Will the Lakers get Kyrie Irving? NBA scouts and team executives are torn
Rob Pelinka couldn’t directly address any of the rumors about his team during a television appearance Friday night in Las Vegas.
He did, however, make it clear that the Lakers aren’t done.
“We still have more work to do,” he said during the fourth quarter of an NBA Summer League game.
What the Lakers have done and what they have left to do was a frequent topic of conversations over the first weekend of Summer League.
It started Friday night when LeBron James and Russell Westbrook attended the Lakers’ opening game in Las Vegas where the two stars never acknowledged each other. The awkwardness became the story of the game, with people still talking about it Sunday when the Lakers played again.
Once upon a time the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook bet was a sign of hope. Then the reality of an aging roster, and injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, set in.
Rival scouts and executives, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are split on whether the Lakers can pull off a deal for Irving, with James’ looming deadline for a contract extension in early August viewed as a key date.
One league insider pointed to the Lakers’ current salary-cap sheets — Anthony Davis is the lone player signed beyond this season who’s a significant investment, though Talen Horton-Tucker has an $11-million player option he can exercise next offseason. The lack of long-term money on the books speaks to the team’s desire to keep flexible as James and Davis age.
That could mean pivoting out of their current star-driven state — three players in Westbrook, James and Davis swallowing all of the team’s salary-cap space. Or it could leave the door open for simply some re-casting, perhaps with Irving, alongside James and Davis.
Most league insiders felt any potential Irving-to-Los Angeles deal would be on hold until the Nets trade Kevin Durant. And with the asking price incredibly high for the 33-year-old 12-time All-Star, if and when a Durant deal gets done is anyone’s guess.
If the Lakers do move onto other targets — Buddy Hield and Eric Gordon are the most mentioned names — that too could require the team to ship away more first-round draft picks.
The general sense among scouts and league executives is that the Lakers, thus far, have done fine in free agency considering their constraints.
“I really like what they did compared to last year,” one Eastern Conference team executive said.
The most divisive decision has been the team using their biggest free-agency expense, the taxpayer mid-level exception, on guard Lonnie Walker IV.
Critics pointed to his inconsistencies from behind the three-point line when he played for San Antonio.
“How haven’t teams figured out by now that you need to surround LeBron with shooters?” one NBA insider wondered.
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Defenders of the decision to sign Walker point to last season’s 31.4-% shooting from deep as an anomaly. Scouts have raved about his athleticism and character, though there have been questions about his decision-making on both sides of the ball.
One former NBA head coach said that he thought Walker could be an explosive scorer off the bench for the Lakers, replacing some of the production the team got from Malik Monk last year.
Another league insider pointed to the lack of shooting, in general, in this free-agency class within the team’s price range. Guard Donte DiVincenzo, who has only a slightly better career three-point percentage than Walker, was considered but eventually bypassed because of injury concerns. He signed with the Golden State Warriors for $4.5 million.
The Lakers have gotten high marks around the league for getting Damian Jones and Thomas Bryant to sign minimum deals to play center. An insider who worked with Jones last season in Sacramento said he viewed him as an improving player despite being a six-season veteran. Bryant’s offensive value alongside a healthy Davis should give the Lakers a little spacing with plenty of upside coming off of a serious knee injury two seasons ago.
Similarly, Juan Toscano-Anderson’s toughness and attitude have tremendous support in league circles, though some worry about diminishing athleticism. Still, as a willing defender, they viewed the signing positively.
Troy Brown Jr. has gotten some mixed reviews from scouts and executives, with the concerns centered around his readiness for a large role, especially on a team with high expectations. Brown did shoot close to 38% from three-point range after Christmas last season and his fans believe he’s the type of player who can help a team win because of his versatility.
“I have a little love for Troy,” one scout said. “Knows how to play. Jack-of-all-trades, master of none. Worried about his shooting, but a pretty good [minimum-contract] player. Size, length, plays both ends. I like that move.”
As far as the Lakers’ rookies, point guard Scotty Pippen Jr. has impressed scouts with his defensive tenacity, one scout compared him to New Orleans guard Jose Alvarado. Cole Swider’s shooting has been as good as advertised, but defensively he has a lot of work to do, and second-round pick Max Christie is seen as a long-term project who needs to find his shooting touch, though his defensive willingness and rebounding ability have looked good in Summer League.
“Just wait until he goes up against NBA bodies,” one scout skeptically said.
The Lakers are armed, currently, with one empty roster spot, though they can create a second by waiving forward Wenyen Gabriel. They can only use their veteran’s minimum exceptions to sign players.
Trades are still a possibility — Horton-Tucker’s contract makes him a likely part of any deal of significance that doesn’t include Westbrook. And if Westbrook is back — still a sizable if — one source believes the Lakers’ success would still come down to him.
“I still think it comes down to Russ,” the insider said. “AD and LeBron can’t carry them the whole way. Russ needs to give starter-level production and they need guys who are going to outplay their contracts. I think Lonnie, Troy and Thomas Bryant have the chance to do that and be good role players for them.”
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