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Kyrie Irving, without hyperbole, might genuinely be the most complicated trade candidate in NBA history. This is not simply a matter of risk vs. reward. We're talking about one of the more unpredictable players the NBA has ever seen. He's pledged to stay with every team he's ever departed. He pledged not to retire last season as well… how confident would an acquiring team be in him keeping his word? Trading for Irving would require complete organizational buy-in. You'd have to do it with the understanding that he's going to miss games due to injury, and he's going to miss games for reasons other than injury as well. He's going to say bizarre things. He's going to make your coach's life difficult.

And he's going to make the biggest shots of your season. That's what makes finding a reasonable trade so difficult. Irving is the rare player who might actually be good enough to justify this sort of dysfunction, and the Nets know it. Trading him would make them worse on the court. It might even take them out of championship contention. There is simply no way, given the risk he poses, that any team acquiring him would give the Nets fair value back in a deal. Coming in, it would be a potential lose-lose situation for both parties involved.

In that sense, the Nets probably should just keep Irving. He has a $36 million player option and fairly limited leverage to force a trade with it. The only teams with enough cap space to realistically pursue him in free agency are so far out of the championship picture that he'd never want to play for them in the first place. The Indiana Pacers will not be signing Kyrie Irving this offseason. He's probably going to stay with the Nets for that reason. He can't force his way to his preferred destination and they can't trade him for their preferred package because his value has tanked so low that such a package probably doesn't exist.

But with The Athletic's Shams Charania reporting that the two sides are at an impasse in contract negotiations, it's worth exploring who might actually be able to pull off a deal for Irving. A deal probably needs to meet all or most of the following conditions to be feasible considering the risks it would pose to all parties involved:

  • The destination would have to prove acceptable to Irving. He simply isn't worth the headache if he doesn't want to be somewhere.
  • The returning package has to at least keep the Nets remotely competitive. This isn't a rebuilding trade, and the Nets need to make sure they don't alienate Kevin Durant.
  • The Nets cannot realistically accept any 2022 free agents back in a sign-and-trade because it would trigger a hard cap that they are almost certain to exceed. In that vein, we'll assume Irving opts-in and extends with his new team rather than engineers a sign-and-trade of his own to avoid this complication with acquiring teams.

With those parameters in mind, here are the five teams that make the most sense for Irving.

1. Los Angeles Lakers

The Nets are not going to be interested in Russell Westbrook. Let's get that out of the way now. Durant has (inadvertently) hinted through social media that he didn't want to keep playing with Westbrook after leaving Oklahoma City. Even if they were interested in a reunion, Westbrook makes no sense next to Ben Simmons. So we'll bury the idea of a direct Westbrook-for-Irving swap right now. If the Lakers are getting Kyrie, it's going to happen in one of two other ways.

The likelier path would be a three-team deal in which some third party accepts Westbrook's expiring contract along with whatever meager value the Lakers can muster (their unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029, Austin Reaves, maybe Talen Horton-Tucker) and sends their own assets to Brooklyn. Many of the usual Westbrook subjects apply here. Maybe Indiana could send the Nets Malcolm Brogdon and Buddy Hield. Maybe Charlotte would give up some combination of Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre and P.J. Washington? Heck, perhaps there's a bigger deal here involving John Wall and the Rockets. If the Lakers are willing to give up multiple picks, they might be able to squeeze the Rockets for role players like Eric Gordon (reportedly on the block for a first-rounder) and Jae'Sean Tate. Among these deals, Charlotte is probably the most logical. Hayward is the closest thing to a star Brooklyn could muster in this sort of deal, and the Hornets have the depth to potentially send the him to the Nets. Of course, among the offers the Nets are likely to get, this construction ranks near the bottom.

The Lakers could immediately jump to the top of the list by offering Anthony Davis. Just don't expect them to do so. Both Irving and Davis are injury-prone, but Davis has more team control, is more reliable off of the court, and is simply a better player. Maybe the Nets could sweeten the pot here with role players like Seth Curry and Joe Harris, but they have no way of replacing the defense the Lakers would be losing in Davis without giving up Ben Simmons as well. Would they do that? Probably not. You could potentially get funky in a multi-team construction, but for now, any hope the Lakers have in actually landing Irving relies on his interest in going to Los Angeles. They just aren't going to offer the best package.

2. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers, like the Nets, could get a deal done right now by offering their second star. Paul George-for-Kyrie Irving is an interesting construction for both sides, as George would satisfy Brooklyn's need for more perimeter defense and allow Simmons to play point guard full time, while Irving would immediately be the best point guard on a team with a nearly endless supply of wings. The Clippers have spent years accumulating those wings for a reason. They have a very clear roster-building philosophy, and trading George for Irving simply doesn't fit into it. They'd love to have Kyrie… but not at the cost of George.

But if the Nets are open to a "four quarters for a dollar" trade construction, the Clippers can make a fairly compelling offer. Some combination of Robert Covington, Marcus Morris and Norman Powell could give the Nets an array of versatile wings to pair with Durant and Simmons. Terance Mann and Brandon Boston are both developing quite well, and young talent is something the Nets lack after giving up most of their assets for James Harden. The Clippers could even toss in their unprotected 2028 first-rounder for an added dose of long-term upside. If Durant signs off on a package without a clear star, the Clippers could completely fortify the remainder of Brooklyn's roster. Meanwhile, they'd have the NBA's best trio and plenty of their own depth left to support it. Adding Irving and giving up Paul or Kawhi Leonard would make the Clippers the instant championship favorite.

3. New York Knicks

The Knicks have a bit of leverage here. They could conceivably offload enough of their mid-tier salaries to the cap space teams to sign Irving outright as a free agent. If they can convince the Nets they have a path to doing so, they might be able to convince Brooklyn to cooperate on a more palatable deal. They'll need to, because their own assets just aren't very appealing. Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker and Nerlens Noel aren't getting Irving unless they're attached to a whole mountain of draft picks. Maybe the Nets could flip those picks elsewhere, but on the surface, this deal does very little for Brooklyn.

Would Brooklyn consider Julius Randle a star, or something resembling one? He would've been a better fit before the Harden-for-Simmons swap, but even with his regression last season, he offers more as a shooter than most big men. He'd add interior strength that this team has lacked since dealing Jarrett Allen. The Nets would have to be fairly high on Randle for this sort of deal to make sense, but crazier things have happened. Remember, only a season ago, Randle made Second-Team All-NBA when no Net managed to do so. The talent is here.

4. Miami Heat

When Irving asked the Cavaliers for a trade in 2018, he reportedly had four teams on his wishlist: the Knicks, the Spurs, the Timberwolves and the Heat. We've covered the Knicks. The Spurs are out of contention. As fun as a D'Angelo Russell-Nets reunion might be, Brooklyn probably wouldn't be all that enthused about such a downgrade. But Miami? There's something here.

Pat Riley took a subtle shot at Tyler Herro's defense when he emphasized the importance of two-way players at his season-ending press conference. Irving isn't great on defense, but he's an upgrade on Herro, who, at times, is unplayable. He also fits Miami's star-hunting profile, and after their half-court offense sputtered against Boston, he could provide the scoring lift they need to make it back to the Finals. There have long been rumors of his interest in playing with Jimmy Butler.

Herro would be the primary young piece to go back to Brooklyn, and despite his poor playoff showing, he won Sixth Man of the Year for a reason and could one day develop into one of the NBA's better scoring guards. Kyle Lowry would likely join him as Brooklyn's replacement point guard. The Heat also opened up a bit more draft flexibility at the trade deadline by changing the protections on a pick they owe to Oklahoma City. That could allow them to give up a first-round pick or two to sweeten the pot here. In terms of realistic value, it's hard to imagine the Nets topping Miami's package.

5. Phoenix Suns

Here's where we venture entirely into the realm of speculation. The Lakers, Clippers and Knicks have solid reporting attached to them from Charania. Irving has been interested in the Heat in the past, has a known relationship with Butler and fits their typical roster-building philosophy. Phoenix has none of those things. What they do have is a 37-year-old point guard barreling towards the end of his career.

Chris Paul was a fringe MVP candidate during the regular season. The first eight games of his postseason were sublime: 22.6 points, 9.9 assists, 58 percent shooting. And then, everything fell apart against Dallas. Maybe it was an injury. Maybe it was the team's reported COVID outbreak. Maybe he just got old. But the Suns caught a glimpse of their future against the Mavericks. Irving might be their one and only chance to swap out Paul for a younger star point guard and potentially keep this core in contention for the foreseeable future even if DeAndre Ayton leaves.

The Nets would be trading one set of risks for another. Paul is the consummate professional, but at his age, there's just never going to be a guarantee of his health. He would be a wonderful fit with Durant, who can play with just about anyone, and Simmons, who needs to have the ball quite a bit, which suits Paul just fine considering his shooting. If Durant wants a star back for Irving, he probably has to accept that it's going to be a similarly risky star like Paul back. 

This is unlikely to be relevant. Paul is so important to Phoenix's culture that he's almost certainly not going to be on the table. But, as we've said, this is speculation territory. There's logic to this sort of deal on both sides even if neither would be particularly enthused about making it.