Proposed ‘Nuclear Option’ Trade Lands Lakers Former All-Star & $96 Million Guard

Rob Pelinka, Lakers general manager, with Russell Westbrook

Getty Rob Pelinka, Lakers general manager, with Russell Westbrook

As the early segment of NBA free agency trudges onward, rumors about the Lakers potentially bringing in star point guard Kyrie Irving from Brooklyn continue to swirl. But would the addition of the notably flighty Irving be the best thing for the franchise?

Not necessarily. Irving, of course, missed much of last season because of his refusal to accept the Covid-19 vaccine, which would have left him in violation of New York City’s mandate if he had taken the floor in Brooklyn’s home games. The previous season, he disappeared on the Nets and stayed away for two weeks in January for a mental health break.

While the Irving-to-L.A. train has gained significant steam, one Western Conference executive said the Lakers would be better off looking elsewhere in converting the expiring contract of Russell Westbrook into useful roster players—starters, even—next season.

“If I were them, I would have focused on the Hornets a long time ago,” the exec said. “They have money they want to get rid of. It seems like that is maybe the nuclear option for the Lakers but there is a lot of upside in adding that kind of depth.”

Lakers Need Depth of Talent

The kind of depth the Hornets can offer starts with Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier. As it stands, to make a legal NBA trade with matching salaries, the Lakers could simply trade Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker to Charlotte for Hayward and Rozier.

The Lakers would be winning the talent portion of that deal, but the Hornets would get the savings they are looking for, offloading the final two years and $61 million of Hayward’s contract and the four years and $96 million owed to Rozier. That’s a lot of money to dump, and with Westbrook on an expiring deal while THT has two affordable years ($22 million total) remaining, the Lakers could do a straight two-for-two trade and insist on not giving the Hornets any picks.

“You can make a deal for Kyrie,” the executive said. “But with the way the injuries have gone there with the Lakers, and the age of LeBron, the history of (Anthony Davis), I would want to get back multiple pieces. Hayward can play the 2, 3 and 4. Rozier can play 2 or 1. You are adding flexibility. You’re taking on money but you’ve got better pieces that fit what you might want to do. Mitch (Kupchak, former Lakers player and executive) still is a little frosty with the Lakers but I am still calling him every day if I am the Lakers.”

Hayward, for one, has had a series of injury issues over the years that would be a concern. Hayward dislocated his ankle five minutes into the 2017-18 season and has barely been healthy since. He played 72 games in his first year following that injury, but then played 52, 44 and 49 games in the following three seasons. Sprained ligaments in his left foot knocked him out last year.

Hornets Have Murky Future

Charlotte’s future was thrown into some doubt with the domestic violence allegation against star forward Miles Bridges this week. The team could look to dismantle some win-now pieces in favor of cutting costs and looking toward the future.

Westbrook would allow the Hornets to clear out cap room after this year. Horton-Tucker could be a complementary piece alongside star guard LaMelo Ball, who will surely command a big payday in the next two years.

There has been much focus placed on Irving and the Lakers. But that might not be wise. “If you can take advantage of Charlotte, I think that’s what you ought to be doing,” the exec said.

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