The Los Angeles Lakers are desperate. Everybody knows it, and no one is about to bail them out.
They were willing to mortgage the rest of their future to pair Kyrie Irving with LeBron James and Anthony Davis and pray the 30-year-old point guard doesn't bring his blowtorch to his fourth franchise in six years. Even that was not enough to sway the Brooklyn Nets from accepting a package of Dorian Finney-Smith, Spencer Dinwiddie and an unprotected 2029 first-round draft pick from the Dallas Mavericks.
According to multiple reports, the Lakers offered their unprotected first-round draft picks in 2027 and 2029, plus Russell Westbrook's expiring contract. They reportedly would've included both Austin Reaves and Max Christie if Irving were willing to sign a two-year extension rather than the four-year maximum he desires.
The odd stipulation about Reaves and Christie leaves us to wonder one of two things. Was Los Angeles really willing to let its pursuit of Irving fail for two players who cannot crack a serious playoff rotation? Or did the Nets never seriously consider an offer from the Lakers that included nobody who helps them win now?
Neither answer is good for the Lakers. Either Irving chose the possibility of a long-term contract from the Mavericks over a two-year commitment from the Lakers or Los Angeles' best offer is not good enough to match a bargain price for any NBA star. The latter feels closer to reality. Dallas can offer Irving a two-year, $78.6 million extension through June 30 or up to four years and $198 million in July. The Mavericks will let Irving's future linger until season's end, according to NBA insider Marc Stein, just as the Lakers could have.
Nets owner Joe Tsai had the Lakers over a barrel, the barrel was empty, and Tsai was reportedly happy to give the Lakers a public flogging for such a paltry offering. Exceptionalism carries the Lakers only so far.
"Maybe it's me," James tweeted in the aftermath of Irving's trade to the Mavericks.
Maybe it is. The Lakers have catered to James' demands at every turn, trading everything of value but those two future first-round draft picks for Davis and Westbrook, and their remaining assets are not good enough to undo the mistake of adding Westbrook. Nearly three years removed from delivering a title in an Orlando bubble, the Lakers are 25-29, 13th in the Western Conference and fading from relevance on the court, led by James, a 38-year-old clinging to his last best hope of carrying a contender.
The Lakers will continue to shop their future first-round picks until Thursday's trade deadline. That might be enough to get them into the conversation for potentially available fringe former All-Stars such as Fred VanVleet, Zach LaVine and Bradley Beal. Their teams will have the Lakers over a barrel, too. Countless others can top Los Angeles' best offer, and there is no guarantee that any of them can transform the Lakers into anything better than second-round playoff fodder. Irving has done far better before with James on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Irving is an extraordinary talent, averaging a 27-5-5 on nearly 50/40/90 shooting splits, and he was had for two reliable rotational players and a single first-round pick because he cannot go more than a few months without lobbing a hand grenade into his own locker room. James and the Lakers had a decent chance to ensure that Irving's next drama-free window opened for the playoffs, if only they had the ammunition to get him.
"I'm definitely disappointed," James informed ESPN's Michael Wilbon on Monday. "I can't sit here and say I'm not disappointed at not being able to land such a talent, someone I know I have great chemistry with on the floor, that can help you win championships in my mind. But my focus has shifted now. My focus has shifted back to where it should be, and that's this club now and what we have in the locker room."
What they have is a sub-.500 team bound for a third straight season without a playoff series victory.
Trading for an alternative star would remove the Lakers from consideration for any top-flight free agents, including Irving, who could still sign in Los Angeles this summer. As it stands now, the Lakers can create roughly $34 million in cap space if they renounce all their impending free agents, including recent trade acquisition Rui Hachimura. That is well short of the $46.9 million starting salary for which Irving is eligible.
On three occasions over the past eight months, the Nets rebuffed the Lakers' inquiries into Irving, per The Athletic's Shams Charania — prior to his decision in June to pick up his $37 million option for this season, during his suspension for unapologetically promoting an antisemitic film and after Friday's trade request. If the Nets repeatedly rejected the Lakers in the face of a star player whose trade value was nearing an all-time low, what hope does Los Angeles have of outbidding the market for another ceiling-raising talent?
If Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka was feeling pressure from James to fulfill a promise for help before their latest pursuit of Irving, just wait until he feels it over the next few days. Pressure remains on Pelinka to leverage his last remaining assets into something of value, and any outcome will feel underwhelming in relation to a theoretically engaged Irving. The Lakers are surely scouring rosters of potential sellers in Utah, Toronto, San Antonio, Charlotte and Chicago, and no one they could acquire makes them a title contender.
James has one final play to coerce the Lakers into foregoing any flexibility for the rest of this decade in favor of a chance to win now. He can inform the team that he intends to leave the franchise in 2024, when he can next become a free agent. That kind of coercion rarely results in progress. More likely, the Lakers will trade their remaining assets for another high-risk player with a lower optimal reward. Take LaVine, for example. He is due $215 million through 2027, headed for another lottery on a (twice) surgically repaired knee, and the Bulls should be glad to find any franchise willing to trade assets to assume that contract.
Otherwise, the Lakers will enter July armed with enough space to offer 25% of their salary cap to a weak free-agency class. They would have a third first-round pick to trade for any available star come June, when more competitors will also be in the market. In the process, the Lakers will have waved goodbye to James' remarkable age-38 season, tempting fate that he can stay healthy enough to return as impactful next year.
The Lakers are desperate, and the NBA is unforgiving.
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