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.

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 defensive rating -- that is typically required of would-be champions. They also have a deep-pocketed new owner in Tilman 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.