With Kyrie Irving's fate in the balance, could he be destined to rejoin LeBron James in Los Angeles to play for the Lakers?
Per Marc Stein, Irving and James "had some recent contact ... to presumably discuss a potential reunion in Hollywood."
Speculation boiled over on Wednesday when ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said on NBA Today, "The Lakers are considered the most significant threat right now for Kyrie."
Both presented the notion with an appropriate amount of skepticism, citing the Lakers' clear financial hurdles in acquiring Irving. But what if there was a way to bring the seven-time All-Star to Los Angeles without saddling the Brooklyn Nets with Russell Westbrook's $47.1 million for next season, assuming he opts in?
What would it take to rope in the Oklahoma City Thunder, who could open enough cap space to absorb Westbrook entirely? Can the Lakers incentivize both the Nets and Thunder to facilitate Westbrooks's departure from and Irving's arrival to L.A.?
Nets at a Crossroad
Brooklyn was self-aware enough to understand that James Harden was destined to join the Philadelphia 76ers. Harden turned into Ben Simmons, Seth Curry, Andre Drummond, a couple of first-round picks and a shot (that fell short) in the playoffs.
Similarly, the Nets are at a crossroads with Irving. If Plan A is to find a viable extension, then Plan B would be Irving opting in at $36.9 million. If he sticks on the roster with a divorce looming, Irving could be a significant headache.
An answer could be one of the Lakers' firsts (2027 or 2029) and, if the Nets don't take any players back, a trade exception worth $35.3 million. Brooklyn's payroll would drop from a projected $160 million to $123 million (with the tax threshold at $149 million).
The team has other questions to resolve (the above assumes Patty Mills opts in), like free agents Bruce Brown, Andre Drummond and Nic Claxton. Irving is one of the NBA's true wildcards. If Plan A isn't viable, trading him now may be safer than the chaos of a disgruntled Irving in Kevin Durant's ear.
Can the Nets add something to the puzzle to get Luguentz Dort in the deal from Thunder? Would Brooklyn take on JaMychal Green ($8.2 million) and/or Mike Muscala for frontcourt depth? Who else can be had from Oklahoma City? Do any Lakers stand out to the Nets like Austin Reaves, Kendrick Nunn, Stanley Johnson or Talen Horton-Tucker?
Perhaps the flexibility of a trade exception with whatever draft compensation Brooklyn can pry from Los Angeles might make an Irving exit palatable. The onus is on the Lakers to make sure the Thunder and Nets can live with a deal.
Thunder Cap Space: On the Clock
As of July 1, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's extension will kick in at $30.5 million. The Thunder are on the clock to use its existing cap space (up to $31.8 million) before it evaporates next month. The team has already agreed to use some on JaMychal Green from the Denver Nuggets (per Wojnarowski), but he could be rerouted.
The Lakers would have to make it worthwhile, perhaps offering a 2027 or 2029 first-round pick with Westbrook. The Thunder would need to send out Derrick Favors, Green and another $2.6 million in salary to make room for the Lakers guard. That could be as simple as opting Muscala in ($3.5 million)—or another combination of players, including Ty Jerome, Kenrich Williams, Theo Maledon or even Dort.
Per B/R's Jake Fischer, "There has been increasing talk about [the Portland Trail Blazers] potentially targeting the seventh selection to Oklahoma City for No. 12 and a package that could include [Dort]."
The Thunder have been collecting assets for the last few years, building up the most massive collection of picks the NBA has ever seen. This may be their last chance to take on a significant salary dump for draft compensation.
If James wants Westbrook out for Irving, the Lakers might need to seriously consider it. The franchise may be stuck, unclear if James will stick around after his contract expires in 2023. However, what if James will recommit through 2025 with the team going all-in for Irving?
What James actually wants remains a mystery, but now is the time to make those critical decisions. He can't officially extend until August 4, but a verbal could be all the motivation the Lakers need. Upon opting in for a trade, Irving can extend with Los Angeles at a starting salary for the 2023-24 season at $44.3 million (assuming he waives his trade bonus).
In trading Westbrook, L.A. can take in up to $55.4 million in player salaries. That's almost enough to take on Irving, Favors, Green and Muscala. The Lakers would need the Nets (or a fourth team) to take one of the three from the Thunder—or at least one or two of the Lakers mentioned above who are currently under contract.
If Irving opts out, the Lakers can only offer about $6.4 million in starting salary. Trading Westbrook to the Thunder in a two-team trade without the Nets could push that available figure to $10.3 million, but it's a stretch to imagine Irving taking that large of a pay cut to come to Los Angeles.
While he could opt-in with the Nets for a trade to L.A. in July when salaries shift to 2022-23, the Thunder fall off the board as its cap room dries up. Finding a home for Westbrook could prove more challenging, especially if the Nets aren't keen on taking on significant payroll in return.
The bulk of player movement will lock in over the next couple of weeks. The Nets have a decision to make with Irving. If an extension can't be reached, and Irving is adamant on a reunion with James, the Lakers may not yield Brooklyn's dream return. However, that could prove to be the best answer from a list of difficult choices.