Kyrie Irving's shadow looms over Lakers after team's bizarre set of moves to open NBA free agency

Kyrie Irving’s shadow looms over Lakers after team’s bizarre set of moves to open NBA free agency

An idealized 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers roster needed three things around LeBron James and Anthony Davis: shooting, defense and proven playoff viability. Less than a day into free agency, the Lakers have filled all but two of their available roster spots, but to say that they’ve addressed any of those needs would be premature at best. 

Lonnie Walker IV, who will sign using the taxpayer mid-level exception, shot just 31.4 percent from behind the arc last season. The three remaining deals were for Troy Brown Jr, Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones — three players who combined to hit just 85 3-pointers last season. That’s only six more than Russell Westbrook made on his own.

Among most major metrics, only Toscano-Anderson ranks as above average defensively. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR and DunksAndThrees’ EPM both frown on the non-Toscano-Anderson trio, and ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus is even more damning, ranking Walker 119th among 123 qualifying defensive shooting guards and Jones 64th among qualifying centers.

Between the four of them, they’ve played 147 combined playoff minutes in their careers. For comparison, the last time a hobbled LeBron James was in the playoffs back in 2021, he played 220 minutes in a single series against the Phoenix Suns. Toscano-Anderson and Jones have both been on Warriors championship teams. Neither could carve out rotation roles on them. 

In other words … little of what the Lakers did in Day 1 of free agency makes much sense yet. Their only spending tool above the minimum salary was the mid-level exception and it’s gone. So are 13 of their 15 total roster spots and both of their two-way slots. Yet not one major need was addressed. So what gives?

The obvious perspective here is that the Lakers are overcorrecting. Last year’s roster was the oldest in the NBA. It was as slow as it was injury prone, and the infusion of youth and athleticism these signings bring could solve those problems. There’s something to that, especially in light of the jump Malik Monk made last season. 

The Lakers are surely hoping that one or two of these players can similarly grow on a roster built around James and Anthony Davis. It’s not bad logic. Walker has great physical tools and a 6-10 wingspan. Defensive improvement is entirely plausible. Jones is coming off his best season as a pro and did so on a bizarrely constructed Kings roster. His role will be clarified on these Lakers. Even Toscano-Anderson probably has more to show than the Warriors allowed last season. It’s not his fault he played on a team with a $376 million payroll. The Warriors were too deep to rely on him in the playoffs. The Lakers aren’t. They aren’t going to hit four home runs here, but if just one of these players pops as Monk did, they’ll have found a serious bargain.

But Monk was a bargain, too, and the Lakers still missed the playoffs. The goal of the offseason is not to strike oil a few times, but to build a complete and coherent roster. The Lakers don’t have one. They’re betting they can still piece one together. Dave McMenamin reported after the flurry that the team’s next priority is shooting. It’s not hard to figure out where that might be coming from.

Slot Kyrie Irving onto this roster and suddenly things make a bit more sense. That is especially true when you consider the $10 million gap between his salary and Russell Westbrook’s. Could one of Brooklyn’s spare shooters fill that void? Maybe the tax the Nets need to pay to secure maximal draft capital from the Lakers is either Joe Harris or Seth Curry as well.

Irving alone fixes the geometry of the floor for the Lakers. Suddenly you can get away with two-big lineups featuring Jones or significant on-ball opportunities for Walker (or Talen Horton-Tucker) because Westbrook’s defender isn’t clogging up the paint for them. Maybe Toscano-Anderson or Stanley Johnson can get away with playing starter minutes as a limited offensive option because their defense will supplement an unstoppable offensive trio. Irving’s postseason credentials need no explanation. He made a Finals-clinching shot. 

Irving doesn’t solve every problem. Those final few rosters spots should probably go to more experienced players. Beyond the theoretical big three of James, Davis and Irving, not a single Laker has proven capable of a playoff rotation spot. That makes taking advantage of the salary gap between Irving and Westbrook essential in securing another player of some value. But the outline of a sensible roster begins to form. 

Walker and Horton-Tucker could compete for the “down-hill attacker with defensive upside” role. Johnson and Toscano-Anderson would fight for forward minutes. Another center will presumably be added to play the minutes Jones doesn’t, though Davis will also play some center. Kendrick Nunn is your backup point guard. Austin Reaves gets real minutes at shooting guard. 

Whoever doesn’t win a rotation spot becomes deadline fodder. The 2022 Lakers were extremely limited traders because they had almost no matching salary. But adding Walker at $6.5 million while retaining Horton-Tucker and Nunn at mid-tier salaries and possibly bringing in another player from the Nets gives them a bit more flexibility to improve in the middle of the season. If minutes are available, the buyout market should be friendly as well. 

It’s not a perfect roster by any stretch of the imagination. The defense remains problematic in almost any construction. But with Irving on board, the basic plan suddenly makes sense: Your star trio is so talented and fits together so well that you can afford to gamble on the other roster spots knowing that you can keep the ones that work and trade the ones that don’t. It’s a risky approach to roster-building, but considering where the Lakers are starting from, there just wasn’t a cleaner option. The players the Lakers signed don’t make sense next to Westbrook, but in 2022, not many players do, and the ones who could weren’t coming to Los Angeles for $6.5 million. 

This doesn’t come close to guaranteeing an Irving trade. Two days ago such a deal felt impossible. There’s still no telling how much draft capital — if any — the Lakers are willing to surrender for a player whom the rest of the league doesn’t seem to want, and if anybody else gets into the bidding, there’s a good chance they’ll have more to offer than the Lakers. 

But there are really only two ways to rationalize the moves the Lakers made on Thursday. They might have added youth for youth’s sake. Considering how old James and Westbrook are, getting younger around them, and perhaps more pertinently, after they’re gone, isn’t the worst idea. But if they were adding youth hoping to support the current veteran talent, they did a fairly bizarre job of doing so from a fit perspective. The players they’ve brought on only make sense if more moves are coming, and Irving is the only possible addition big enough to slide the rest of these misfit role players into place.


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