After missing out on Kyrie Irving, the Lakers face internal pressure and tough choices

After missing out on Kyrie Irving, the Lakers face internal pressure and tough choices

For a riveting 48 hours, it seemed possible that the Lakers could shake up their entire season.

With eight-time All-Star Kyrie Irving on the trade block, the Lakers made subtle overtures – and some very unsubtle ones – for a player they’ve coveted since at least last summer. They privately conferred with the Brooklyn Nets about draft picks and salary, and LeBron James acknowledged to reporters that Irving could help them push toward a championship – a “duh question” as he put it.

But after the Dallas Mavericks emerged Sunday morning as Irving’s new team, what seemed like an obvious route for a star talent closed in front of them. And after very public flirtations with Irving, who is now not likely to be available until the summer as a free agent (if even then), a troubling, difficult question comes into focus: What now?

As of Sunday, the Lakers languished in 13th place in the West – with just three more losses (25-29) than the fourth-place Clippers (30-26), but with the gulf between them and the top six of the conference feeling as difficult to overcome as ever with only 28 games remaining. General manager Rob Pelinka has pledged multiple times to use all resources available to compete for a title, but the glaring move is now off the board.

Their Saturday loss to New Orleans spoke to their continuing shortcomings, as well as the inflamed tensions within the locker room by the out-in-the-open interest in Irving. Russell Westbrook understood his place in the flurry of trade rumors, and said the pressure wasn’t getting to him. After all, it’s nothing new from his year-and-a-half tenure with the Lakers.

“I’ve known this was a business since I was 18, 19 years old, since I got into it,” he said. “My dad taught me that at that age, getting to this league is a business, and people make whatever decision they make. And I’ll make sure I’m ready and professional, like I always have been and always will be.”

But Westbrook also had plenty of reason to be frustrated in the weekend finale: After he had made critical plays in overtime against the Knicks and helped secure a win in Indiana on the defensive end, Westbrook didn’t get the nod Saturday in a close loss to New Orleans.

Meanwhile, a cryptic tweet from James seemed to anticipate the arrival of Irving – a player whose All-NBA talent has often been outweighed by his penchant for on-court controversy. While one person with knowledge of the team’s interest in Irving told Southern California News Group that high-level team officials had serious concerns about his professionalism and availability – especially considering that the Lakers would have had to at least consider extending him on max or near-max money beyond this season – according to Bleacher Report, the team was willing to part with both their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks to get the deal done. It fell apart, according to a report from The Athletic, because the Nets wouldn’t stop there, also desiring two of the team’s talented young players in Austin Reaves and Max Christie.

The last stop of the 2-3 road trip emphasized the strain in the relationship between the two stars: While they’ve enjoyed a plus-5.2 net rating this season, far surpassing their on-court results last season, there is inherent tension between James’ obvious desire to change the roster and Westbrook’s bristling at his diminished role. The awkwardness between the duo was evident last summer, when they both attended a Lakers’ summer league game but didn’t acknowledge one another, keeping at their respective ends of the court. 

Could the flirtation with Irving have reopened those old wounds? It’s a question the Lakers have to chew on as they consider their current ability to push back into the playoff field for the rest of the season. Similar tensions between Westbrook and James hurt the Lakers’ chances down the stretch last season, when they went 6-18 after the All-Star break.

But even if the Lakers determine the locker room chemistry can sustain the hits it took from the Irving trade drama, Westbrook’s $47.1 million contract is its own issue. As SCNG previously reported, one of the reasons the Lakers decided to go into the 2022-23 season with Westbrook on the roster was to rehabilitate his trade value. But a rival front office executive told SCNG that Westbrook, who is averaging 15.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 7.5 assists for the Lakers this season, still likely requires significant draft compensation to move, likely at least one unprotected first-round pick and maybe more.

But instead of an All-Star like Irving in return, the Lakers face figuring out if a package of role players can help them push toward the playoffs. Those have less glamorous possibilities attached: Mike Conley, Jarred Vanderbilt or Malik Beasley from Utah; Jakob Poeltl, Josh Richardson or Doug McDermott from San Antonio; Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier or Mason Plumlee from Charlotte.

Though these players are largely mentioned as possibilities for how their salaries can collectively match Westbrook’s big number, it’s unclear how much the Lakers’ first-round picks, all of which don’t matriculate for at least four years, motivate potential trade partners. There is also a time element: The Lakers are one of the few NBA teams needing as many as three or four players in return in a deal, simply because of the size of Westbrook’s contract, so it would limit them more than other teams if they waited until the Thursday buzzer of the trade deadline. Teams like Utah, Charlotte and San Antonio may be content to do one- or two-player deals beforehand.

The team’s earlier deal for Rui Hachimura with the Washington Wizards already pushed some chips in. The strong possibility that the Lakers would look to extend Hachimura means that their cap space – which might have attracted a candidate like Irving out of hand – is now limited to smaller salary slots unless they decide to let Hachimura (who they traded three second-round picks for) simply walk. The rival executive also told SCNG that one of the franchise’s recurring themes in discussions of multiple possible deals is a desire to limit the hit on their repeater tax, which increases exponentially next year as they fill out a cast around James and Anthony Davis.

So Pelinka and the Lakers seemingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place, already committed to making another move before the deadline, but also without an obvious trade that boosts them to new competitive heights. In Westbrook, they have a frustrated player on a big contract who may not be any easier to move now than he was in September. And rival teams aren’t waiting for the Westbrook domino to fall – they make smaller deals that would limit the Lakers’ options even more before Thursday.

James has seen at least two of his teams with the Lakers struggle after the deadline in 2019 and 2022 when they would fail to make the playoffs. Still, the 38-year-old wasn’t offering anyone a shoulder to lean on if they’re feeling the pressure.

“That’s part of the game,” he said of handling the trade deadline on Saturday. “We’ve got, what, one rookie in here?” Shouldn’t be an issue. Happens every year. The trade deadline happens every single year. It’s a business. You go out and play, you go out and focus and no matter what happens, you’re still a professional.

The sentiment may be sincere, but for the Lakers, the stakes seem a lot more complicated.