Kyrie Irving's best traits are simultaneously extremely valuable and extremely narrow. He makes your half-court offense better. He generates easy baskets in transition. He can carry your bench offense for stretches. He's an excellent late-game shotmaker. In the right setting, these skills are absolutely critical. They will be to a Dallas Mavericks team that desperately needed another shot-creator next to Luka Doncic. But to the Los Angeles Lakers? They were probably a luxury the team simply can't afford.
The Lakers are hardly an elite half-court offense, but they get by. They rank 15th in half-court points per play this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. That's hardly ideal, but remember, the 2020 championship ranked 16th... and then upped its average by nearly seven points per 100 plays in the playoffs. Unsurprisingly, refocusing an offense around 30 minutes or so of LeBron James-Anthony Davis pick-and-rolls with proper spacing does wonders on the scoreboard.
Transition scoring has been a Lakers strength. They rank fifth in the NBA in fast-break points and second in the league in pace. This is a team built on athleticism. Easy baskets are plentiful. Bench scoring has been a bit more of a problem. As a whole, the Laker offense dips by eight points per 100 possessions when James goes to the bench. Irving didn't exactly solve this problem in Cleveland, though. Amazingly, in their three seasons together, Cleveland's offense dipped by at least 13.5 points per 100 possessions without James in each year. Besides, most of that James-less decline this season has been a result of Davis' absence. Lineups featuring Davis and no James have scored in the 67th percentile in terms of efficiency this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. The Lakers don't need to win the no-LeBron minutes. They just need to survive them. When Davis has been healthy, they largely have.
That brings us to late-game offense, which, surprisingly, has been among this team's best traits. The Lakers rank ninth in clutch offense this season. They lead the NBA by scoring 119.5 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter. There have been isolated incidents of stagnant late-game offense, but they've largely boiled down to correctable issues. When the Lakers struggled to put away the Portland Trail Blazers in October, for instance, the problem could be traced back to Russell Westbrook. The Blazers defended him with center Jusuf Nurkic, which is to say that they didn't really defend him at all an effectively played the Lakers five-on-four. Several other teams have copied this tactic. It can be solved by simply not playing Westbrook, a complete non-shooter, down the stretch of games. Darvin Ham has proven more comfortable doing so recently, but he hasn't pulled the plug on the 2017 MVP entirely.
Including Westbrook in a trade for Irving would have resolved that situation organically. It would have provided a bit of insurance against Father Time as well. Late-game possessions that once resulted in free throws or layups for James have become jumpers at a somewhat startling rate this season. It even would have satisfied the seemingly restless James, which surely holds intangible value. But ultimately, it would have solved problems that don't really exist. The 2022-23 Lakers have plenty of problems. Adding an All-Star wasn't really going to solve them.
It would have helped, certainly. There's plenty of precedent in NBA history for talent overcoming fit, depth and cohesion. That's especially true when the All-Star in question would have replaced Westbrook, who, by almost any measure, is a negative-value player at this stage of his career. But the Lakers have three significant weaknesses to address before the deadline. Irving might've helped on one front, but he'd only make things harder on the other two.
We'll start with the obvious. The Lakers are one of the worst shooting teams in the NBA. They make the fewest 3-pointers per game in the league. They attempt the sixth-fewest. The Lakers have made up for this by making more shots in the restricted area than any other team, but that's only going to get harder in the postseason when defenses start laying off of even average shooters. Average is the best kind of shooter the Lakers currently have. That's going to make life much harder on James, who averaged over 14 drives per game during the 2020 championship season, but is below 10 now. The message here is clear: the Lakers need not only better shooting, but volume shooting.
Irving is an elite shooter, and he's increased his volume significantly in recent years. He's up to a career-high 8.7 3-point attempts per game this season. His catch-and-shoot numbers are just as strong as his pull-up percentages, and his gravity extends beyond his shooting ability. Defenses have to account for what he does off of the dribble as well when they allocate help resources. Irving's gravity is significant. He'd go a long way toward opening the floor for the James-Davis pick-and-roll.
But it's worth wondering how much of a difference Irving, individually, would have made. Swap Irving's shooting numbers in for Westbrook's and the Lakers suddenly jump to around 20th in made 3-pointers and 22nd in 3-point percentage. That's a meaningful jump. It's unclear how transformative it would have proven on its own. The regular season is about strengths. The playoffs are about weaknesses. The two other Lakers would need to be reliable enough shooters to keep defenders at home. Do the Lakers even have two such shooters? That's debatable. An Irving trade that netted the Lakers Joe Harris or Seth Curry in addition to the star point guard would've solved that problem but exacerbated the two remaining issues this team needs to solve.
The Lakers rank 20th in defense. That's a significant departure from the defensive identity that won them the title three years ago, and while lineups featuring Davis have been slightly better, much of that difference can be attributed to some beneficial opposing shooting luck early in the season. Davis has been among the NBA's best rim-protectors this season, but he's had to make up for one of the NBA's worst group of point-of-attack defenders.
Only one Laker guard has graded out as a positive defender this season according to FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR metric: Austin Reaves, who has added a fair bit of muscle since last season, but can still get outmuscled by bigger matchups and blindsided by hard screens. Patrick Beverley has lost a meaningful amount of foot-speed and fouls too often. Dennis Schroder's full-court pressure is more of an annoyance than a deterrent to elite guards. Westbrook and Lonnie Walker have been defensive negatives by any measure. All of them are below 6-foot-4.
That is this team's third major flaw, and one the team already tried to address with Rui Hachimura. That was a start. It isn't enough, especially if Davis is going to play center exclusively in the playoffs. The 6-foot-3 Irving, with a relatively unimpressive 6-foot-4 wingspan, isn't helping on either front. This is just the second season of his career in which Irving has graded as a positive defender according to that RAPTOR metric, but remember, he's played on a Nets defense that ranked ninth before Kevin Durant got hurt, and the last time he earned a positive rating, it came on the sixth-ranked 2019 Celtics defense. Irving can function within a good defense. The Lakers don't have a good defense. As they approach the trade deadline, their ideal moves would address all three weaknesses, or at least two of them. Irving's overwhelming talent aside, he only would have helped solve the team's shooting woes.
So what are their ideal moves? OG Anunoby is probably the only single player on the market that fills all three holes. He's also going to be prohibitively expensive, and with only two first-round picks, the Lakers probably won't be able to land him without offering either additional pick swaps or one of their two valuable young players: Reaves or Max Christie. There is no reason to believe at this stage that they are willing to do that. For now, that likely rules Anunoby out.
His team does offer a compelling alternative, though, in the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. They are both high-volume 3-point shooters who offer valuable supplementary creation. Trent has, at times, been a good defender, and VanVleet, at times, has been a great one. He has arguably the best track record on Stephen Curry of any active defender, and while he's too small for true wings like Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, he's proven capable of defending guards far bigger than he is. This deal wouldn't make the Lakers bigger, but it would at least offer their guard-heavy roster a bit more versatility among smaller players.
The Lakers can seek out forwards, but only Anunoby checks all three boxes. Kyle Kuzma's shooting is too unreliable, though the Wizards likely won't move him now that they've dealt Hachimura. Bojan Bogdanovic is a defensive question mark, but he's held up surprisingly well in previous postseasons. A multi-player deal with the Utah Jazz could net Jarred Vanderbilt, a stellar, multi-positional defender, but he's not much of a shooter, so his utility in lineups featuring Davis is questionable.
There's rarely such a thing as a perfect trade. The Lakers aren't going to come out of this deadline with a flawless roster no matter how many first-round picks they trade. But ultimately, it's hard to get to shed too many tears over Irving when he simply wouldn't have fixed what was wrong with this team. There are players out there that might, but they won't be as famous or alluring as Irving.