LOS ANGELES — LeBron James and the Lakers aren't in the playoffs, but they do have a pony in the race.
As Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics struggle to handle the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers appear ready to hire Irving's old head coach, according to Yahoo Sports. Tyronn Lue, who coached LeBron James and Irving to a championship over the Golden State Warriors in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers, appears destined for the Lakers, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.
Could Irving soon follow?
The All-Star point guard should be one of this summer's key free agents, assuming he opts out of his $21.3 million final year with the Celtics. Irving will almost certainly be available in July, given his next contract will start at a projected $32.7 million. Multiple executives around the league suggest he is a flight risk for Boston and tab either the New York Knicks or Brooklyn Nets as his next destination (possibly pairing up with Kevin Durant, who can similarly leave the Warriors).
But the Lakers should be considered a threat, assuming Irving wants to get the team back together after requesting to be traded away from James, Lue and the Cavaliers in 2017.
Even if he wants to stay in Boston long term, he's better served to do it on a new deal. Whether he leaves the Celtics may depend on how Irving feels about his supporting cast's performance this postseason. While Al Horford and Jaylen Brown have proved worthy, teammates Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward—who figure to be around Boston for awhile—have both underwhelmed.
Let's look at Irving's other motivations.
How much of Irving's decision to leave Cleveland in the first place was motivated by playing in James' shadow? How much was his recognization that James also wasn't long for Cleveland?
The answer appears to be the former. But in retrospect, it may not matter now that he's spent time beyond James' orbit.
In January, he opened up to reporters about his relationship with James:
"I had to call [LeBron] and tell him I apologized for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips ... I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship. I wanted to be the leader. I wanted to be all that, and the responsibility of being the best in the world and leading your team is something that is not meant for many people."
Irving acknowledged that he made mistakes and failed to see the bigger picture in Cleveland, focusing instead on stats and All-Star teams. Perhaps Irving doesn't mind being Robin to LeBron's Batman again.
Would roughly $50 million guaranteed now move the needle for Irving?
The Lakers project to have enough cap space to pay Irving roughly $140.6 million over the next four seasons. Boston can do about $189.7 million over five. But some of the league's top players—such as James and Kevin Durant—have recently opted to take shorter contracts, which would minimize the Celtics' financial advantage.
Instead, he may want to try free agency again after the 2020-21 season, when he'll reach the top salary tier (which projects to pay up to $43 million in the first year).
Those numbers are similar should Irving pick a team like the Knicks instead of the Lakers. That might make sense if Durant joins him.
If not—and if Irving doesn't believe the Celtics have enough to compete for a title—a Cavaliers reunion in Los Angeles may be a smart move.
The Lakers would be able to retain their youthful core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball while paying James and Irving. The team could also try to lure Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans via trade, although the primary negotiators for both teams (Earvin "Magic" Johnson with the Lakers and Dell Demps with the Pelicans) no longer hold their positions.
The Lakers haven't announced their front-office plans yet. In the meantime, general manager Rob Pelinka appears to be in charge. The Pelicans recently hired David Griffin to run the team, his first NBA job since he guided James and Irving to a title in Cleveland.
If there's a deal to be struck, the Lakers could have enough spending power to team Davis up with James and Irving. The cost would be most—if not all—of their emerging prospects.
Of course, the Celtics are expected to not only push to re-sign Irving but also make a run at Davis.
In addition to the Knicks and Nets (and Boston), the Lakers could find the neighboring Los Angeles Clippers are also in the running for this summer's top free agents like Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Durant and Irving.
James may be the team's best weapon in any free-agent pitch, especially to Irving.
"Me and Kyrie are in a good place right now. I love the man that he's becoming, I love the challenges he's accepted, and I always wish the best for him," James told Joe Vardon of The Athletic in February.
The two have spoken glowingly about each other, but is that enough to facilitate a reunion? That's going to come down to what Irving wants to do with his career over the next handful of years.
The Lakers don't appear to be the most stable franchise in the league, given the team doesn't officially have a president of basketball operations or a head coach, but both issues may be rectified this week (with Pelinka in charge and Lue as coach).
Irving and James may have repaired their relationship, but does Irving's newfound understanding of his time in Cleveland extend to Lue as well?
ESPN's Jackie MacMullan described an exchange between Lue and Irving where the two didn't see eye to eye on the point guard's role as a facilitator.
"Well, that's No. 23's job," Irving said, referring to James. The issue went unresolved after Lue walked away, "shaking his head."
Irving added, "Maybe I'd like a do-over on that." And before the Cavaliers sent him to the Celtics, Lue advised general manager Koby Altman to "hold onto Irving, just like the [Lakers] did when Lue's former teammate [Kobe] Bryant demanded a trade," per ESPN's Dave McMenamin.
Irving and Lue have history, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if Irving has changed his priorities. As far as fit alongside Ball, who in name plays the same position as Irving, that shouldn't be a concern. The two are different players.
Irving is an elite scorer who generates assists from the gravity he creates off the dribble. Ball is a reluctant scorer who doesn't want to dominate the rock. He's also an impressive defender with enough size at 6'6" to guard some wings. Just as Ball and Isaiah Thomas fit well together in Thomas' brief stint with the Lakers a couple of seasons ago, so too would Irving and Ball.
Ultimately, the Lakers have significant flexibility to make a reunion work—enough to quickly become a contender—but Irving may also recognize that James will turn 35 in December. The groin injury that derailed the Lakers season may be a sign of James' decline.
True or false, what matters is Irving's perception and what he feels about his opportunity in Boston, especially if his team can't get past Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks this coming week.