Kyrie Irving does a lot of things that don't make sense. This trade request is not one of them. The eight-time All-Star wants a long-term contract approaching his maximum salary. Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes reported that Irving's trade push comes on the heels of the Nets failing to offer him a suitable extension. The Athletic's Shams Charania reported that Irving has informed Brooklyn he plans to leave in free agency if he is not traded before next Thursday's deadline. It's worth asking, though, if Irving can even find the max offer he seemingly covets as an unrestricted free agent.
The Lakers, his long-rumored preferred destination, can only create around $34 million in cap space. That's plenty, but it's far off of the roughly $47 million a 10-year veteran like Irving will be able to demand under next year's projected $134 million cap. Beyond Los Angeles, six teams are projected to have at least $30 million in cap space this offseason, according to Keith Smith: the Rockets, Spurs, Pistons, Jazz, Pacers and Magic. All six of those teams are rebuilding, and likely wouldn't be interested in a mercurial, veteran point guard. Only the Rockets and Spurs are currently even positioned to make a max offer.
Cap space is hardly absolute in the modern NBA. Teams can create more of it fairly easily. Sign-and-trades are the increasingly preferred vehicle for major offseason moves, but those carry hard-cap implications that rule out many big-market contenders. Even if the right team was able to give Irving the deal he craves, would it want to? He has a lengthy history of injuries. His defense has always been a major question mark. In the past two years and change, Irving has accumulated an unexcused two-week absence, a season's worth of missed home games due over the COVID vaccine, an antisemitism suspension and now, a trade request. If the Nets don't want to make a long-term commitment to Irving, are we sure that anybody else wants to?
That is why Irving had to ask for a trade now. He wants a max contract. The open market won't have enough cap space to give him one, so his only realistic path to getting it will be through the Bird Rights Brooklyn currently holds on him. If the Nets aren't going to give him what he perceives as fair market value for his services, a trade is the only way to ensure that a different, more agreeable team has those Bird Rights in July. Even if that team is hesitant to pay him right now, he can theoretically change their mind with a strong playoff run and possible championship. All of this is relatively simple. Irving wants to get paid. His path to getting paid is getting traded and helping some team besides the Nets compete for the championship.
That makes it fairly easy to reverse-engineer a list of possible trade destinations for Irving. How many teams can credibly convince themselves that they are one Kyrie Irving away from winning it all? Six immediately spring to mind, though some are more plausible than others. We'll start with the obvious favorite.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
The Nets probably could have traded Irving to the Lakers in July, when discussions are known to have taken place. The Lakers probably could have traded for Irving in November, when his presence was so radioactive that the Nets had to suspend him for two weeks. Neither team pulled the trigger when it had the chance. In both instances, the other retained just enough leverage to talk itself out of a deal.
Might we be meeting in the middle now? If Irving can convince the Nets he really will walk in free agency, they almost have to trade him if they plan to preserve the championship window Kevin Durant opens by default. The Lakers have, thus far, failed to find a satisfactory alternative for their oft-discussed "Russell Westbrook plus 2027 and 2029 first-round picks" trade package. They turned down Myles Turner and Buddy Hield. They have not yet been connected to the best role players on the market, which would be Toronto's Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby. Given their reported interest in players like Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine, it seems as though they have been waiting for a star to use those picks on. Irving, for all of the controversy that follows him, fits the bill.
The Lakers make fewer 3-pointers than any team in the NBA. Their half-court offense still leaves plenty to be desired, and their offense nosedives by almost 12 points per 100 possessions whenever LeBron James goes to the bench. Brooklyn could package those Lakers picks along with the juicy future 76ers pick they own from last season's James Harden trade as well as their own 2029 selection to find a replacement star to pair with Durant somewhere down the line.
But the Lakers have the most guard-heavy rotation in basketball. Do they really want to fire their one roster-building bullet on another one? Are they willing to commit to not only paying the repeater tax, but to spending a Warriors-like sum on payroll once new contracts for Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves are considered? Would the Nets be willing to keep Westbrook, or would this have to be a three-team deal? There are questions to be answered here, but the Lakers lead the pack for one simple reason. In July, LeBron wanted this deal to happen. It may not happen immediately, but historically speaking, LeBron tends to get what he wants. If the Lakers believe they can win a championship with Irving here and now, they will try to make this trade. If the Nets do not believe they can win a championship here and now with any other Irving trade, they will accept it.
2. Miami Heat
The Heat, sitting at No. 6 in the Eastern Conference after coming one shot short of the Finals last season, have been suspiciously quiet ahead of the 2023 deadline. They're not interested in picking through the role player rabble that is seemingly available. The Heat are big-game hunters. They swung and missed on Donovan Mitchell over the summer. Irving might be their second chance.
When Irving asked for a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, Miami was on his short list. A year later, Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Irving and Jimmy Butler, former Team USA teammates, wanted to find a way to play together. It didn't happen at the time. It could now. Kyle Lowry is the obvious matching salary. Miami can put up to three first-round picks on the table with a bit of cooperation from Oklahoma City, whom the Heat currently owe a protected pick to.
Would the Heat put Tyler Herro on the table? That creates significant salary complications, as his new extension means that while he would only count for his current, $5.7 million salary as outgoing money to Miami, the Nets would have to be able to absorb the average salary of all of his contracted seasons, which is $25.1 million. The Heat have Andy Elisburg, arguably the best capologist in basketball. If there's a workaround, he'll find it. Miami's half-court offense was its doom against Boston in the Eastern Conference Finals. It ranks 25th in points per possession this season. Whatever it takes to land Irving would probably be worth it for a Heat team that doesn't have many other flaws.
Brooklyn would surely prefer to trade Irving to the Western Conference. No Western Conference team can match Miami's trade package. How many rabbits has Pat Riley pulled out of his hat over the years? This is the sort of crisis they capitalize on better than any other team in basketball.
3. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic wants the Mavericks to make a trade. Up until now, their resistance made sense. Six months from now, they will convey their 2023 first-round pick to the Knicks and officially complete the Kristaps Porzingis trade. When that time comes, they will be free to offer their next seven first-round picks (four outright, three via swap) in a trade for a proper long-term co-star for Doncic. Waste a pick on an incremental upgrade now and that option disappears. Irving is no incremental upgrade.
For all of the problems that tend to follow Irving, he is the only player available at the 2023 trade deadline that satisfies all parties in Dallas. Doncic gets the immediate help he craves. The Mavericks get Doncic a credible co-star. The two of them could win the crowded Western Conference right away if everything goes as planned. Of course, where Irving is concerned, everything rarely goes as planned. The stakes here are tremendous. Dallas already botched one star trade when it missed on Porzingis. Get another one wrong and any chance this team has of putting a long-term contender around Doncic fades. Dallas would probably like to avoid the mistakes the 2003-10 Cleveland Cavaliers made.
How much of the existing supporting cast would Dallas need to sacrifice for Irving? Reports have indicated that Dallas would consider moving Dorian Finney-Smith for a star. You know who fits really well on a team with multiple stars? Shooters and defenders like Dorian Finney-Smith! Would Brooklyn have any interest in a Spencer Dinwiddie reunion? Because he's the likeliest matching salary.
There's a delicate balance to be struck here. If the Mavericks can make this trade without mortgaging both their future and supporting cast, it's worth considering. Whether or not they need to likely depends on what the field offers. Dallas, more than any other team in the NBA, understands that it won't get a second chance at a move like this. Irving might be the player that makes Doncic a champion in Dallas. He could just as easily be the player who makes Doncic a champion somewhere else. That's going to weigh heavily in their minds as they decide how much they're willing to offer the Nets.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
On Thursday, the Clippers blew a 21-point lead to the Bucks. Trailing by one with just under two minutes remaining, this is how their final four possessions went:
- Kawhi Leonard misses turnaround mid-range jumper.
- Paul George airballs 3-pointer.
- Kawhi Leonard misses turnaround mid-range jumper.
- Kawhi Leonard airballs mid-range jumper.
It was like a Clippers greatest hits album. They didn't score a single point in the final three minutes and 52 seconds of the game. The front office is seemingly aware that a problem exists. The Clippers have been linked to every point guard under the sun for the past four seasons. The hot names right now are Fred VanVleet and Mike Conley.
Sure, a bit of half-court organization would be helpful, but to say that the Clippers need a point guard is a bit reductive. What the actually need is someone, anyone, who can generate consistent rim pressure. The Clippers rank 29th in the NBA in points in the paint. They ranked 27th last season and 28th the season before that. The Clippers have amassed one of the greatest collections of jump shooters in NBA history and it doesn't mean a thing because they have no ball-handlers capable of creating the sort of advantages that give those shooters open looks. Their offense boils down to whether or not they are making contested 3's on a given night. This is where Irving comes in. He would inject desperately needed speed, ball-handling, finishing and creativity onto a Clippers team that is otherwise loaded.
The hold up here is on Brooklyn's end. What do the Clippers really have to offer? Remember, the Clippers aren't just negotiating with other teams here. They're negotiating against Brooklyn's internal desire to win the championship this season. If a good enough offer doesn't materialize, they could easily convince themselves that they're good enough to win it all with Irving this season and then part ways over the summer. Does an unprotected 2028 first-round pick, Terance Mann and a couple of pricey veterans get the Clippers over that line? It's hard to say, but few teams would benefit more from Irving's presence than the Clippers.
5. Phoenix Suns
Marc Stein recently reported that the Suns are planning for their post-Chris Paul future. That makes sense. Paul is 37. The rest of Phoenix's core is in its mid-20's. He is declining. They are ascending. If the Suns play their cards right, they can contend for the next half-decade at least, but that means maximizing Paul's unique contract. He has hefty cap numbers for the next two seasons after this one, but they are only partially guaranteed. Thus far, the Suns have been linked to good point guards, but not great ones. VanVleet and Terry Rozier would help this team. Irving is on another level, and perhaps the only available shot-maker in the NBA who can do the things for them in the half-court that Paul did in the 2021 postseason.
If the Suns are prepared to pull the trigger, they have the ammo to make a deal here. They control all of their future first-round picks. If the Nets want young players? DeAndre Ayton and Cam Johnson don't exactly seem nailed down. They also have a new owner in Mat Ishbia, who is expected to take over before the deadline. New owners tend to like to start their tenures by making big splashes.
Paul is not the player he once was, but he has enough cache around the league to theoretically satisfy Durant long enough for the Nets to rework their roster before next season. Of course, we found out during last summer's Durant sweepstakes that the Nets weren't all that enthused about anything Phoenix had to offer. Has that changed over the past few months, especially with a less valuable star on the table? We'll find out in the next week.
6. Milwaukee Bucks
Yes, yes, I know what you're thinking. This is crazy. The Bucks won the championship in 2021 and may have won it again a season ago if Khris Middleton hadn't gotten injured. But Middleton did get injured. He has only played 13 games thus far this season, and he's shooting below 38 percent from the field. The Bucks might have been patient enough to wait out his recovery a year or two ago, but Middleton can become a free agent this offseason. They know his medical history better than anyone, and they haven't signed him to an extension yet. It isn't clear if he'd even take one. He could pick up his player option in the offseason and kick the can down the road for a year, but ultimately, we just don't know how committed these two parties are to one another for the long-term.
The Bucks can't simply trade Middleton for the sake of trading him. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo are too close. The Bucks can't risk fracturing their relationship with their franchise player by taking a step back this season. Of course, Irving may not be a step back. He's an easier sell to Antetokounmpo considering Milwaukee's persistent issues scoring in the postseason. The same is true on the other side of the trade. Durant might not want the Nets to trade Irving, but Brooklyn could at least sell him on a partnership with Middleton that would give the Nets a team full of big, scoring wings.
This is, essentially, trade machine fan fiction. It's almost certainly not going to happen. The first five teams on this list have either already been linked to Irving or likely will be before the deadline. But the Bucks check a box none of them do. If the Nets want to make a trade that keeps them in the thick of the championship race this season, Middleton is their best chance of doing so, and if the Bucks want a reason not to re-sign Middleton beyond this season, Irving is a plausible out. Squint long enough and you can the outline of a really sensible trade, even if it's an extremely unlikely one.