Tuesday, September 25th, 2018 pm30 12:09pm

Do the Houston Rockets have a shot at LeBron James in free agency? It's not outlandish

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SportsPulse: Trysta Krick breaks down the never ending soap opera that is the NBA. USA TODAY Sports

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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.

ROCKETS RECRUITING WITH THEIR PLAY

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.

POWER RANKINGS: Rockets take top spot

MVP RANKINGS: It’s James Harden and … ?

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.

PHOTOS: NBA POWER RANKINGS

Week 7 NBA power rankings

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Flip through the gallery to see power rankings for

Flip through the gallery to see power rankings for Week 7 of the 2017-18 NBA season, as voted by NBA reporters from across the USA TODAY Network.  Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports
30. Chicago Bulls (3-18) | Last week: 30 - This team

30. Chicago Bulls (3-18) | Last week: 30 – This team — which has just three wins through 21 games (.143 winning percentage) — is on pace to finish the season with the worst record in franchise history.  Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports
29. Atlanta Hawks (5-17) | Last week: 29 - The race

29. Atlanta Hawks (5-17) | Last week: 29 – The race to the NBA draft lottery is on, and the Hawks currently sit second in the standings behind Chicago.  Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports
28. Sacramento Kings (7-16) | Last week: 28 - The Kings

28. Sacramento Kings (7-16) | Last week: 28 – The Kings snapped their eight-game losing streak at Oracle Arena with their win over Golden State last Monday. So there’s that.  Kamil Krzaczynski, USA TODAY Sports
27. Phoenix Suns (8-16) | Last week: 27 - Devin Booker

27. Phoenix Suns (8-16) | Last week: 27 – Devin Booker is averaging 23.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, four assists and is shooting 45.5% from the field and 37.6% from beyond the arc. Only four other players in the NBA — Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and James Harden — can say the same.  Tim Fuller, USA TODAY Sports
26. Dallas Mavericks (6-17) | Last week: 26 - Rick

26. Dallas Mavericks (6-17) | Last week: 26 – Rick Carlisle became the third active head coach to reach 700 wins on Saturday, when his Mavs downed the Clippers by 26 points. Gregg Popovich (1,165) and Doc Rivers (812) are the other two.  Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports
25. Memphis Grizzlies (7-15) | Last week: 24 - The

25. Memphis Grizzlies (7-15) | Last week: 24 – The Grizzlies, who shocked the collective hoops world by firing head coach David Fizdale last week, have reached the lowest of lows. But the present — 11 consecutive losses and an Achilles injury to Mike Conley — is far from the team’s only concern.  Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports
24. Brooklyn Nets (8-14) | Last week: 23 - Though they're

24. Brooklyn Nets (8-14) | Last week: 23 – Though they’re well on their way to another lottery-bound season, the Nets only needed 21 games to reach eight wins this season. They needed 30 last season. Baby steps.  Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports
23. Los Angeles Lakers (8-15) | Last week: 20 - Though

23. Los Angeles Lakers (8-15) | Last week: 20 – Though they’ve lost five consecutive games, the Lakers have loved what they’ve seen out of second-year forward Brandon Ingram as of late. Matched up with his idol, Kevin Durant, the 20-year-old scored a career-high 32 points on 12-of-21 shooting in Wednesday’s loss to Golden State.  Sergio Estrada, USA TODAY Sports
22. Los Angeles Clippers (8-14) | Last week: 21 - The

22. Los Angeles Clippers (8-14) | Last week: 21 – The Clippers, who have won 50-plus games in each of the past five seasons, are on pace for 30 wins, which would be the franchise’s worst mark since 2009-10. So now what? Do they trade DeAndre Jordan? Is Doc Rivers on the hot seat? Is Blake Griffin really the future of the franchise?  Brace Hemmelgarn, USA TODAY Sports
21. Orlando Magic (10-14) | Last week: 25 - With his

21. Orlando Magic (10-14) | Last week: 25 – With his most recent scoring outburst (Wednesday vs. Oklahoma City), Aaron Gordon became the first player in franchise history to record 40 points, 15 rebounds, four assists and four steals in a game.  Kim Klement, USA TODAY Sports
20. Charlotte Hornets (8-13) | Last week: 22 - The

20. Charlotte Hornets (8-13) | Last week: 22 – The Hornets dropped two consecutive games (at Toronto on Wednesday and at Miami on Friday) without Kemba Walker, who’s out with a shoulder injury. Charlotte is 0-5 in the past two seasons without their star point guard in the lineup.  Jeremy Brevard, USA TODAY Sports
19. Miami Heat (11-12) | Last week: 17 - Hassan Whiteside,

19. Miami Heat (11-12) | Last week: 17 – Hassan Whiteside, who has played in just 15 of Miami’s games to start the season, is out indefinitely with another bone bruise in his left knee.  Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports
18. New York Knicks (11-11) | Last week: 18 - Despite

18. New York Knicks (11-11) | Last week: 18 – Despite the arrival of Tim Hardaway Jr., veteran guard Courtney Lee has played some of the best basketball of his life through the first quarter of the season, averaging career-highs across the board (12.9 points, 46.2% from three, 3.9 rebounds, three assists).  Brett Davis, USA TODAY Sports
17. New Orleans Pelicans (12-11) | Last week: 13 -

17. New Orleans Pelicans (12-11) | Last week: 13 – Anthony Davis suffered a left adductor strain in Friday’s loss to Utah, but an MRI and further evaluation revealed no structural damage — the second devastating injury dodged by the star big man this season.  Russell Isabella, USA TODAY Sports
16. Indiana Pacers (12-11) | Last week: 12 - Victor

16. Indiana Pacers (12-11) | Last week: 12 – Victor Oladipo: NBA All-Star? If he keeps this up, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be. The fifth-year guard is averaging a career-high 23.4 points and five rebounds, numbers that rank first and third among Eastern Conference shooting guards, respectively.  Tom Szczerbowski, USA TODAY Sports
15. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-12) | Last week: 16 -

15. Oklahoma City Thunder (10-12) | Last week: 16 – Of all players who have started at least 20 games this season, Andre Roberson ranks last in scoring, averaging just 4.9 points per game. He also ranks last at the free throw line, making just 33.3% of his attempts.  Mark D. Smith, USA TODAY Sports
14. Milwaukee Bucks (12-9) | Last week: 15 - The Bucks

14. Milwaukee Bucks (12-9) | Last week: 15 – The Bucks have gone 8-3 since acquiring Eric Bledsoe from Phoenix and rank fifth in the NBA on defense during that span, allowing 101.2 points per 100 possessions. Before Bledsoe’s arrival? They ranked 29th.  Kelley L Cox, USA TODAY Sports
13. Utah Jazz (12-11) | Last week: 19 - The Jazz have

13. Utah Jazz (12-11) | Last week: 19 – The Jazz have managed to stay afloat despite an onslaught of injuries, winning five consecutive games behind stellar play from Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors. The former scored 41 points — a franchise record for a rookie — in Friday’s win over New Orleans, while the latter is averaging 18.6 points on 73.1% shooting and nine rebounds during the past five games.  Russell Isabella, USA TODAY Sports
12. Denver Nuggets (13-9) | Last week: 11 - Nikola

12. Denver Nuggets (13-9) | Last week: 11 – Nikola Jokic is expected to be back soon after the MRI results on his sprained left ankle reportedly came back negative — encouraging news for a team already down a star big man in Paul Millsap. That sound you hear? A collective sigh of relief from Nuggets Nation.  Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports
11. Portland Trail Blazers (13-10) | Last week: 9 -

11. Portland Trail Blazers (13-10) | Last week: 9 – The Blazers, who were 21st in the NBA last season with a defensive rating of 107.8, rank fourth on that end of the floor this season, allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions.  Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports
10. Washington Wizards (12-10) | Last week: 14 - The

10. Washington Wizards (12-10) | Last week: 14 – The player to step up in John Wall’s absence has been … Tomas Satoransky? He’s hardly the only one, but the second-year swingman has put together back-to-back career games — the most recent of which (17 points, four rebounds and four assists) came in a win over Detroit.  Evan Habeeb, USA TODAY Sports
9. Minnesota Timberwolves (14-10) | Last week: 10 -

9. Minnesota Timberwolves (14-10) | Last week: 10 – The Timberwolves continue to struggle on defense this season, allowing 108.2 points per 100 possessions (23rd in the NBA).  Brad Rempel, USA TODAY Sports
8. Philadelphia 76ers (13-9) | Last week: 8 - According

8. Philadelphia 76ers (13-9) | Last week: 8 – According to Sixers, only one player in NBA history (since 1963-64) has tallied 1,065 points, 457 rebounds, 125 assists and 108 blocks — averages of 21.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.1 blocks — through 50 career games. That player is Joel Embiid.  Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports
7. Detroit Pistons (14-8) | Last week: 7 - Andre Drummond

7. Detroit Pistons (14-8) | Last week: 7 – Andre Drummond has taken significant steps forward this season, averaging a career-high four assists per game to go along with 14.3 points and an NBA-best 15 rebounds. He’s also shooting 64.8% from the free throw line — a 26% increase from last season.  Tim Fuller, USA TODAY Sports
6. San Antonio Spurs (15-8) | Last week: 5 - Welcome

6. San Antonio Spurs (15-8) | Last week: 5 – Welcome back to the All-Star conversation, LaMarcus Aldridge. The third-year Spur is averaging 23 points (on a career-high 51.6% shooting), 8.1 rebounds and became the fifth San Antonio player in the past 20 years to record 40-plus points in a game with his 41-point outing in Wednesday’s win over Memphis.  Soobum Im, USA TODAY Sports
5. Toronto Raptors (14-7) | Last week: 6 - The Raptors

5. Toronto Raptors (14-7) | Last week: 6 – The Raptors boast the NBA’s best home record this season (8-1) and have the second-best home offense in the league, scoring 114 points per 100 possessions while at Air Canada Centre.  Tom Szczerbowski, USA TODAY Sports
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-7) | Last week: 4 - Dwyane

4. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-7) | Last week: 4 – Dwyane Wade has finally found his footing with his new team, averaging 13.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and four assists during Cleveland’s 11-game winning streak — play that earned him a Sixth Man of the Year endorsement from teammate LeBron James.  Sam Sharpe, USA TODAY Sports
3. Boston Celtics (20-4) | Last week: 1 - The Celtics

3. Boston Celtics (20-4) | Last week: 1 – The Celtics still lead the NBA with a defensive rating of 99.7, but have seen a significant dip on that end of the floor in the last six games, ranking 19th during that span.  Winslow Townson, USA TODAY Sports
2. Golden State Warriors (18-6) | Last week: 3 - The

2. Golden State Warriors (18-6) | Last week: 3 – The Warriors dished out 46 assists in Friday’s win over Orlando, one shy of the franchise record they set last season. Golden State leads the NBA in assists this season with 30.9 per game, the most for a team since the 1984-85 Lakers.  Steve Mitchell, USA TODAY Sports
1. Houston Rockets (18-4) | Last week: 2 - The Rockets

1. Houston Rockets (18-4) | Last week: 2 – The Rockets are 7-0 since Paul returned from his knee injury, outscoring opponents by 21.6 points during that span while leading the NBA in both offensive and defensive rating.  Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports

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