Rob Pelinka’s job is to make the Los Angeles Lakers a better basketball team. It’s a job that, after two consecutive seasons of disappointment, he is trying not to lose.
So the notion of Kyrie Irving, who has already won one championship playing alongside LeBron James, angling to come to L.A. in pursuit of more, has to bring quite a smile to the face of the Lakers’ embattled vice president of basketball operations.
Irving is a seven-time All-Star still in his prime, a future Hall of Famer whose chemistry alongside James has proven to be vastly better than that of, um, the Lakers’ incumbent point guard.
He would, almost without question, elevate the scuffling team of superstars back into the title conversation that has largely taken place without them over the past two seasons.
Even if this proves to all be a smokescreen to shake loose a long-term commitment from Brooklyn, the Lakers’ point of view in this remains the most interesting.
The question of whether they even want Irving is a heck of a statement in and of itself.
Taking on Irving and all that comes with him is hardly a no-brainer for most teams around the NBA. Plenty of teams would politely decline.
Not the Lakers. It couldn’t be.
Through a series of poor decisions – most notably, but not exclusively, trading for Russell Westbrook – Pelinka has backed himself into such a corner where there is no room in the conversation for some of the most important questions.
Is he a good employee?
Is he a good teammate?
Will he show up?
The answers, in order: “no,” “no,” and “WHO KNOWS?”
Irving is the NBA’s resident oddball. And if he is truly committed to teaming back up with James and bringing his Tour of Eccentricity to the City of Angels, then it will probably happen.
Like they say in the NBA, where there’s smoke there’s usually… Montrezl Harrell.
But also fire.
The Lakers could either angle to pull off a trade involving Westbrook and the Lakers’ cherished, distant draft picks or somehow convince Irving to do the unthinkable and take an unprecedented pay cut to sign with the Lakers outright.
The idea of Irving upending the entire system and simply signing with the Lakers for what meager funds they can offer (roughly $6 million for one season) would be as compelling to watch as it would be disruptive to the collective bargaining agreement.
Would he actually do it?
Nobody knows! It’s Kyrie!
He certainly does seem to be motivated by more than the almighty dollar, a noble trait at face value. He opted out of the Orlando bubble as part of a social-justice protest. He took time away because he was disturbed by the Jan. 6 insurrection.
But Irving’s teams routinely suffer from his commitment to his causes. They make him unreliable. He pledged to sign a long-term contract in Boston. He has similarly stated he’s in Brooklyn for the long haul alongside Kevin Durant. Jumping ship to the Lakers would be only another on-brand reversal for the flat-Earther.
In three seasons in Brooklyn, Irving has made it on the court for all of 93 games. He has been – forgive me for this one – a Net negative.
And in a business where players are paid tens of millions to show up, unreliable is untenable. Emphasizing self-interest tends to be frowned upon in professional, team sports.
Irving’s priorities have never been more evident than when he sat out 65 percent of last season over his refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
While he was drawing that line in the sand, the Lakers wore their roster’s 100 percent vaccination rate like a badge of honor. Kent Bazemore, who had been outspoken about his hesitancy, shared that he had been persuaded by Pelinka to get vaccinated in the name of “team” and a chance at a championship.
Would Pelinka and the Lakers really welcome the guy who torpedoed Brooklyn’s season from the start of the season because he wouldn’t get a shot? Perhaps it proves some hypocrisy. But could the Lakers live with that?
If it means adding a talent like Irving, of course they could. Because even with all of his oddities, Irving is still really good. And having him on the floor some of the time is better than what they saw from 78 games of Westbrook last season. This is triage. And while the addition of Irving would be accompanied by the possibility of spectacular, explosive failure — like we’ve seen in Brooklyn — that risk feels like a better option than another year spent hoping in vain that Westbrook can make a jump shot.
James, too, would presumably be on board with a reunion. Despite some hard feelings when Irving was traded from Cleveland to Boston in 2017 – a deal that caught James off-guard – Irving has gone out of his way to make amends with James, including calling him in 2019 to apologize for some of his behavior when they were teammates with the Cavaliers.
If there’s one player in the league who can get the best – and, critically, the most – out of Irving, it figures to be LeBron.
Yes, the Lakers should want Irving. No, they shouldn’t feel particularly good about the fact they really have no choice. Even with the enthusiasm surrounding new head coach Darvin Ham, a Lakers team relying on Westbrook offers little hope of a deep playoff run. As much as the Lakers have signaled their willingness to bring him back, Irving represents too stark an upgrade, warts and all, for Pelinka to ignore.
This is a desperate franchise, one that is clinging to the tendrils of hope for another championship before LeBron either breaks down or bolts. One that has no meaningful blueprint for the future other than selling a past they can’t seem to duplicate.
Like a gambler chasing their next big win or an addict in search of the next high, the Lakers have to keep grasping for something that will keep them at or near the top, even if it means losing control of their own destiny in the process.
It’s hardly a sustainable model, but until the Lakers crash, they won’t have to look themselves in the mirror and chart out a new course.
Chasing Irving allows the Lakers a stay from that inevitable execution, just like they believed adding Westbrook last summer would.
Lucking into a talent such as Irving would mask the horrors of Pelinka’s mismanagement last summer, when he traded away the Lakers’ last core assets and built a roster with over-the-hill players with familiar names.
At least until Irving disappears again.
Pursuing Kyrie Irving is the NBA’s ultimate case of “buyer beware.” The Lakers just don’t have the luxury of waiting for a better option that may not come. That’s the uncomfortable reality that they have created for themselves.
(Photo of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving: Mike Stobe / Getty Images)