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Lakers newsletter: Why LeBron James would still love to reunite with Kyrie Irving

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James, left, and Kyrie Irving play the Los Angeles Lakers in 2017.
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)
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Hey everyone, it’s Dan Woike of the L.A. Times, and welcome to the Lakers newsletter, my weekly-ish opportunity to rant and rave about whatever I want and no one, not even you, can stop me. Well, technically you could by unsubscribing. But you wouldn’t do that. Right? I’m sorry for even suggesting it. It was a mistake on my part. OK, fine. I’ll give you what you want.

Let’s talk about Kyrie Irving and LeBron James

“Here, you guys,” he said. “Let’s have a toast. I want to propose a toast. A toast to love. To true love,” Mel said.

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We touched glasses.

“To love,” we said.

That passage is from Raymond Carver’s iconic short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” two couples sitting around a table as day turns to night, drinking gin and tonics, trying to define one of the definitive human emotions.

It’s maybe my favorite piece of fiction writing ever. Maybe I first read it in high school or later in college, but something about the story will occasionally pop into my brain, just like it did today when I opened up my computer, flipped on some music and sat to try write this thing.

Carver came to mind for me at the end of the latest episode of the “Mind The Game” podcast, the LeBron James-JJ Redick project that began as a celebration of basketball geekery and evolved into a meta state-of-the-Lakers-coaching-search Easter egg hunt, at least until the Dan Hurley news.

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Anyways, at the end of this episode, 55 minutes into an hourlong conversation about the upcoming Celtics-Mavericks NBA Finals, Redick brings up Kyrie Irving, causing James to try to explain his basketball love for his former teammate, the one who got away, and the one who he hasn’t (at least yet) been able to reunite with on the floor.

“What’s your favorite thing about Kyrie the basketball player?” Redick asked.

“I would call Kyrie ‘The Wizard’ all the time. Like, all the time. There was nothing on the basketball floor that Kyrie couldn’t do,” James responded. “And sitting here watching it, you know, I’m like … so happy and so proud to watch him continue his growth and whatever … but I’m also so ... mad at the same time that I’m not his running mate anymore. So I’m like … I just remember those times. …To have a guy like Kyrie Irving as the ultimate wild card. It’s like having a Draw 4 in your hand every time someone deals you cards in Uno. Like every single time.

“I have so many words to praise Kyrie that I end up with absolutely none. It’s just…. It’s so.... He’s the most gifted player the NBA has ever seen.”

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It’s powerful praise — I mean, the list of people in my life who would stack compliments like that about me is pretty short. And it makes sense (not that people wouldn’t be so nice about me, but, well, OK, that makes sense too).

Doc Rivers used to say that winning a title next to someone is like undergoing a blood transfusion, bonding you to your teammates for life in ways that can be understood only after accomplishing the ultimate goal. And for James, winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers was the original NBA goal. He couldn’t do it before Kyrie. He didn’t do it after Irving asked out of Cleveland a year before James left for Los Angeles.

The Lakers, of course, have considered Irving as a trade target multiple times since James signed with the team. Before the 2022 season, Irving-to-the-Lakers in a sign-and-trade seemed like a possibility for a couple of days until it became clear the Nets wouldn’t take back Russell Westbrook in that deal. And while there were some brief discussions about Irving taking a severe pay cut to come to the Lakers, that never came close to materializing.

Then, when Irving requested a trade ahead of the 2023 deadline, there was another round of talks with James even publicly supporting Irving’s acquisition.

But, as The Times reported then, there were concerns about the kind of contract he wanted with the Lakers — in addition to the Brooklyn Nets asking price of Max Christie, Austin Reaves and the bulk of the Lakers’ available draft compensation.

Privately, there was concern among Lakers’ executives about Irving’s effect on the team’s fan base. He had, very publicly, declined to get the COVD-19 vaccine, limiting his availability in the league’s first post-pandemic season. And, more importantly in this context, Irving shared a link to an antisemitic movie on his social media account. He was eventually suspended by the Nets for eight games.

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All of the factors — the contract, the trade costs, the off-court issues, the on-court unreliability — probably contributed to the end result. The Dallas Mavericks traded for Irving. The Lakers moved on. And after some growing pains between him and Luka Doncic last season in their first months together, the team has been terrific this postseason, Irving has been incredibly reliable, and the Mavericks entered the Finals with a reasonable chance to upset Boston. They still have one after getting run in Game 1.

Basically, all of this is to say the Lakers had their reasons for passing.

And James has his reasons for still pining.

Irving, for his part, has the kind of game that does fit with anyone. He’s an ace shooter, creative with the ball, competitive enough without it. He’s a genius passer. And he can fit in and win alongside ball-dominant stars who, like James and Doncic, deserve a higher volume of possessions.

Who knows what the future holds for these two? James, of course, could surprise everyone and take a $40-plus million pay cut and say “I’ll make it work in Dallas.” In the darkest times over the last two seasons, the Mavericks lingered as a potential landing spot should James want to move on (something he’s yet to show any real desire of doing). The Lakers could, of course, re-engage on a deal should Irving force the issue next season or wait for Irving’s player option in 2025.

But like those people around the table in Carver’s story, any examination of the past has to leave James and Irving with complex feelings. There’s got to be the warmth of nostalgia, the bitterness of the fracture and the understanding that’s come from personal growth since their time in Cleveland.

And there has to be the desire to try it again, one more time, to capitalize on the capstone of James’ career, that title in Cleveland for Cleveland.

This week was just the latest reminder of that. It won’t be the last.

It’s just the thing we’re going to talk about when we talk about LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.

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Song of the week

Freebird II” by the Parquet Courts

“Every step I’ve strayed from and followed led me to the same location,” Andrew Savage sings in this beautifully sad song about addiction (I think?). I love this band and its basketball-related name despite them not being from Boston. And I love this song.

In case you missed it

Who is Dan Hurley? Everything you need to know about the Lakers coaching candidate

Plaschke: Hurley up! The Lakers need to hire UConn champ Dan Hurley now

In a stunner, Lakers set to pursue UConn’s Dan Hurley for head coaching position

Plaschke: Who will draft Bronny James? The Lakers should just say no

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Until next time...

As always, pass along your thoughts to me at daniel.woike@latimes.com, and please consider subscribing if you like our work!

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