Kyrie Irving’s shadow looms over the Lakers after the team made bizarre moves to open the NBA’s free hand

An idealized 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers roster needed three things centered around LeBron James and Anthony Davis: shooting, defense, and proven playoff fitness. Less than a day into free agency, the Lakers have filled all but two of their available roster spots, but to say they’ve addressed any of those needs would be premature at best.

Lonnie Walker IV, who will sign with the taxpayer mid-level exemption, shot just 31.4 percent from behind the arc last season. The three remaining deals were for Troy Brown Jr., Juan Toscano-Anderson and Damian Jones – three players who combined for just 85 3-pointers last season. That’s just six more than Russell Westbrook earned alone.

On most important metrics, only Toscano-Anderson ranks as defensively above average. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR and DunksAndThrees’ EPM both disapprove of the non-Toscano Anderson trio, and ESPN’s Real Plus minus is even more scathing, ranking Walker 119th among 123 qualified defensive shooting guards and Jones 64th among qualified centers.

Together they played a total of 147 playoff minutes in their careers. For comparison, the last time a limping LeBron James was in the playoffs in 2021, he played 220 minutes in a single series against the Phoenix Suns. Toscano-Anderson and Jones were both on Warriors championship teams. No one could give them rotating roles.

In other words…little of what the Lakers did on day one of the free hand still makes much sense. Her only spending instrument above minimum salary was the mid-level exception and she’s gone. So are 13 of her 15 total roster slots and her two two-way slots. However, not a single important need was addressed. So what’s up?

The obvious perspective here is that the Lakers are overcorrecting. Last year’s roster was the oldest in the NBA. It has been as slow as it is injury-prone and the infusion of youth and athleticism that these signings bring could solve those problems. There is some truth to that, especially given the leap Malik Monk made last season.

The Lakers are certainly hoping one or two of those players can grow in a similar fashion in a roster built around James and Anthony Davis. It’s not bad logic. Walker has great physical tools and a wingspan of 6-10. A defensive improvement is quite plausible. Jones is coming off his best season as a pro and doing so on a bizarrely constructed Kings roster. His role is being clarified with these Lakers. Toscano-Anderson also arguably has more to offer than the Warriors were given last season. It’s not his fault he played on a $376 million team. The Warriors were too deep to rely on him in the playoffs. The Lakers aren’t. You’re not going to hit four homers here, but if just one of these players shows up like Monk, you’ve got yourself a serious bargain.

But Monk was a steal, too, and the Lakers still missed the playoffs. The goal of the offseason isn’t to hit oil a few times, but to build a complete and cohesive roster. The Lakers don’t have one. You bet they can still piece one together. Dave McMenamin reported after the excitement that the team’s next priority was shooting. It’s not hard to figure out where that might be coming from.

Plug Kyrie Irving into that list and suddenly things make a little more sense. That’s especially true given the $10 million gap between his salary and Russell Westbrook’s. Could one of Brooklyn’s backup shooters fill that void? Perhaps the tax the Nets will have to pay to secure maximum draft capital from the Lakers is either Joe Harris or Seth Curry.

Irving alone sets the geometry of the ground for the Lakers. Suddenly, you can get away with two big lineups with Jones or significant on-ball opportunities for Walker (or Talen Horton-Tucker) because Westbrook’s defenseman doesn’t plug the paint for them. Perhaps Toscano-Anderson or Stanley Johnson can get away with playing starting minutes as a limited offensive option because their defense complements an unstoppable offensive trio. Irving’s postseason credentials need no explanation. He made a final clinch shot.

Irving doesn’t solve every problem. Those final squad spots should probably go to more experienced players. Aside from the theoretical big three of James, Davis, and Irving, not a single Laker has proven capable of earning a spot on the playoff rotation. That makes it imperative to take advantage of the pay gap between Irving and Westbrook to bring on another player of some value. But the outline of a sensible roster is beginning to form.

Walker and Horton-Tucker could compete for the role of “downhill attacker with a defensive advantage.” Johnson and Toscano-Anderson would battle for forward minutes. Another center will likely be added to play the minutes Jones isn’t playing, although Davis will also play a center. Kendrick Nunn is your backup point guard. Austin Reaves gets real minutes as a shooting guard.

Anyone who doesn’t win a rotation slot becomes deadline fodder. The 2022 Lakers were extremely limited traders because they had almost no salary to match. But adding Walker at $6.5 million while keeping Horton-Tucker and Nunn at mid-level salaries and potentially bringing in another player from the nets gives them a little more flexibility to improve mid-season . If minutes are available, the buyout market should be friendly as well.

It’s by no means a perfect roster. Defense remains problematic in almost every construction. But with Irving on board, the basic plan suddenly makes sense: Your star trio are so talented and so well-matched that you can afford to play in the other roster spots, knowing you can keep the ones that work , and those who don’t can swap ‘t. It’s a risky approach to roster building, but given where the Lakers are starting out, there simply wasn’t a cleaner option. The players the Lakers signed don’t make sense alongside Westbrook, but not many players do in 2022, and those who could didn’t come to Los Angeles for $6.5 million.

This doesn’t even come close to guaranteeing an Irving trade. Two days ago, such a deal seemed impossible. There’s still no telling how much draft capital — if any — the Lakers are willing to surrender for a player the rest of the league doesn’t seem to want, and if anyone else participates in the bid, chances are, that they have more to offer than the Lakers.

But there’s really only two ways to rationalize the moves the Lakers made Thursday. They might have added youth for youth’s sake. Considering how old James and Westbrook are, getting younger around them isn’t the worst idea, and maybe even more relevant after they’re gone. But when they added youth in hopes of bolstering current veteran talent, they made it pretty bizarre from a reasonable perspective. The players they’ve brought only make sense as more moves come along, and Irving is the only possible addition big enough to push the rest of these underdog roleplayers into their place.