The Los Angeles Lakers are looking to regroup and reload following last season's disastrous 33-win campaign. They have a new coach in Darvin Ham but not a lot of leeway when it comes to making roster moves.
With a projected payroll of more than $175 million and no first-round draft selection, major moves will be tough to come by.
Much of the early offseason buzz has been centered around Russell Westbrook and his $47 million player option. Westbrook was a major disappointment this past season, and moving on would make plenty of sense—though it won't be easy.
Assuming Westbrook opts-in before the June 29 deadline, the Lakers will have to decide whether to keep him or try clearing his contract from the books via a trade. Unloading Westbrook's contract could prove costly.
"Teams have been demanding the inclusion of at least one first-round pick to take on Westbrook’s massive expiring contract, according to league sources," The Athletic's Jovan Buha wrote last month.
The will-they-or-won't-they question of a Westbrook trade has been the biggest talking point surrounding L.A.'s upcoming foray into free agency. However, recent rumors add another significant piece to the puzzle.
What if the Lakers can somehow acquire Kyrie Irving?
Like Westbrook, the 30-year-old point guard has a player-option decision to make. If he becomes available, the Lakers are reportedly a threat to sign him.
"The Lakers are considered the most significant threat right now for Kyrie Irving, but that would entail him taking $30 million less than he can opt into in Brooklyn," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said on Wednesday's edition of NBA Today. "There's a $6 million taxpayer exemption he could sign with the Lakers with."
Shams Charania of The Athletic also linked Irving to L.A.
Would Irving really take a $30 million pay cut to reunite with LeBron James in Los Angeles? That feels unlikely, but it could happen. Alternatively, Irving could opt in under the condition that the Brooklyn Nets agree to trade him.
This would be a trickier avenue for the Lakers to navigate. They would have to match salaries in a trade and almost certainly include Westbrook in a deal—likely a multi-team trade of some sort.
Again, this feels unlikely but not impossible. According to The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor, the Charlotte Hornets have "real" interest in acquiring Westbrook. If O'Connor is right, then perhaps Charlotte is a third team that Los Angeles could include in trade proposals.
And the Lakers are aiming high when it comes to the Westbrook trade market. O'Connor recently reported on The Void podcast (h/t Jacob Rude of Silver Screen and Roll), that L.A. has eyed Washington Wizards standout Bradley Beal.
"The one name that I've heard recently is Bradley Beal is a guy they want. I'm not sure the interest is as mutual. Beal, it seems Miami would be more of the threat to take him away from Washington. I don’t think you can rule out Boston either because of his relationship with Jayson Tatum. But the Lakers are trying to angle for some moves like that, use the Russ expiring and the 2027 and 2029 firsts.”
If the Lakers are going to have to surrender future draft capital to unload Westbrook's contract anyway, they should at least try to deal him for another star player. If they can't do that, they should simply give him a fresh start under Ham. Trading Westbrook for low-end complementary pieces and a bit of savings won't help Los Angeles' chances of contending next season.
Irving certainly qualifies as a third star, and we've already seen his playstyle mesh with James'. They two weren't always on the same page during their time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but they did pair well on the court and end Cleveland's championship drought.
The Lakers should at least consider whether a Big Three of James, Irving and Anthony Davis can mesh better than a group that includes Westbrook. According to NBA insider Marc Stein, Irving has had some "recent contact" with James, so there appears to at least be some interest on Irving's part.
The question for the Lakers is whether they believe Irving is a clear upgrade over Westbrook and whether there's a way to make a deal happen. If the answer is yes on both counts, Los Angeles could push hard to orchestrate deals when free agency unofficially opens on June 30.
Again, this all feels unlikely. The path to acquiring Irving is riddled with roadblocks, and there's no guarantee that he doesn't simply remain in Brooklyn. Brian Lewis of the New York Post reported that Irving and the Nets are "still working" to find "a happy medium in Brooklyn."
Still, the fact that Irving is even a possibility for Los Angeles puts an entirely new spin on the Lakers' offseason. Westbrook's future is no longer the only big question mark heading into free agency. There's at least a chance, however slight, that Irving and James suit up together once again.