Getty Images

NBA players show up at playoff games they aren't participating in from time to time. Sometimes their offseason home happens to host a championship contender. Other times, they just want to see and be seen at their sport's ultimate showcase. In Kyrie Irving's case last offseason, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported in January, it was for a much more practical purpose. The eight-time All-Star was headed for free agency, and a team he was interested in joining, the Los Angeles Lakers, happened to be in the middle of a surprising run to the Western Conference finals. He wanted to send the message to the league that he was sincere in his interest in becoming a Laker.

His former co-star LeBron James was definitely listening and really wanted to join forces again with Irving, who James described as the 'most gifted player' ever. But the purple and gold had already tried and failed to land Irving twice. The 2023 offseason represented an opportunity for a third true run at Irving, but they ultimately elected not to pursue him. Now, one year later, they're left to wonder what might have been. 

The Lakers bowed out of the 2024 playoffs in just five games against the Denver Nuggets. They are still searching for a third star to pair with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But Irving? He's preparing to play in the NBA Finals as a member of the Dallas Mavericks, who have the Lakers to thank for his presence on their roster. After all, if they could have just sealed the deal, he might be leading the Lakers back into the Finals right now.

In the summer of 2022, Irving used the Lakers as a threat to try to force his then-employer, the Brooklyn Nets, to give him a long-term contract extension. He was coming off of a season in which he barely played due to his refusal to get vaccinated for COVID-19, so his leverage was limited. To maximize it, he leaked interest in signing with the Lakers for the mid-level exception. The Nets called his bluff. He was never going to leave more than $30 million on the table for the 2022-23 season, and he inevitably opted into the final year of his deal.

But the Lakers rumors didn't disappear from there. Kevin Durant asked for a trade on the night of the 2022 NBA Draft, and if he was going to move, the Nets would have no reason to keep Irving. The Lakers, at the time, were his only suitor, and it's unclear why exactly they failed to complete a deal.

Chris Haynes reported for Yahoo at the time that the two sides were struggling to agree on draft compensation. The Lakers had just two tradable first-round picks to dangle. The Nets also wanted the Lakers to take on the bloated contract of Joe Harris, which, at the time, had two years remaining. 

If the Nets had accepted Russell Westbrook's expiring contract and two first-round picks (in 2027 and 2029) for Irving and Harris, the Lakers probably would regret passing. Such an arrangement would have given them their star trio of James, Davis and Irving. It wouldn't have cost them prized rookie Austin Reaves, either, and it would have set the Lakers up with at least a bit of movable salary between Harris, Kendrick Nunn and 2023 mid-level signing Lonnie Walker IV

That team, in that moment, would not have been championship-caliber, but it wouldn't have been far off, either. Say the Lakers still found a way to swing their midseason acquisition of Rui Hachimura using Nunn or Walker. Perhaps Harris, at some point, could have been dealt for some perimeter defense (with a few first-round draft swaps included, of course). With those three stars in place and Reaves locked in as an emerging role player, building a champion would have been doable.

Of course, it's not clear that the Nets would have accepted any deal at that moment. "There is a good chance Kyrie Irving is back in Brooklyn to start the season if Kevin Durant is back in Brooklyn," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said midway through the saga. The logic made sense. If Durant was gone, Irving almost had to go out with him. But there would be no sense in keeping Durant without Irving on the roster. 

Two first-round picks wouldn't have done them much good, and the Nets were in no position to replace Irving with a similarly talented but less volatile guard. They were, in essence, a package deal. Even if they weren't going to the same places, they both needed to stay if they weren't both going to go. Nobody gave the Nets a reasonable offer for Durant at the time, so there may have been nothing the Lakers could have done to get Irving in the summer of 2022.

But in February of 2023? Irving was fully available. Four teams are known to have seriously pursued Irving: the Lakers, Mavericks, Suns and Clippers. We now know that Phoenix was keeping its powder dry to land Durant a few days later, and the Clippers lacked the assets to make a competitive offer. That functionally meant that the sweepstakes were down to the Lakers and Mavericks, and James made it known that he wanted his former teammate back by his side. 

When asked if Irving was the sort of player that could push the Lakers over the top, James initially deferred to general manager Rob Pelinka before eventually conceding. "Obviously, that's a -- what's the word you use -- 'Duh' question when you talk about a player like [Kyrie]," James said at the time.

Dallas ultimately landed Irving for Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, one first-round pick and two second-round picks. It was an offer the Lakers could have topped, and the Nets demanded that they do so. According to NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Nets asked for the moon. 

"Based on everything I was told, the Nets asked from the Lakers way more than they asked from any other team for Kyrie," Stein reported. "They didn't just want the two firsts and Russ [Westbrook]. They wanted [Austin] Reaves. They wanted [Max] Christie. They wanted Rui [Hachimura] in a separate. They wanted everything the Lakers had." Stein also reported that one of Nets owner Joe Tsai's goals was to send Irving somewhere other than his preferred destination: the Lakers.

If the Lakers had indeed given up everything for Irving, it's hard to imagine them putting a viable team around him, James and Davis. Perhaps the Lakers could have pried a role player or two away from the Nets—who would've needed to send out more salary just to match money on Westbrook—but it's hard to imagine they could have done much more from there. 

The 2023 buyout market was mostly a dud. The Lakers could have perhaps completed their Cavaliers reunion by signing Kevin Love, but they would have had no path to defending the perimeter, save perhaps keeping Patrick Beverley, whom they traded for Mo Bamba in reality. With so little matching salary to work with, it's hard to imagine them making any meaningful trade upgrades in the offseason. They would have needed to strike gold on the minimum market to even contend in 2024. Dallas did so by landing Derrick Jones Jr. The Lakers have never shown much aptitude towards those sorts of wings, instead largely hitting on scoring ball-handlers with their minimums during the James era. Ultimately, the Lakers can probably live with missing out on Irving at this point. They just couldn't have put together a good enough supporting cast.

If there were a moment in which it would have potentially made sense, it would have come in the 2023 offseason. It would have required some degree of sacrifice on both sides. The Lakers couldn't quite get to max cap space last offseason, but they could have created a significant amount of money. If they were willing to move off of everyone except for James, Davis and Reaves, they were looking at around $35.7 million in cap space. 

In the more likely scenarios in which they kept cheaper depth like Jarred Vanderbilt, Max Christie and the No. 17 pick, that figure would have been more like $28.9 million. Notably: if the Lakers had planned to pursue Irving with this space, it seems likely that they would have used the No. 17 pick on a win-now prospect rather than a project guard like Jalen Hood-Schifino. That means they could easily have had Jaime Jaquez, Cam Whitmore or Brandin Podziemski right now.

How close would such a contract have come to matching what Dallas gave Irving? Well, actually, the Lakers could have topped the actual number. Dallas ultimately paid Irving $120 million over three years. A four-year deal starting at $28.9 million with a maximum 5% annual raises would have come out to roughly $124 million. Of course, that extra year is meaningful. Irving will likely make more than $4 million in the 2026-27 season, so the Dallas deal, with its higher annual payments, would have been more desirable financially. 

If we start at that $35.7 million "keep Reaves, James and Davis" only figure, then things get more interesting. A four-year deal at that price point would have paid Irving $153.4 million. Dallas had full Bird Rights and the ability to outbid the Lakers if they so chose, but it's unclear if it would have been willing to reach that price. If nothing else, it would have given Irving something to think about.

Instead, the Lakers chose the conservative path. They didn't function as a cap space team at all, ultimately electing to stay above the cap and re-sign their own free agents. The results were disappointing. But it's hard to say the Lakers regret that path without knowing how it actually would have played out. Imagine the Lakers had created the cap space needed to sign Irving, only for Dallas to increase its offer to a figure they couldn't match. Perhaps they could have pursued another high-end guard like Fred VanVleet or James Harden instead, but there's no guarantee they would have landed even one of them. The Lakers may not be in a great place without Irving, but it's not as though they could have guaranteed his signature if they'd gone all out.

That is ultimately where the Lakers stand after missing out on three separate opportunities to get Irving. The stars just never quite aligned. When they absolutely could have acquired him, the cost probably would have been too high to justify it. In the moments in which he may have been a bit more affordable, it's not even clear if they could have sealed the deal. 

It's a "what if" that the Lakers will always wonder about, but not one that they should dwell on. They were never going to have the sort of deep, well-rounded contender that the Mavericks have put around Irving. The risk, ultimately, outweighed the reward.

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league's biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.