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LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the choice that haunts the Lakers

THERE ARE EXACTLY 124courtside seats inside Crypto.com Arena for every Los Angeles Lakers home game. Securing a pair of them for any game is no easy task. For corporations, they are an investment, not a luxury. For celebrities, they are the ultimate status symbol. Nobody goes to as much trouble as it takes to secure them without an agenda.

Which is why so many heads turned and cellphone cameras snapped before Game 6 of the Lakers' first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies. It was April 28, 2023. The Lakers were up three games to two and looking to advance past the first round for the first time since their championship run in the Orlando bubble in 2020. The atmosphere was electric. Eighty-six-year-old Jack Nicholson even came out for a rare public appearance to sit in the courtside seats he has held since the 1970s.

Minutes before tipoff, a man wearing a stylish, black-and-white shirt made his way to two courtside seats across from the Lakers' bench. And it didn't take long for his presence to be noticed. It was Kyrie Irving.

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During pregame warmups, Lakers star LeBron James walked over to his former teammate, dapped him up with the same intricate handshake they'd come up with in Cleveland and hugged him.

Irving lives in Los Angeles in the offseason, and he had an open calendar after the Dallas Mavericks failed to make the playoffs. But he was also about to become a free agent, and according to sources close to him, Irving had a strong interest in reuniting with James -- the man he'd won an NBA championship with as Cavaliers back in 2016 -- either in Los Angeles or Dallas.

Irving was there, sources close to him say, to send that very message.

For nearly a year, the Lakers had extended internal discussions about whether to pursue Irving via trade or free agency, sources said. They'd called the Brooklyn Nets to register interest in trading for him on several occasions since June 2022, when Irving and the Nets couldn't come to an agreement on a long-term extension. They weighed the risks of investing in the mercurial, often-controversial point guard against the benefits from his still-prodigious talent and obvious fit with James and Anthony Davis.

James was open to the idea, sources said, but careful not to do anything that would be seen as a push while the organization was still trying to extricate itself from the ill-fated experiment with Russell Westbrook.

Three weeks later, Irving showed up again -- this time for Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, a series the Lakers would lose in a sweep against the Denver Nuggets, the eventual NBA champions.

By then, though, the Lakers' choice to pursue Irving was moot. The Mavericks held his Bird rights and were determined to maintain the pairing with Luka Doncic. And the Lakers had just completed a shocking run through the Western Conference. And so within hours of the opening of free agency, Irving re-signed with the Mavs for three years and $126 million, while the Lakers prioritized continuity and adding on the margins, retaining their own free agents -- Rui Hachimura and Austin Reaves -- and acquiring guard Gabe Vincent from the Miami Heat.

At the time, the Lakers were hailed for their shrewd offseason. For their fortitude in trusting the winning mix they'd constructed at the trade deadline. For learning from the Westbrook experiment by focusing on team building, rather than star chasing.

There was internal debate on whether the team had enough speed to keep up with the fleet-footed guards in the Western Conference, but ultimately, sources said, the team decided it wasn't a concern they needed to address yet.

Seven months later, with the trade deadline now 23 days away and Davis and a 39-year-old James both healthy and playing as well as they ever have together, the impact of that choice reverberates with every loss, every whisper of frustration with lineup inconsistencies, every game in which the Lakers are outshot or run off the floor.

Irving, for his part, has avoided the off-court incidents that derailed his time in Brooklyn and gave pause to teams considering a long-term commitment to him. He has regained his stature as one of the best point guards in the NBA as he leads the Mavericks (24-17) into Wednesday's game (ABC, 8:30 p.m. ET) at the Lakers (20-21), while James & Co. have struggled to find consistent point guard play all season and sit just one game better than they were at this juncture last year.

"I don't think I blame [the Lakers] for doing what they did," a Western Conference executive told ESPN. "Kyrie hadn't proven he could be stable, like he has been this season. [And] LeBron is simultaneously the most life-giving player to an organization but also the ultimate force-multiplier who totally makes you believe you are better than you are because he just makes everything work."

The Los Angeles Lakers, sources said, had numerous internal discussions to reunite LeBron James with his former teammate Kyrie Irving. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL question the Lakers must address as they pass the halfway point on this season and evaluate their team in advance of the Feb. 8 trade deadline is this: Was last year's playoff run a James-fueled mirage?

The most significant personnel change from last year's group was swapping Dennis Schroder for Vincent at point guard -- a move that, according to sources, was as much about Schroder looking for a larger role as it was the Lakers' preference for Vincent's shooting and space-creating ability.

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Vincent has missed all but five games with a knee injury, while Schroder has thrived with the Toronto Raptors.

What's indisputable, though, is the historic burden James is carrying.

Since Dec. 12 and the Lakers' in-season tournament victory to claim the first NBA Cup, James has brought the ball up the floor 30.6 possessions per game -- 50% more than he did in L.A.'s first 23 games. His touches per game: up nearly 20%. His passes per game: up 23%. His minutes per game: up more than 8%, up to 36 per game.

But the Lakers are losing James' minutes by a wide margin over this span, outscored by 118 points when James is on the floor. It is his worst plus-minus over a 15-game stretch since joining the Lakers.

"It's just too much on Bron right now," one rival player whose team recently defeated the Lakers told ESPN. "Everyone is just going to pack the paint and try to frustrate him because they need a lot. Speed. Playmaking. Shooting."

All areas in which Irving excels.

James and Irving won the 2016 NBA Finals with the Cleveland Cavaliers. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

FOR THOSE WHO watched the way Irving and James' tenure ended in Cleveland, it might be hard to envision a reunion. Irving asked for a trade following the 2017 campaign, ostensibly to prove he could lead his own team -- and leave town before James had a chance to depart as a free agent the following season.

It was one of the more shocking trade requests in recent NBA history, following a run of three consecutive NBA Finals appearances together.

"Kyrie and LeBron were not as toxic as Shaq [O'Neal] and Kobe [Bryant], but there's a lot of similarities," one source close to the situation told ESPN. "Kobe wanted to prove he could win without Shaq. And he did. But you always wonder what would've happened if they'd stayed together. Just like you wonder what would've happened if [Stephon] Marbury and [Kevin] Garnett would've stayed together."

Another source close to both players points to an emotional players-only meeting in the locker room following Game 5 of the 2017 Finals in which James and Irving talked at length, not only about the season they'd just played but a shared vision for the future that included trading for then-Indiana Pacers swingman Paul George.

George told ESPN that he and James had dinner at James' house in Los Angeles following the 2017 season and discussed a potential partnership.

There were several iterations of trade discussions, first in advance of the NBA draft by former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, then by current Cleveland GM Koby Altman, who took over when Griffin left.

FridayNuggets at Celtics, 7:30 p.m.Nets at Lakers, 10:30 p.m.

WednesdaySuns at Mavericks, 8:30 p.m. (ABC)Thunder at Spurs, 9:30 p.m.

All times Eastern

Ultimately those discussions, which included the Nuggets, Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns, stalled over an unprotected first-round pick, which the Cavaliers refused to include without a long-term commitment by James.

George was subsequently traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then Irving asked for a trade and was sent to the Boston Celtics. A year later, James signed with the Lakers.

It is one of the great sliding-doors moments in recent NBA history. And it comes up every time James and Irving play against each other, rather than with each other.

Outside of an All-Star Game, that's likely the way it will stay between James and Irving.

By all accounts, Irving is happy in Dallas and with the way he has been received.

Meanwhile, the Lakers are 6-12 since the in-season tournament concluded. They've been outscored by 94 points over that span when both James and Davis are on the floor. LeBron is shooting 11 percentage points less on layups and dunks. The Lakers' offense ranks 29th in average speed and 28th in the average time walking or standing still, per Second Spectrum tracking.

The choice to run it back, the fog of surprising success, has led to a most precarious moment -- one that could determine both the short- and long-term future of the franchise.

James and the Lakers will look to improve at the trade deadline once again, but they have few pathways to meaningfully reconstruct the roster.

All that's left is a shared history and an endless list of what-ifs.

    

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