Three days after news of Kyrie Irving’s displeasure stunned the basketball world, and three days after an All-NBA-caliber point guard unexpectedly burst onto the market in late July, the NBA is consumed by trades of all kinds. Real general managers, of course, have been inquiring about Irving, and are locked in serious discussions with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Amateur GMs are flooding Twitter. Trade machines are spitting out fantasies to fans of 29 other teams.
And yet some of the talk ignores a simple fact: The Cavs don’t actually have to trade Irving at all.
Or maybe they do. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported Monday that the Cavs “are acting — for now — as if a trade is almost inevitable.” They’re doing so because “there is little chance of salvaging their relationship with [Irving].” If that’s the case, Cleveland will likely have to relent.
But is the Irving dilemma really unsolvable? Is the situation that former GM David Griffin and the Cavaliers’ staff managed over the last few years really unmanageable? It’s not as if Irving was all smiles for the past three years, only to suddenly become despondent over the past month. There is no one (known) event that triggered this. “Irving had become irritated before,” ESPN wrote over the weekend. “The Cavs had been able to navigate it, and they hoped to again.” What changed? What made the situation unnavigable, save for a trade?
It is difficult to fathom that a team so exceptional, even if slightly flawed, could be disrupted by Irving’s unhappiness. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Irving considered making his trade request last summer; instead, he proceeded to play an integral role on what, in some 75 percent of NBA seasons, would likely have been a championship-caliber team.
And now one month later, the Cavs’ relationship with Irving has soured to the point that duplicating last year’s success is apparently implausible.
Moody superstars are not a new phenomenon. Hakeem Olajuwon’s agent demanded a trade away from the Rockets in 1992; Olajuwon went on to win two titles in Houston. Kobe Bryant demanded a trade in 2007; he went on to win two more titles in Los Angeles. Fractured relationships aren’t always mended; but they can be.
Maybe Irving’s relationship with LeBron James and Cleveland is beyond repair. The Cavs seem to believe it is. And if it is … fine. Trade him.
But the Cavs would be making a grave mistake if they don’t give themselves every opportunity to mend that relationship. And they’d be making a grave mistake if they jump the gun on a trade that nets them anything less than 99 cents on the dollar in return. Any deal that doesn’t could ultimately represent a failure to fully exploit the talents of arguably the greatest basketball player ever.
The trade market for Irving
As the shock of Irving’s request wears off and attention turns to his value on the trade market, various tidal waves of speculation have, in large part, come to the same conclusion: There is no one obvious Irving suitor; no trade partner that presents itself as a match made in heaven; no logical home run of an offer.
Furthermore, the now-widespread knowledge that Irving wants out could undercut his value. The Cavs anticipated this, and were reportedly disturbed that the news got out. There is plenty of interest, as there would be for any 25-year-old four-time All-Star. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, at least 12 teams are “in hot pursuit.” But will any of the offers make the Cavs as good as or better than they otherwise would be with Irving in 2017-18?
That’s the question new Cavaliers GM Koby Altman must ask himself. And there are some reasons to believe he might be able to find a package that improves the roster’s fit around James. But if he can’t, he should dig in and stand pat.
Cleveland’s priorities in trade talks
There should be one, and only one, priority for the Cavs in the handling of the Irving situation, and that is to give themselves the best shot at beating the Warriors next June.
That, after all, is how Cleveland has been building ever since LeBron returned home in 2014. It has not cared about two or three years from now. It has not cared about long-term stability. It has cared solely about maximizing every precious year with LeBron, and rightly so. Operating under any other premise would be wasting greatness.
And there is no reason to change now. With every passing day, and with every passing LeBron-to-L.A. rumor, LeBron’s time, from Cleveland’s point of view, becomes more cherished. His impending free agency next summer should only heighten the urgency to build for the present rather than the future.
The reasons are twofold. The more simple of the two is that LeBron’s decision, coming July 2018, will hinge on the ability of his prospective employers to contend for titles. Cleveland’s best recruiting tool is its opportunity to prove to LeBron that it can challenge the Warriors by doing just that this upcoming season. Any move that hinders the title challenge not only could compel LeBron to leave; it would then waste the Cavs’ final year in his presence.
Cleveland has no choice but to maximize that final year. And that means taking risks. This is the second reason.
Why the Cavs shouldn’t sacrifice the present for the future
The counterargument to the present-over-future attitude notes the significant downside: By keeping Irving, Cleveland would leave itself susceptible to losing James for nothing next year and Irving for nothing in 2019. Irving seems set on departing, LeBron or no LeBron. If both do, they would likely leave the Cavs further away from a championship than any other NBA franchise, with no meaningful assets — 30th in a line of 30 teams.
That’s the mode of thinking that is probably informing the front office’s strategy of prioritizing “snagging a blue-chip young player” in trade negotiations, according to Lowe. The Cavs also reportedly want veterans and picks, but getting all three is probably unrealistic. The young stud, whoever it may be, reportedly tops their list.
But if the Cavs can’t get quality veterans — again, if they can’t improve their chances at upsetting Golden State 11 months from now — flipping an unhappy-but-manageable Irving for that young stud would be a mistake.
Take one of the potential future stars that has been mentioned in trade speculation as an example. If the Cavs were to acquire Andrew Wiggins and a serviceable rotation player or two from the Wolves in an Irving trade, and if LeBron were to leave next summer, the Cavs would still be in a very undesirable position heading into 2018-19. After re-signing Wiggins to a max contract — which they’d have to do barring injury or steep, unexpected decline — and even if the rotation players acquired in the Irving trade are on expiring deals, the Cavs would have roughly $100 million tied up in six players: Wiggins, 30-year-old Kevin Love, 27-year-old Tristan Thompson, 33-year-old J.R. Smith, 28-year-old Iman Shumpert (provided he picks up his player option) and 37-year-old Kyle Korver (ages at start of 2018-19 season).
In other words, even if Cleveland cashes in on Irving right now, and if LeBron leaves next summer, the Cavs still won’t have any semblance of flexibility to build around their young star. They’ll have no cap space. They likely won’t have their first-round pick in 2019.
In other words, they might not be 30th in that aforementioned line, but they’d still be pretty darn close to the back of it.
So the Cavs have to choose where they want to be in two different lines. Would they rather be a distant second (or third or fourth) for the 2017-18 title, and then around 20th or 25th going forward? Or a close(r) second for 2017-18, and 29th or 30th immediately thereafter?
The former option is a hedge. The latter option is the one that gets Cleveland closest to a title. It jibes with the mindset that got Cleveland a title in 2016. And that’s probably the only mindset that can get the team a title between now and 2025.
That’s an aggressive statement, and probably overly so. There are certainly scenarios where Cleveland continues its Eastern Conference reign and stays competitive for titles. The best-case: The Cavs flip Irving for a “blue-chipper,” LeBron buys into the potential of that blue-chipper, LeBron stays, and both he and the team extend their championship windows.
But there are plenty of “if”s inherent in that scenario. It depends on the Cavs identifying and procuring a true blue-chipper; on the immediate development of that blue-chipper in a nine-month window; and on that immediate development convincing LeBron to stay. If any of those doesn’t occur, the trade misses the mark. Is betting on all three of those occurrences really worth the difference between Kyrie’s trade value right now and his trade value heading into the last year of his deal next summer?
It’s not. Irving will still yield a decent package next summer, especially from teams who will believe they can lock him up long-term. And yes, the Cavs should seek to deal Irving next summer, when they’ll either have been sent into rebuild mode by a LeBron departure or assured of a few more years with the hometown hero.
But until then, they must resist being coerced into a trade by Irving’s stunning request, unless the relationship has truly become unsalvageable. Altman and his revamped staff seemingly have a decision to make. But really, that decision has already been made for them. The future is not bright. The cupboard is bare. At some point, a rebuild will be necessary.
But when you have LeBron James, you don’t hedge. You don’t win less now to suck less later. You don’t jumpstart your rebuild when you still have one more year in the presence of the King.