MIAMI — The world is watching the NBA Finals, an average of 14.9 million people through two games on ABC and plenty more to come now that the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs are tied 1-1 heading into Tuesday's Game 3.
The Los Angeles Lakers are watching, too, but with a perspective all their own.
The slow pace of the Lakers' coaching search that began April 30 when Mike D'Antoni resigned has been timed deliberately with the upcoming free agency period in the NBA, according to a person with knowledge of the situation. Specifically, the idea that the Lakers could beat the odds and land the likes of the Heat's LeBron James, the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony or any of the other superstars who may be free agents on July 1 has led the Lakers to plod through their process so as to not limit their potential options. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of the search.
But how much allure do the Lakers still have after their 27-55 season that was the franchise's worst since they moved to Los Angeles in 1960? We'll soon find out.
While it appears highly likely that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will remain with the Heat, the outcome of these Finals is expected to play a part in their decisions. And there is a strong hope outside of Miami — from Los Angeles all the way to New York — that the Spurs can pull off the series win and inspire some of the league's best players to explore their options elsewhere. James, Wade and Bosh all have player options for next season worth about $20 million each, and it remains unclear whether they will opt out or perhaps opt in as a way of keeping the Heat band together for one more season before entering free agency in the summer of 2015.
Yet according to two people with knowledge of the situation, Anthony's part in this fluid free agency situation is worth monitoring as James is known to be interested in eventually playing with his close friend. Anthony also has a player option on his deal for next season (worth $23.5 million), and his connection to James has teams like the Lakers, Knicks and even the Heat wondering whether he may be able to join the four-time NBA MVP. The people requested anonymity because of sensitive nature of free agency talk.
A Big Four with the Heat (James, Wade, Bosh and Anthony) is possible, but it would require significant pay cuts from all involved. The Heat have about $8 million in payroll for next season if James, Wade and Bosh all opt out. It comes in handy that the salary cap is expected to increase by about $5 million next season to $63.2 million, while the luxury tax threshold is expected to be $77 million.
Should some iteration of that group decide to head West to join Kobe Bryant and offer the Lakers an instant rebuild, they would be more than welcome to the team that has only three players with guaranteed contracts on their roster for next season (Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre). The Knicks, meanwhile, would love for everyone to delay their plans for one season by opting in only to head for The Big Apple in the summer of 2015 when their payroll drops all the way down to about $17 million.
The reality that the Lakers may not hire a coach until July leaves their candidates in limbo, as they have already interviewed six former head coaches in Byron Scott (New Orleans Hornets, New Jersey Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers), Lionel Hollins (Memphis Grizzlies), Mike Dunleavy (Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers), Kurt Rambis (Minnesota Timberwolves), George Karl (Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Seattle SuperSonics, Bucks, Denver Nuggets) and Alvin Gentry (Miami Heat, Detroit Pistons, Clippers, Phoenix Suns).
As the Lakers see it, it's not a necessity to have a coach in time for the June 26 draft, in which they'll pick seventh overall. And while they're not willing to let a star player pick the coach, keeping the vacancy open would allow any possible players who sign with them to offer some input into the process.
The Lakers may still be long shots in this forthcoming free agency landscape, but they're clearly considering all the possibilities that so many of their critics have deemed out of reach. The finish to these Finals may play as big a part as any.