One could argue the market for Kyrie Irving basically comes down to one kind of team: a non-contender who is desperate to remove the non. If you're not desperate, that same person could credibly argue, he's not worth the risk.
That's why the Lakers were linked to Irving back when nobody else wanted him coming out of the summer. And that's why the Lakers are linked to him now. There are other teams interested in Irving, the Mavericks and Suns reportedly among them, but the Lakers are the obvious partner because of LeBron James.
One, James is the only player who has ever successfully harnessed Irving's considerable talent within the context of a championship team. At every other stop along Irving's increasingly troubled career, he has -- without equivocation -- been a negative asset. The Celtics were better without him and certainly after he left. The Nets have to be rueing the day they decided to let Irving into their house, which he's trying, yet again, to burn to the ground.
Two, and this is the Lakers' more important and urgent consideration, James is 38 years old. He's in his 20th season. The Lakers don't have the time, or the money, to wait to snag Irving in the offseason when he'll become a free agent. Every season in which LeBron is still playing at the level at which he's currently playing has to be approached as if it could be the last.
As for the money part of this, our James Herbert outlined the situation:
As currently constructed, the Lakers could clear almost $34 million in cap space, but only if they renounce all their free agents. Their recent trade for Rui Hachimura, who will be a restricted free agent, suggests that they instead are planning to operate as an over-the-cap team. If that's the plan, then they can only get Irving by trading for him.
Irving is eligible for a max deal with a starting salary of $46.9 million for next season. It doesn't take a math wiz to compute the difference between $46.9 million and $34 million. Is Irving really going to accept a $13M pay cut? The guy is reportedly ticked at the Nets because they wouldn't guarantee the final year of the max deal they recently offered him.
He might not have a choice, of course. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Friday that rival teams, including the Lakers, would be reluctant to commit even a two-year, $78 million extension to Irving, let alone a four-year max deal. Dropping into the neighborhood of the $34M the Lakers could come up with might be Irving's only play.
But if you're the Lakers, there's risk in trying to play the waiting game again. If Irving goes somewhere else and plays well and manages to behave for a few months, that team would have his Bird rights and would potentially lock him up long-term before he ever hits free agency.
Irving says he's done with the Nets. If they don't trade him before the deadline, he reportedly wouldn't even come back to them this summer on an unconditional max deal. Perhaps that's a leverage play, and it could be what gets Brooklyn to move here. If they do, would the Lakers be smart to swallow the risks and reunite Irving with James?
The reward could be huge. We could sit here and compare all the potential deals the Lakers could make before Thursday's deadline, and indeed, I would argue if they could get Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. from Toronto, that would be a better play than Irving. But viewed independently, Irving would make the Lakers a real and immediate contender.
They already have a ton of guards and could really use some size and perimeter defense. But they could also use Irving's shooting, isolation scoring and playmaking. You don't have to squint to see a terrifyingly explosive offense being led by James, Irving and Anthony Davis, the latter of whom, when healthy, can, in theory, erase some of the perimeter-defense liabilities.
Plus, this wouldn't have to be an either-or thing with Irving. If they wait to sign him as a free agent, it comes at the expense of almost all their role players. If they trade for him and his Bird rights, they could keep much of the supporting cast intact. It would create a repeater tax bill that could choke a hippo, but they could do it. That would give the Lakers at least this season and next to make a run.
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After that, LeBron has a player option for 2024-25. The possibility of his son, Bronny, entering the league that summer could entice James to sign elsewhere. Perhaps that's why the Lakers would be reluctant to commit to Irving long-term, in addition to the inherent risk of doing so with such a flammable player and person. If LeBron leaves in 2024, do you really want to be in the Irving business beyond that?
Davis has a player option for 2024-25 as well. Combine this with the age of James and the injury history of Davis and the burnout effect that you can almost count on with Irving, and this would be a two-playoff run for the Lakers. Take a shot, with a massive trio of superstars, at winning a title, then figure out the fallout.
If they were to win a title, it would all be worth it. Giving up the draft picks. Dealing with Irving. It was worth giving up what in hindsight looks like an even more gigantic package than it looked like at the time for AD because they got a title. It's a high-risk play, but the reward could be even higher.