, and with the growing verdict that James is intrigued with pursuing a Los Angeles Lakers exit plan, Irving has become proactive in controlling his own career arc.

Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer’s reporting paints a similar picture:

Imagine you’re at a house party having the time of your life, but as night turns to dawn, you realize you don’t want to be the last one there. Nothing good will come from hanging around. You’ll be the one stuck with cleaning up someone else’s mess, dealing with problems that have nothing to do with you. Maybe it’s selfish, but you have your own priorities and won’t let anything else get in the way. So, you leave.

This is how Kyrie Irving feels about his situation in Cleveland, according to league sources with knowledge of his mindset.

Both O’Connor and Wojnarowski also acknowledge that Irving wants be out of James’ shadow, but it does sound like James’ potentially imminent departure and Irving’s desire to choose his own destination before then is a factor.

Adding more fuel to the fire are things like Dave McMenamin of ESPN’s report that James is not recruiting free agents to the Cavaliers. That could be due to disappointment with ownership, or it could be James not wanting to strand guys with a team he’s going to leave anyway.

Add that to all the reports James might leave, and there is at least enough there to not dismiss the possibility James could go elsewhere as a free agent. As for why he would choose the Lakers, the reasons are well documented.

There is LeBron keeping an offseason home in Los Angeles, where his wife reportedly would like to live full time. There are James’ numerous entertainment interests and ties to Hollywood, which living in Los Angeles year-round could make easier, even if it would be possible for him to manage them from anywhere.

Then there are the actual basketball reasons to leave for the Lakers. Yes, the Cavaliers will likely go to the NBA Finals again this season, but their ceiling is essentially second place behind the Golden State Warriors barring injury.

The Lakers current roster may appear to have a lower ceiling than that, but the team could generate nearly $50 million in cap space just by renouncing Julius Randle next summer. They could add another $12.5 million in space if they find a team to move Jordan Clarkson to without taking salary back, and $18 million if they could attach an asset to do the same with Luol Deng.

If the Lakers moved on from those three salaries while taking nothing back in return, they would have almost $78 million in cap space, a number that gets dropped just over $10 million if they have to stretch Deng instead of trading him.

Either way, that’s enough cap space to allow James to form a new super team with the teammates of his choosing in Los Angeles without sacrificing promising young lottery picks like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. And much like James returning to Cleveland spurred that team to move Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love, the Lakers could (although not necessarily should) move Ball and/or Ingram for a player more ready to win on James’ timeline.

Would the Lakers be able to make all of these moves work, and would James see the chance of them working out as a more appealing alternative than Cleveland? All the rumors about his interest in the Lakers would seem to point towards him at least considering it, and that’s without getting into things like him very publicly wearing purple to check out Ball and the Lakers in summer league.

LeBron understands how he’s perceived, and none of this stuff happens by accident. Whether he just likes the attention, if his choices are him purposefully telegraphing his next move or something in between is unknown, but James is an incredibly calculated and smart business man. He knows exactly what he’s doing when he does stuff like the above.

But let’s address those rumors again. All leaks come out for a reason, it’s just a reality that almost no information comes to light in the NBA unless the source of it feels as though it benefits them in some way to have it out there. Normally the reason the Lakers are connected to so many players is because they’re the NBA’s traditional boogeyman, the large-market team coming to steal all of your players.

The thing is, LeBron doesn’t need to use the Lakers as leverage. He’s the NBA’s biggest megastar, and the center of the Cavaliers’ universe. He’s going to get paid no matter what and he’s going to collect crazy money from endorsers no matter what. He doesn’t need the threat of the Lakers for leverage or to be relevant, but all of these leaks connecting him there keep surfacing anyway, and have been since 2016. Who this stuff is benefiting by being out there is unclear, but it at least doesn’t appear to making it’s way to the media for the typical reasons.

Further possibly pointing to the Lakers is the way they’ve made clear efforts to show other players how they treat their franchise centerpieces, most recently with Bryant’s lavish extension. Such loyalty is certainly something James values as the vice president of the players association and a consistent advocate for players to get as much money as they can legally be paid under the collective bargaining agreement.

The agent they negotiated Kobe’s final conract with, Rob Pelinka, is now their general manager, and it’s safe to assume he knows what agents and players value in a franchise. By saving Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s summer with a one-year, $18 million deal, Pelinka and the Lakers have made James’ personal agency and agent happy, with the additional benefit of that signing being that they can talk to said agency as much as they want over the next year. That may not be a factor, but it’s another dot to connect.

None of this means James is definitely heading to the Lakers. He could stay in Cleveland, quench his West coast thirst by joining the Clippers or go to literally any team he wants. He’s LeBron James, and anyone would make space for him.

That said, getting back to the most frequent question of Las Vegas and how real this “LeBron to L.A. stuff” is, all of these rumors and reports paint a picture that it’s possible. Talking to other writers who would know in Las Vegas added to the seeming “realness” of it, as does the prevalence of the leaks, Irving’s trade demand and the way the Lakers are diligently laying the groundwork by making sure James’ agency is happy with them.

A lot of these dots are circumstantial, but they are there to be connected. LeBron James may not ever wear a Lakers uniform, but everything that’s happened over the past few months at the very least makes it seem more real and possible than ever.

Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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