The first domino of the Lakers offseason was a very powerful one played by LeBron James barely an hour after the final buzzer of Game 4 on Monday. After some cryptic, eyebrow-raising postgame comments, Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and Dave McMenamin of ESPN both reported that LeBron was considering retirement.
After the initial feeling of shock, the move feels more and more like a power play from LeBron with one specific name likely in mind. For more than a year, the Lakers and Kyrie Irving have had a staredown, circling one another without yet coming together.
While reports not so long ago suggested the Lakers weren’t interested in Kyrie after the team’s postseason run, there have been some rumblings of Kyrie to the Lakers once again. It’s come mainly as a result of D’Angelo Russell’s poor play in the series, a bit of a knee-jerk reaction of sorts.
Even most of that noise centered around Brian Windhorst of ESPN talking about Kyrie in the Lakers, but only doing that and certainly not appearing to report anything. The fact he attended multiple postseason games for the Lakers, including Game 4, also naturally added fuel to the fire.
LeBron has been a pretty public supporter of Kyrie and wanted him on the Lakers. He spoke about being disappointed when the Lakers didn’t acquire him in-season, and that came after he tweeted like Taylor Swift after the deal to Dallas.
It doesn’t take a lot of connecting the dots to think that if LeBron is attempting a power play here, it’s to try to get Kyrie to the Lakers. President of basketball operations Rob Pelinka has explored acquiring Kyrie multiple times, but he’s always had a line in the sand he would not cross, whether it was not acquiring Joe Harris last summer or not including Max Christie and everything else during the season.
This brings us to the current situation. LeBron is holding retirement over the heads of the Lakers front office with Kyrie as the likely piece to “convince” him to keep playing. What’s perhaps not discussed enough is how nearly outright impossible it is for the Lakers to both acquire Kyrie and field a competitive roster.
There are only, realistically, three ways for Kyrie to come to the Lakers this off-season. Here’s a look at how they would play out and why they are unlikely.
Clear the deck
Perhaps the most likely scenario involves the Lakers clearing out their roster to sign Kyrie with cap room. Bobby Marks of ESPN laid out this plan in pretty great detail, so in lieu of me explaining it, I’ll share a section from his article:
The Lakers could create up to $30.5 million by waiving Jarred Vanderbilt, Mo Bamba, not exercising Malik Beasley’s team option and renouncing free agents D’Angelo Russell, Lonnie Walker IV and Rui Hachimura. The cap space would increase to $35 million if they trade Max Christie and their first-round pick. However, the starting number on Irving’s max salary is $47 million. In the scenario that the Lakers do utilize their $30.5 million in room, the resources to build the roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis include restricted free agent Austin Reaves, Christie, the $7.6 million room exception and two draft picks. The rest of the roster would be filled out with players signed to the veteran minimum exception, leaving the Lakers’ depth vulnerable.
This is a rehash of what they did with Russell Westbrook, just with a better player at point guard. Sure, there are a lot of benefits there, but there are also a lot of negatives.
First, all this is predicated on Kyrie taking a HELL of a pay cut, something he did not do last time this was a possibility of joining the Lakers. If you jump that hurdle, though, then you have Kyrie, LeBron, Anthony Davis, Austin Reaves, one room exception and veteran’s minimum contracts to fill out the roster.
And then you’re right back in a spot where you need LeBron to play big minutes and lots of games on a nightly basis. And we’re right back in a situation where his body physically can’t handle what the Lakers require of him in the regular season.
The other potentially viable option is that the Lakers do a sign-and-trade with Dallas to acquire Kyrie. The first hurdle you run into is getting Dallas to cooperate with this, which could be tricky.
But let’s just play out this scenario. Say some package of D’Angelo Russell, Mo Bamba, Malik Beasley, and the No. 17 pick is used to acquire Kyrie. For that reason, we won’t factor any of them into the discussion.
Acquiring Kyrie in a sign-and-trade would hard-cap the Lakers. According to Marks, the hard cap next season would come in at $169.5 million. So, let’s play out a hypothetical.
LeBron, AD, Jarred Vanderbilt and Max Christie would come in at $93.91 million. No matter what Reaves’ deal is next season, the figure next year would be at $11.36 million, bringing the Lakers total to $105.27 million. Back during the regular season, reports suggested Hachimura and his camp wanted a deal in the range of his $18.8 million cap hold. So, for simplicity sake, let’s say he gets a deal starting at $18.8 next season, bringing the overall total up to $124.07 million.
That leaves the Lakers roughly $45.43 million in wiggle room to both offer Kyrie a contract in this sign-and-trade and fill out the rest of the roster. In this specific scenario, that’s again going to require Kyrie to take a pay cut. The workaround for this could be a series of short-term deals for Kyrie that lets the Lakers gain bird rights along the way and eventually give him raises, but for a player as erratic as Kyrie, is that the best plan for himself to be on constant one-year deals?
You can renounce Rui in this scenario, giving you about $64.23 million to then offer Kyrie potentially a max and fill out your roster with any remaining exceptions and veteran’s minimum deals.
But the hard cap is as it sounds: a hard cap. You can not go over that cap to sign players. So the Lakers would have either seven players with Rui, or six players without him, and between eight and nine roster spots to fill out with veteran’s minimum deals again.
Again, LeBron is back in a situation where he’ll be asked to carry a heavy burden and compete at a high level in the regular season before even getting to the playoffs.
Unlikely contract routes
Technically, there are one (or two) ways for Kyrie to join the Lakers that would circumvent all this and Kyrie could take a massive pay cut to sign with some sort of exception. Here’s Bobby Marks to explain the exception available to the Lakers.
The Lakers would still have access to their $12.2 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception, but using more than $5 million likely puts them in the tax and also hard caps them. They could also elect not to sign Russell and instead use the full non-tax midlevel exception on one or two players.
So, at best, you’re having Kyrie take $12.2 million, or $35 million less than his max. Or, you could go past ALL of this and have him sign for a veteran’s minimum himself.
Now, obviously, neither of those scenarios are likely or will happen, but they are technically avenues the Lakers could take.
What’s clear here is the Lakers’ only paths to somewhat realistically acquiring Kyrie entails gutting the roster. The end of the regular season and into the postseason showed the Lakers can not just be competitive but win games with LeBron playing more of a backseat role or just simply not playing at all.
That is the path for LeBron to rest next season, keep the wear and tear down on his body, allow him to watch Bronny at USC, and be ready for the playoffs. As much as he may want Kyrie on the Lakers and as much as the rumors persist, it’s a terribly hard path for the Lakers to go down and one that contradicts multiple reports about the front office throughout the playoffs.
Let the emotions of the playoff loss die down, let injuries heal, and come back at this with a fresher mind with a clearer perspective and opinions may change. But Kyrie should not be an option for the Lakers this summer, and this postseason is plenty of evidence to support that.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.