For The Lakers, Kyrie Irving Would Be A Risk Worth Taking
12:28 PM EST on February 5, 2023
The New Orleans Pelicans beat the Los Angeles Lakers Saturday night, 131–126, to break a 10-game losing streak and keep control of the Western Conference's 10th seed. That sounds like a very dismal state of affairs for the Pelicans—two-plus uninterrupted weeks of losing broken up by a narrow home win over one of the few sadsacks below them in the conference standings—but it's not as bad as all that. The Pelicans were 23–13 on Jan. 1, tied for second place in the West, with the conference's best net rating. Zion Williamson pulled a hamstring in their next game and hasn't played since, and while they have slumped during his absence, they also expect to bounce back as soon as Williamson—who says he is "feeling great"—is cleared to suit up again.
So what's the Lakers' excuse? LeBron James and Anthony Davis are both healthy; Russell Westbrook is at least ambulatory and playing about as well as anyone has any right to expect; and their rotation is fortified with Rui Hachimura, acquired via trade from the Washington Wizards last week. Hachimura, who came with a worrisome track record of putting up promising counting stats while reliably losing his minutes, has played in six games for the Lakers, and they've gone .500 over that stretch, which while unimpressive represents an improvement over their season to date. For all the progress Los Angeles made to stabilize operations following a horrendous 2–10 start, the Lakers have never once risen higher in the standings than that blessed day, on Jan. 8, when for 24 glorious hours they were in sole possession of the Western Conference's 11th place.
The regular season is more than halfway over, the middle of the West is thick and punishing, and it's looking like once again some perfectly respectable teams will be stuck in the ninth and 10th seeds, staring down the longest possible path to postseason glory. As disappointing as it might normally be for a team employing LeBron James and Anthony Davis to land in the play-in, the Lakers as presently constructed do not appear to have the juice even for that.
Where could they find the juice? Well:
Some good teams will balk at making a primo offer for Kyrie Irving, who on Friday requested a trade from the Brooklyn Nets after contract extension talks broke down, although the Lakers, Suns, Mavericks, and Clippers are all reportedly making inquiries. For one thing, Irving only has a few months left on his current deal, and his next team will need to hammer out an extension to avoid Irving reaching unrestricted free agency over the summer. For another, he hasn't exactly been reliable, playing in just over half of Brooklyn's regular-season games over the past four seasons. And then there are his contract demands: Irving, now 30 years old, reportedly wants something like a four-year max-value contract, which would be worth 25 percent of his team's salary cap. Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that even the Lakers might balk at making that kind of long-term commitment to a player of Irving's age, injury history, and, ah, peculiarity. According to Woike, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka would prefer to limit any Irving contract to two years, "aligning with the two years remaining on James’ deal."
As a fan of dysfunction, I like the idea of Irving joining this accursed Lakers team, but there's a very good chance that adding Irving and subtracting Westbrook would make the Lakers competitive and dangerous. Presently, they are shitty and running out of time. They've also mortgaged their future to hunt a title during what's left of LeBron's playing career, casting off every promising young player and every first-round pick they've been allowed to trade between now and 2027. It would seem ludicrous, at this stage, to turn down an opportunity to add a scorer like Irving because it might push back their full-scale post-LeBron teardown by a couple of seasons.
Pelinka is probably kidding himself if he thinks he can short-circuit the pain that's coming. For all of the team's present misery, they have already proven that a James-Davis core can reach the mountaintop, provided they have a minimally respectable supporting cast. They stink now, but they are also closer to real-deal contention than they will be for quite some time. As Pelinka said in January, that opportunity is worth any expense: "There's no resource we'll hold onto if we feel like that's there."
Impending extension negotiations give Irving a lot of say over where he finishes this season. If he wants to use that leverage to join Los Angeles, he can do that. The Lakers are scratching and clawing to get in front of the Thunder and Trail Blazers, but right now they have a chance at a very good player who might just be loony enough to agitate his way aboard their foundering ship. Even if it didn't result in a playoff run, it'd at least be very funny for everyone else.
Update (3:58 p.m. ET): The Nets have traded Irving to the Mavs, meaning the Lakers will have to find someone else to save them.