Saturday, May 25, 2024

Analysis: Is Kyrie Irving the Lakers’ path to a title or misguided star-chasing?

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This is what the Lakers wanted, isn’t it?

Since even before the season, the Lakers have circulated their interest in a “third star,” the idea being that their first-round draft picks – seen as their best trade assets – would be best swung in a deal that could net them a big piece.

If life were confined to a stat box, Kyrie Irving would be that piece: an All-Star starting guard who has already won a championship with LeBron James. Theoretically, the Lakers could turn Russell Westbrook, their $47.1 million man and iffy on-court fit, into Irving, who can shoot and create his shot in ways no one else can. Theoretically, it would boost a team that’s been out of the playoff picture since the season started to a contender, wouldn’t it?

It’s what Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka hinted at in September and again last month, when he said, “if there’s an opportunity to get all the way to the end and win a championship, there’s no resource we’ll hold onto if we feel like that’s there,” right? It’s what LeBron James was hinting at when he said he could compete with “the right pieces,” isn’t it?

Is this what it looks like when the Lakers’ dreams of acquiring a disgruntled star come true?

And how does that make them different from the Boston Celtics’ dreams in 2017? Or the Brooklyn Nets’ dreams in 2019?

There is so much to unpack about Irving’s latest trade request, spurred by the Nets’ reluctance to extend his contract on his terms. Reported by multiple media outlets, the news unleashed a firestorm on a previously quiet Friday morning. More outlets reported that the Lakers are interested in Irving, who turns 31 next month, in a potential deal – of course they are, because the Lakers are hardly ever subtle, and their needs are always transparent.

The Lakers need shooting, languishing at 33.6% from 3-point range (which ranks 27th in the NBA); Irving is a 39% career 3-point shooter on high volume, whose unparalleled library of moves can get him space at will. If the Lakers move off of Westbrook, who has at times thrived and at times bristled in a sixth-man role this year, they need another playmaker; Irving doesn’t rack up the assists that Westbrook does, but he’s a capable passer who has averaged 6.1 assists during his tenure with the Nets. The Lakers have a tendency to fumble when the game is on the line: James was on the court in 2016 when Irving hit one of the most clutch shots in NBA history.

That’s the case for Irving – virtually all of it in a paragraph. But to go through the entirety of the counterbalance takes longer.

The last six years of Irving’s career have been a roller coaster, with few soaring highs to make up for the high-profile lows. To start with: He hasn’t played more than 54 games in any of his four seasons with Brooklyn. Some of those absences were due to injury, but playing in just 29 games of the 2021-22 season was due to Irving’s steadfast refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19 – a situation that helped drive superstar teammate James Harden to Philadelphia after just over a year.

Locker room tensions have followed Irving in all three markets he’s played. His eccentricities in Cleveland were partly papered over by winning, when James was powering the franchise to the Finals every year. The Celtics played better after he left. The Nets’ dreams of a championship team built around Irving and Kevin Durant have become dimmer with each passing season – though it also seems relevant that the Nets were sitting at 31-20 at fourth place in the Eastern Conference (great position considering Durant is injured) at the exact moment Irving decided to blow up their entire season.

According to Bleacher Report, the talks between Irving and the Nets broke down after the franchise presented him a contract with incentives tied to winning a championship. (OK … so who doesn’t want to win?) It also might be relevant that in the previous 24 hours, Irving had reverted to his other off-court hobby of sharing video clips from such figures as Jordan Peterson, Jason Whitlock and John Stockton, who have fallen prey to misinformation or stoked controversy.

One of the biggest reasons why the Lakers’ interest can be assumed is because the franchise has made its bones by star-chasing, from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Shaquille O’Neal, to James himself. But while multiple franchise stars might be the cornerstone blueprint for any championship-level team, the Lakers know from experience that more stars does not inherently result in more winning.

Their 2020 title squad was swung on acquiring Davis from New Orleans to pair with James – but the sturdy cast of role players was a backup plan when L.A.’s recruitment of Kawhi Leonard fell through in the offseason. Looking for a big move in the 2021 offseason after a disappointing follow-up year, the Lakers traded for Westbrook – a move that is now widely seen as a disaster. They didn’t make the playoffs last year, and they might not make the playoffs this season, either.

Can you dig out of a hole with a shovel?

While there is a temptation to see trading for Irving as a correction to the decision to trade for Westbrook – and surely the on-court fit makes more sense – it’s hard to reason that the Lakers are doing anything but doubling down on their star-chasing philosophy. Westbrook and Irving are wildly different players, but the overlap in their career arcs can feel oddly alike: Two max-level players who have not been able to advance in the playoffs as the leaders of their respective teams, who have moved on from franchises that didn’t seem heartbroken to let them go.

If anything, the comparison might be less flattering to Westbrook, who despite a tumultuous relationship with the Lakers’ fan base, has at least been available to play nearly every night: He’s missed just seven games in a season-and-a-half. In the same span, Irving has missed 64 games – nearly half of all possible appearances.

If the Lakers find a way to acquire Irving, it seems some kind of long-term future must be inherent – especially if it costs the team real assets. A two-team deal would require another player to match Westbrook’s enormous salary, and it’s worth a guess that the Nets might want to jettison another of their pricier contracts like Joe Harris, who has missed even more games than Irving in the last two years. But the Nets’ reluctance to tie themselves to Irving on a long-term deal probably forecasts the attitude any self-respecting franchise should have: Is it wise to tie up your salary cap for years with a player whose erratic nature can consume his franchise in controversy?

The hubris of the Lakers making a play for Irving – with James seemingly egging them on with cryptic tweets – has a similar hubris to their deal for Westbrook: As if they believe that they can succeed where others have failed. As if James’ presence on the roster will corral Irving into some sort of consistent competitor long enough for them to have a shot at their 18th banner in June.

Is Irving capable of that? Have the last few years taught him anything in particular?

That last question might be the most troubling one: There is, of course, the matter of Irving’s eight-game suspension in November for sharing a link to an antisemitic film, but more concerningly a stunning lack of contrition. It took more than a week and the powerful ramifications of his actions – including losing a valuable shoe deal with Nike – for Irving to finally apologize.

“I just want to apologize deeply for all my actions throughout the time that it’s been since the post was first put up,” Irving said in one of his public apologies to SNY. “I’ve had a lot of time to think. But my focus, initially, if I could do it over, would be to heal and repair a lot of my close relationships with my Jewish relatives, brothers and sisters.”

Irving also has a long history of advocacy for Black and indigenous causes, and he can be extremely giving for causes that touch him personally. He has given money to the Standing Rock tribe, and he has given money and brought visibility to Black Lives Matter. That history might be one of the reasons James tweeted that he thought that Irving’s suspension was “excessive” and, “He’s not the person that’s being portrayed of him.”

It is an interesting case in contrast to look at Meyers Leonard, who has been out of the NBA for two seasons after using an antisemitic slur during a livestream. In the past week, Leonard did a sitdown interview with ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap (of Jewish descent) about it – not only answering direct questions about the incident, but also with videos and pictures of him meeting with Jewish community leaders, and talking in public forums about what happened. Leonard, of course, was a marginal NBA player at best who is trying to make his way back into the league after multiple injuries, but the body of evidence of his last two years points to sincere contrition for his mistake.

Irving might also be truly contrite and might have learned and grown, but it’s hard to know amid the waters that are still roiling when he creates controversy. The trade demand offers insight that he still believes his basketball value should be the weightiest factor for a team mulling whether it should tie up its long-term future with him for big money. But even his basketball value has its question marks, given his availability issues and the fact that he has not advanced past the second round of the playoffs since his days with James.

Maybe a reunion would bring back the glory days – for James, for Irving, for the Lakers. Maybe chasing this star, with an enticing on-court fit, is the path that leads back to a championship.

Or maybe it’s the same path they keep trying to go down, over and over, with the same result waiting at the end.

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