Kyrie Irving to the Lakers? How Los Angeles can reunite LeBron James with his old sidekick
Should the Lakers pursue Kyrie Irving? There are a number of compelling arguments against doing so that have nothing to do with his various off-court controversies. Their 2020 championship team was based on defense and depth around LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rob Pelinka’s pursuit of star power eventually eroded those two pillars until the Lakers suddenly had Russell Westbrook and 10 minimum-salary free agents. As soon as the Lakers traded Westbrook for depth, they made it back to the Western Conference finals.
Of course, Irving isn’t Westbrook. He’s a proven fit with James, and while the Lakers wouldn’t exactly be deep around the pair of them, they’d have far more to work with than the 2021-22 team did. More importantly, James is two years older than he was when the Lakers landed Westbrook. Finding him another ball-handler was a luxury at that point. Now? It’s probably a necessity. As we covered during the playoffs, James simply isn’t capable of carrying the same pick-and-roll workload that he used to, and he barely ever isolates effectively anymore. James is still one of the NBA’s best players, but coming off of a foot injury that nearly ended his season, he was forced to adopt an entirely different shot diet to maintain any semblance of his old shot diet.
Whether it’s Irving or someone else, the Lakers need another reliable ball-handler. That’s why they traded for D’Angelo Russell in the first place. That experiment has seemingly failed, and now that James is considering retirement, the pressure is on for the Lakers. James has always expected his teams to go big-game hunting. Irving is the most obvious fit on the board.
So how could he become a Laker? Below, we’ll cover the two paths to Irving the Lakers feasibly have, and whether or not pursuing him is the right move going into next season.
Path 1: Cap space
Let’s make something clear from the start: the Lakers cannot generate max cap space under any circumstance. It simply is not an option. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are set to make nearly $87 million next season, assuming James continues playing. The projected cap is $134 million. Irving’s max, as a 10-year veteran, will start at a projected $46.9 million. Even if the Lakers cleared every player and cap hold off of their books aside from James and Davis, they’d still have 10 incomplete roster charges to account for all of the empty roster slots they’d have left. Those count for the rookie minimum each, which will come in at around $1.1 million apiece this season. So the most cap space the Lakers could create under any circumstance would be roughly $36 million.
Realistically, they’re not going to clear the decks completely. At the very least, they’re going to keep promising second-round rookie Max Christie at $1.7 million. They’re also going to hold onto the restricted free agent rights of Austin Reaves. He will be a good deal more expensive than Christie… but with a caveat. As a restricted free agent, Reaves’ offseason cap hold is based on his prior salary. Reaves was an undrafted free agent making the minimum last season, so his cap hold is a measly $2.2 million. His actual cap figure will jump to whatever his new salary is the moment he signs a new contract, but the Lakers can work around that by simply signing him last. Finally, the Lakers would probably prefer to retain Jarred Vanderbilt at his current salary of $4.7 million, which is far below market value. They would have no way of replacing his defense, rebounding and size at such a price if he were to get cap dumped.
So, with Christie, Reaves and Vanderbilt accounted for, the Lakers are looking at around $30.2 million in cap space, depending on where the final cap number falls. Remove Vanderbilt from the equation and that number rises to around $33.8 million.
This scenario would mean dumping everybody else. The Lakers would have to trade the No. 17 overall pick without taking in any new salary, waive the non-guaranteed contracts of Malik Beasley ($16.5 million) and Mo Bamba ($10.3 million), and they would have to renounce their free agent rights to D’Angelo Russell ($38.7 million cap hold), Rui Hachimura ($18.8 million cap hold) and Lonnie Walker ($7.8 million cap hold). Keeping the rights to even one of these players would be so prohibitively expensive that it would likely cost the Lakers any chance at making a competitive offer to Irving.
The only tool the Lakers would have left after spending their cap space on Irving would be the cap space mid-level exception, which was recently buffed by 30% in the new CBA and will come in above $7.6 million this offseason. That exception could perhaps be used to retain Walker or Dennis Schroder, or more likely, bring in outside help at forward or center. Every other player on the roster would either be signed for the minimum or signed using the new second-round pick exception. Or, put more simply, the best-case roster scenario for the Lakers would be a starting five of Irving, Reaves, James, Vanderbilt and Davis with Christie and one $7.6 million player coming off of the bench along with a parade of minimum-salary signings and a rookie or two.
This assumes that the Lakers can even sign Irving for $30.2 million. If he demands that $33.8 million figure? Vanderbilt is gone. And if he wants more? The Lakers will have to take the sign-and-trade route, which is decidedly more complicated.
Path 2: Sign-and-trade
In theory, the Lakers could pay Irving anything up to his max through a sign-and-trade. There are just two major obstacles to that approach:
- The Mavericks would have to cooperate on a sign-and-trade.
- Acquiring any signed-and-traded player triggers a hard cap at the first apron. That figure this season should come in at around $169 million, and the Lakers would not be able to go above it for any reason. The Lakers dealt with this in 2021 and found it so restricting that they traded for Westbrook instead of signing-and-trading for DeMar DeRozan in part to avoid it.
Let’s start with the Mavericks. Their priority, for the time being, appears to be re-signing Irving themselves. Irving would have work to do just to convince the Mavericks to trade him to the Lakers. Doing so would either mean convincing them he’d sign with them outright for less or that he has a pricier cap space offer from another team. The former is… possible. Irving is unpredictable, and he reportedly considered signing with the Lakers for the mid-level exception last offseason. The latter is less likely. There just isn’t a cap space team that fits Irving unless Houston misses out on James Harden and is desperate for a big name.
But let’s say the Mavericks are theoretically open to cooperating on a sign-and-trade. The Mavericks reportedly view cap space as their backup plan if they lose Irving, so the Lakers would have to offer them something more valuable than that space they’d be foregoing. The No. 17 pick and their unprotected 2029 pick would be a decent starting point. The Lakers could also send Russell in a double sign-and-trade as the primary salary ballast along with some combination of Beasley, Bamba and Vanderbilt. Does that move the needle for Dallas, especially after the miserable series Russell just had against Denver? It depends on what else is available to them on the free agent market. If their goal is to win right now, they’d likely prefer to try to use their cap space on someone like Fred VanVleet or Khris Middleton.
But again, we’ll pretend for a moment as though the Mavericks are on board with such a trade. That would leave the Lakers with James, Davis and Irving (at his max salary) combining to earned $134.4 million, giving the Lakers less than $35 million to spend on the entire rest of their roster. At best, that means they would be able to keep two high-end role players around their three-star core.
The Lakers are fortunate on that front. Reaves could earn as much as $25 million per year on his next deal… but the Gilbert Arenas provision (explained in more depth here) will limit his salary next season to just $11.4 million regardless of the actual details of his contract. So let’s say Reaves is retained at that figure. The Lakers are suddenly down to $24 million in spending power, which again gets trimmed down to $22 million once we account for Christie. The Lakers would need at least eight minimum-salary players, and the veteran’s minimum will come in just under $2 million. Account for that $16 million and the Lakers suddenly have just $6 million in spending power for one last player. That number could be inflated slightly if the Lakers swap out a veteran minimum for a rookie or two, but we’re squarely in the single digits at this point.
The Lakers aren’t getting much for $6 million, so this is where they’d likely need a bit of help on Irving’s end. The goal for this final roster spot would presumably be to re-sign breakout deadline acquisition Rui Hachimura. The Lakers can’t do that with $6 million. At the very least, they’d likely need to be able to match any non-taxpayer mid-level exception offers in order to retain him. That would mean getting to around $12.2 million in room. Would Irving be willing to make up the difference? If not, could the Lakers find a starting-caliber forward or big man for $6 million? Is Hachimura, on a team with far more shot-creation than the one he just played on, more valuable than what the Lakers could retain in the cap space scenario (Vanderbilt, the mid-level exception and their 2029 first-round pick)?
Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. So let’s just get straight to the point.
So… should the Lakers go for Kyrie Irving or not?
Put Irving, James, Davis and Reaves on the floor together for seven games against any opponent and they’d likely feel relatively confident. That would be true with Hachimura as their fifth banana. It would be true with Vanderbilt as their fifth banana. It might even be true with me as their fifth banana. That foursome is just so remarkably gifted and has such a diverse set of skills that it could theoretically compete with any team in the NBA.
But Phoenix felt the same way about Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul and Deandre Ayton. Paul got hurt. Ayton disappeared. Their cadre of minimum-salary role players were overwhelmed. The Suns lost to the Nuggets. Some top-heavy teams aren’t even that lucky. The Lakers know this well. They were so thin in 2022 that injuries to James and Davis prevented them from even reaching the postseason. The 2013 Lakers with Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol nearly missed the playoffs as well, and Bryant needed to average 45.5 minutes per game in his last seven appearances just to will them into the top eight. Doing so may have led to the torn Achilles that effectively ended his career.
That is the risk of emphasizing star power when your best player is about to turn 39. If everything goes right, you’ll have a juggernaut. But when does everything ever go right? The Lakers have gotten one fully healthy season out of James in five years. The same is true of Davis. Irving hasn’t played 70 games since 2017.
This is the challenge of building around aging superstars. Doing so often means building two separate rosters. Your October-April roster needs to go 10 or 11 deep with high-volume ball-handlers that can sustain superstar absences. If the Lakers hadn’t had this kind of roster, they would have fallen out of the top 10 in the Western Conference standings in February and March when James got hurt. Your May and June roster, on the other hand, needs to seven or eight reliable two-way players that are comfortable functioning in an environment in which your best players control almost every possession.
Finding players that check both boxes is enormously difficult. The Lakers built a stellar regular-season roster at the trade deadline. When it got to the highest levels of the postseason, they found that they only really trusted four players: James, Davis, Reaves and Hachimura. Irving would be trustworthy in the postseason, but he would deprive the Lakers of the depth that got them into the playoffs in the first place.
So that leaves the Lakers in a pretty precarious position. Their goal should be to somehow maintain the depth that saved their season without sacrificing the quality and versatility they’d need to actually win at the highest levels of the postseason.
Is that possible? It’s a tough needle to thread, but not an impossible one. The Lakers still have two first-round picks to trade alongside the non-guaranteed salaries of Beasley and Bamba. They could help Russell find a new home through a sign-and-trade as well just to create a bit more tradable salary. In a perfect world, they’d send one of their available first-round picks out for a wing and another out for a ball-handler to replace Russell. They’d then retain Hachimura and Reaves using Bird Rights, hope that Walker could be re-signed for his Non-Bird Rights (which would mean a 20% raise) and explore the market for their mid-level exception.
There’s no telling where exactly that path leads, and that’s part of Irving’s appeal. When he’s on the court, he’s a certainty. He’s a 25-point scorer that knows how to function alongside James. The Lakers could use both of those things. But they’ve seen firsthand just how dangerous an over-reliance on star power can become. The Lakers need a complete team if they plan to meaningfully compete for the 2024 championship, and building one with Irving would probably be too difficult to be feasible.