Sorry, Laker Fans: Kyrie Opts to the Final Year of his Contract With Brooklyn

Who were the Nets trying to fool here with this leak? This is like the old, “You can’t fire me because I quit!” line.

This is nothing but cope and rationalization from the Nets.

They’re trying to make it seem like they not only don’t care if they lose KD and Kyrie, but that they want them gone, which is nonsense.

They never expected all this to happen.

For a minute there today, it was really starting to look like the Nets would lose James Harden, Kyrie and Kevin Durant all within a span of 6 months. But now it looks like Kyrie and KD are staying in Brooklyn–at least for this upcoming season.

Imagine what a disaster this would’ve been for the Nets: they gave up Jarrett Allen, Caris LeVert and three first round picks (2022, 2024, 2026) along with 4 pick swaps (2021, 2023, 2025, 2027) for Harden. They did get back a 2022 first round pick for Harden when they sent him to Philly (they deferred the pick to 2023) and a top-8 protected pick for 2027, but if the Sixers are good next year, that first round pick the Nets have of theirs isn’t worth a whole lot.

And if the Nets had lost Kyrie and KD this offseason, they would’ve been horrible going into 2023 and beyond, meaning the teams that possess the rights to swap picks with them over the next 5 years (as well as the teams that outright own their first round picks in 2024 and 2026) would be sitting on gold. For the Rockets, it would’ve been a dream come true. And the Nets would’ve been in a position where they sold out their future for guys who promptly bolted within 18 months of the Harden trade.

It would have been an utter disaster for the Nets. Probably even worse than their infamous trade with Boston in 2013 for Paul Pierce and KG. They would have been a rebuilding team without any draft picks or, really, any significant tradeable assets to speak of–unless you consider Ben Simmons a tradeable asset, which I do not. Let’s see the guy actually play basketball first.

The Nets dodged a MAJOR bullet today. But they are absolutely not out of the woods at all.

Let’s just review some of the news that broke leading up to Kyrie’s opt-in:

  • A story emerged this morning that the Nets had given Kyrie permission to seek a sign-and-trade.
  • Then, another story popped up from Woj that the Lakers were the only team out there actively trying to pull off a sign-and-trade for Kyrie Irving. They’re the only team that was interested. So if the Nets wanted to trade Kyrie Irving, the Lakers were the only team willing to play ball.
    • The idea of Kyrie to the Miami Heat always sounded idiotic to me. There’s no way Pat Riley and the Heat Culture would go after Kyrie.
  • And finally: sources close to Kyrie thought it was increasingly likely he opted out of his contract and signed a Taxpayer Mid-level Exception contract with the Lakers.

Then news broke that Kyrie will opt in to the final year of his contract and get his $37 million.

This shouldn’t really be a surprise. I mean, come on–he was not going to take a $31 million pay cut just to avoid playing in Brooklyn for one additional season. He would have to be so completely at odds with and so offended by the Nets organization if he were to sacrifice $31 million just to get the hell out of there ASAP.

The reality is, he tried to get a sign and trade to happen, but the Nets declined the Lakers’ offer. The Nets, unsurprisingly, did not want to trade Kyrie and Patty Mills for Russell Westbrook. Nobody should be shocked by that. And so Kyrie was left with the choice of exercising his player option to make $37 million and play for the Nets, or opting out and signing a $6.3 million MLE contract with the Lakers. Unsurprisingly, he chose $37 million.

The Nets called his bluff. They knew he wasn’t going to opt out and leave $31 million on the table.

But the Nets really had no choice. Had they agreed to trade Kyrie to the Lakers, then KD almost certainly would’ve demanded a trade immediately. And then the Nets would have Russell Westbrook (albeit on the final year of his deal) and Ben Simmons, a guy who may be one of the biggest headcases the NBA has ever seen in quite some time. Who knows if the guy even wants to play basketball anymore?

So the Nets had to call Kyrie’s bluff. They really had no choice. Their choices were: call Kyrie’s bluff and risk him leaving for the Lakers (and then KD probably demanding a trade), or trade Kyrie to the Lakers and then KD demands a trade. You have to call Kyrie’s bluff if you’re the Nets.

Of course, a situation like this certainly doesn’t set Kyrie, KD and the Nets up for long-term success. It feels like the two sides will merely tolerate each other for another year and things will really blow up next summer (assuming the Nets don’t win the Title next season). But it feels settled for now.

Now, the obvious question would be: couldn’t Kyrie have signed with some other team–besides the Lakers–for a lot more money if he opted out? I mean, he would’ve been an unrestricted free agent, right?

Yes, that’s technically true, he would’ve been, but the reality is, his options on the free agency market would’ve been very limited. This just wasn’t one of those offseasons where teams were freeing up cap space in advance. The only teams with cap space right now are the Magic, Pistons, Spurs and Pacers, and Kyrie probably didn’t want to sign with any of those teams.

However, with the opt-in, it means Kyrie won’t be signing the max extension–at least for a little while. This is now the final year of his contract with the Nets, and he’ll be an unrestricted free agent at this time next year. That happens to coincide with Russell Westbrook’s contract expiring, so in the event the Lakers are not able to trade him this offseason, and if they just keep him around for the 2023 season and see how it goes, then he’ll be completely off the books a year from now. And the Lakers will then have enough cap space to sign Kyrie to a max deal.

So it’s possible Kyrie’s plan is to bite the bullet, tough out one more season in Brooklyn, and then look at his options as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2023–including the Lakers.

Once the Westbrook contract is off the books, that frees up a ton of cap space to use to sign Kyrie, although at that point the Lakers will probably already have ~$90 million committed to LeBron and AD. I’m really not a cap expert so I don’t know how this would work, but I do know the Warriors have like 4 max deals on their team (Steph, Klay, Draymond, Wiggins) and somehow that’s all kosher.

That’s nice and all, but Laker fans are probably crushed that they’re now staring at one more year of this:

Lakers fans should not have gotten their hopes up that Kyrie was coming for the mid-level exception. I mean really? Did they actually expect him to walk away from $31 million? And if not that, did Laker fans really expect the Nets to trade Kyrie for Westbrook, especially with KD in Brooklyn?

But at the same time, I understand why the Lakers fans were so hopeful: they wanted to believe they were about to get bailed out of the Westbrook situation.

Russ was so bad last season. Just unbelievably bad.

In fact, I don’t think I ever really did a deep dive into how bad he was. But I’m going to do it now. The Finals are over, and there’s really not much else to talk about but the NBA offseason and the upcoming NFL season.

So let’s look at Russell Westbrook’s horrific 2022 season with the Lakers.

  • Westbrook had a plus/minus for the season of -4.3 per 100 possessions. That means the Lakers were 4.3 points worse than their opponents with Westbrook on the floor per 100 possessions. Among the 228 qualifying players, he ranked 180th. That’s below the median, obviously, and it was Westbrook’s worse plus/minus in a season since his rookie year. Over his career, he is a +3.9 average on court, and last year, he was -4.3, meaning he was 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse than his career average. Truly awful.
    • His on/off split, meaning the difference from when he was on the court vs. when he was off it, was -3.6, meaning the Lakers were actually -0.7 points per 100 worse with him off the court than with him on it, but that does not mean much. The Lakers were horrible with Russ on the court, and even worse with him off it, essentially.
    • As far as starting point guards go, Russ was far, far worse than pretty much all of them. You look at playoff-caliber starting point guards, like Jrue Holiday (+14.0 on/off split), Darius Garland (+12.0), Steph Curry (+10.0), Chris Paul (+5.4), Marcus Smart (+4.7), Trae Young (+3.4), Mike Conley (+3.3), D’Angelo Russell (+3.2), Kyle Lowry (+2.1)–Russ doesn’t even come close to them. Even guys like Immanuel Quickley (+13.8), Monte Morris (+8.1), De’Aaron Fox (+2.0) and LaMelo Ball (+1.7) were better than Russ in terms of on/off plus/minus.
  • Somehow, Russ shot above his career average in field goal percentage (44.4% in 2022 vs. 43.8% career average) overall. But his three point shooting (29.8%) was below his already bad career average of 30.5%. This is probably because he had 64% of his made field goals assisted, which is the third-highest figure of his career behind 2020, when he was with Harden on the Rockets, and his second year in the league, 2010.
  • Russ had his shot blocked 82 times last season, which was the 13th most in the league. Now, this in and of itself does not tell you a player is bad, because there are lot of undeniably good players who had their shots blocked just as many times as Russ did and even more–for example, Embiid got blocked 82 times as well, Ja Morant got blocked 95 times, and Jaylen Brown got blocked 96 times. But compared to those two, Russ averaged 15.8 field goal attempts per game, while Ja averaged 20.6, Brown averaged 18.4, and Embiid averaged 19.6. So Russ’ shots were getting blocked at a much higher frequency than a lot of these other players.
  • Russ had the 2nd-most bad passes thrown in the league with 190, behind only Trae Young’s 221. These are bad passes that resulted in turnovers. Also in the top-5 with him and Trae Young were Luka Doncic, James Harden and Nikola Jokic. The difference was that Westbrook only averaged 18.5 points per game, while Trae averaged 28.4, Luka averaged 28.4 as well, Harden averaged 22.0 and Jokic averaged 27.1. Plus, all four of those other guys still maintained assist rates (meaning the percentage of their team’s baskets they assisted on while on the floor) of over 40%, while Russ was only at 31.6%–still good, but not when you’re turning the ball over that much with bad passes.
    • If we break this down by “Assist-to-Bad Pass Ratio,” Russ was terrible. Russ only averaged 2.9 assists for every bad pass turnover, and if you look at how that compares other point guards who Russ is supposed to be comparable to, he’s way behind.
  • Russ also had 67 “lost ball” turnovers, which was tied for the 9th-most in the league. Guys like Giannis, Jokic, Harden, Embiid and Tatum had more (Embiid had the most with 83), but again, Russ wasn’t anywhere near as productive as those guys. You’re fine with it when it comes to those other guys because they do so much more other stuff that’s positive and helps their teams win. Russ, on the other hand, was not nearly as productive as those guys, yet he turned the ball over just as much as they did.
  • Now for the grand finale: Jason Reed of LakeShowLife crunched some numbers and found that, of all 670 players in NBA history to average at least 32 minutes per game in a season and post a usage rate of at least 27% (equal to what Russ averaged in 2022), Russ’ -2.2 Box Plus/Minus (BPM) ranks 7th worst. Out of 670 players, he ranked 663rd. He was historically bad in 2022 for a guy who got major minutes and handled the ball as much as he did.

But it looks like the Lakers are probably stuck with him. John Wall just got bought out by the Rockets, giving back $6.5 million in the deal out of the $47 million he’s owed for 2022, and he’s going to sign with the Clippers, likely for the MLE.

Now, I don’t exactly know how the buyout market works–I’ve tried to find articles spelling it out in specific terms, but I haven’t had any luck. I don’t know why the Rockets can just buy out Wall and get rid of him but the Lakers can’t do the same with Westbrook, who is owed about the same as Wall and is also going into the last year of his contract. Presumably the Rockets will still be paying Wall the $40 mil or so million he’s owed once the buyout is complete–hence the name “buyout.” I’m just guessing here, but I think the Rockets are willing to pay Wall ~$40 million not to play is because they know they’re not going to compete next year and they have a bunch of cheap young guys they want to get on the floor. Plus, they’ve basically been paying him not to play for the past 1.5 seasons as it is.

What I don’t know is if the buyout works the same way the “waive and stretch” provision works: where you waive a player and then break up the remaining money you owe him over the next several seasons. Like, if the Lakers were to waive and stretch Westbrook, he’d be off the team, he’d have to give them back a certain amount of the $47 million owed to him (because he’s going to go sign with another team and play for them, so the money he’s getting from the other team would be subtracted from what the Lakers owe him–say $6 million if he takes the MLE from somebody else), and then the Lakers would pay the remainder over the next three seasons. It would be like $13.3 million or so a year.

But I don’t know if the buyout is paid out all in one year, and it’s different from the waive and stretch (which is paid out over multiple years) in that regard. I’m assuming that’s the difference, but I don’t know for sure.

Regardless, it makes sense for the Lakers to keep this option available to them, even if they wait until the middle of the season to do it. You give Darvin Ham a chance to turn Russ’ career around, and if it works, then that’s great. But if it doesn’t work, then you just buy out the remainder of Russ’ contract–pay him to not play for you–and let him go somewhere else. I’m assuming the Lakers are waiting to do this because they haven’t given up on trying to find a trade partner for him, which they see as preferable to just paying him to not play for them. At least with a trade you get something in return; buying him out gets you nothing.

There’s always the remote chance that Russ decides not to opt in to the last year of his contract. If he really was so disillusioned with the Lakers and Laker fans that he’d willingly forgo $47 million to become a free agent and sign a new contract with a new team worth…. I don’t even know, actually. $6 million? The midlevel exception? I have no idea what Russell Westbrook’s value on the open market is, honestly. He might not even have any teams interested in him. If not for his player option, he could well have been playing in Turkey next season. I really do think that unless he’s willing to change his style of play and take a reduced role, he might not have a spot in the NBA once this deal runs out.

Which is why I see almost no chance of him actually opting out of his contract. But I do think the Lakers will probably buy him out mid-season if things just aren’t working.

There’s always the chance some team like the Hornets, or maybe even the Thunder, come in and take Westbrook off the Lakers’ hands. But I wouldn’t count on it. I think the Lakers–and Laker fans on Twitter–may have to come to grips with the fact that Russ will be there another year.

The LeBron Factor: Now, there’s one additional aspect to this whole situation that I haven’t really addressed. It’s LeBron’s contract. He can sign an extension with the Lakers in August, but the expectation is that he’s not a lock to do so. The Lakers front office spent most of the past 6 months throwing LeBron and Klutch under the bus in order to avoid blame for the disastrous Westbrook trade.

We, the general public, will never know the truth about who exactly originated the Westbrook trade. But LeBron does. And if the Laker front office is lying on LeBron’s name, I can’t imagine he’s very happy about that and is gung-ho about hitching his wagon to the Lakers for the next several years.

Plus, there’s the fact that Russell Westbrook is about to be making $47mil next year–the third-largest cap hit in the NBA behind Steph Curry and James Harden. There’s an outside chance that, assuming Russ opts in to his contract (he has until Wednesday to do so), LeBron just doesn’t want to play his 20th NBA season on a Lakers team that is paying Russell Westbrook $47 million–plus, AD does not have a great track record of staying healthy as of late. Does LeBron really want to waste another season with this Lakers roster? Who else is there beyond AD and Russ, even? Kendrick Nunn? Austin Reaves? Stanley Johnson? Those are nice players, but if Russ is as bad as he was last year and AD can’t stay healthy–both outcomes I’d say are more likely than not–the Lakers are staring at another 30-35 win season.

It’s possible that not only does LeBron opt not to sign a contract extension, he could also ask for a trade as well. If he does, the Lakers will give it to him. They’d rather trade him and get something for him than lose him for nothing next season.

LeBron was probably hoping for Kyrie to end up on the Lakers. Now that that isn’t happening, it certainly makes the idea of running it back for 2023 far less appealing.

LeBron could be willing to stick it out in LA for this year if he’s gotten a private assurance that Kyrie is going to sign with the Lakers next offseason. But a lot can happen between now and then.

I don’t know. I think there’s still an outside chance that LeBron could be out of LA sooner rather than later. No matter what, his next contract after 2023 will be a 1+1 so he can maintain flexibility to hopefully play with Bronny following the 2024 draft (so the 2024-25 season). I don’t know if you can actually add that type of deal (a 1+1) on to his current contract, like a normal extension.

So if LeBron doesn’t agree to an extension, it doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to leave the Lakers.

But I do think the odds of him leaving LA are probably higher than everybody thinks right now. I think there’s a 10-15% chance LeBron is not a Laker this year. Like he might be gone before the 2023 season.

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