Imagine you’re at a house party having the time of your life, but as night turns to dawn, you realize you don’t want to be the last one there. Nothing good will come from hanging around. You’ll be the one stuck with cleaning up someone else’s mess, dealing with problems that have nothing to do with you. Maybe it’s selfish, but you have your own priorities and won’t let anything else get in the way. So, you leave.
This is how Kyrie Irving feels about his situation in Cleveland, according to league sources with knowledge of his mindset. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Irving has asked to be traded. This leaves the Cavs with a murky future. Per sources, Irving isn’t fond of the idea of playing out the final year of his contract on a wrecked team, which Cleveland would be if LeBron were to leave in 2018. The Cavs would likely hold on tight to Irving, rather than blowing it up, meaning he wouldn’t hit free agency until 2019. And even if LeBron does choose to stay in Cleveland, Irving would apparently prefer to escape his shadow, per multiple league sources.
"Irving’s situation is a repeat of history, like Shaq and Kobe, or Shaq and Penny, or Barkley and Pippen," said one longtime NBA executive. "It’s two big stars fighting for the limelight." We’ve seen this bickering before. Irving could wake up tomorrow and decide to play it out. But star feuds often result in a breakup, and Irving and LeBron have had a flimsy relationship since LeBron returned to Northeast Ohio from South Florida.
Put yourself in Kyrie’s shoes. Only weeks after signing a five-year extension with the Cavaliers in 2014, Irving gave up being the face of the franchise to the prodigal son LeBron. It was Irving’s team, then suddenly, the city’s savior made his heroic return home. According to one source, it always "rubbed Kyrie the wrong way" that LeBron didn’t reach out to any Cavaliers players before making his decision. And James had a contentious relationship with both Irving and Dion Waiters during the early days.
Irving has hinted at the cracks in their relationship for years. In 2015, after LeBron said the team had "bad habits," Irving said, "I don’t want to say it’s not been rocky at all. Obviously, he sees the game one way, I see the game another way." During the past season’s All-Star break, Irving admitted he needed to let go of his "arrogance, aura, ego, and selfishness" to play with LeBron. At the 2017 NBA Finals, Irving was asked to describe how his relationship developed with LeBron. "Having just a tremendously great player like that come to your team and you see yourself being one of those great players eventually and then he ends up joining it and then now you have to almost take a step back and observe," Irving said. "Selfishly, I always wanted to just show everyone in the whole entire world exactly who I was every single time."
Irving wants more, and he’s capable of achieving it. Anyone with two working eyeballs can see his upside. He’s a flamethrower shooter, unafraid to launch with a hand in his face, in the tensest moments of games.
He’s one of the greatest below-the-rim finishers ever, capable of magical flips off the glass. The NBA’s best on-ball guard defender, Avery Bradley, recently called Irving the league’s toughest player to defend. Few players possess the dribble moves that Irving does. He’s quick. He’s manipulative. He’s deceptive. Prior to last season, Irving never averaged over 25 points per game, but it’s clear he could do it on a near-nightly basis if need be. Irving is a first-team All-NBA talent receiving a third-team All-NBA workload.
His upside shows up in the numbers too. Since 2014–15 in the regular season and playoffs, according to data derived from NBA Wowy, Irving scores 30.5 points per 36 minutes with a 51.7 effective field goal percentage with LeBron off the floor, compared to 23.8 points per 36 minutes with a 52.9 effective field goal percentage when LeBron is on the floor. Irving’s efficiency barely dips despite a huge increase in scoring volume. Maybe that’s not a sustainable clip for Irving to hit, but the list of players even capable of doing it is quite short.
Sometimes we forget that Irving is only 25, and not even in the prime of his career. Playing with LeBron has forced him into a primarily off-ball role. And it has worked. Cleveland won a title! But it also stunted Irving’s development as a playmaker. His "point guard" position is meaningless when LeBron is actually the primary creator. Irving is more like a classic combo guard. Guys like John Wall and Stephen Curry got endless opportunities in their early 20s to develop their PG skills. Irving missed out on this education. Without Bron, he could conceivably get it — better late than never.
"Kyrie’s tired of being lil bro. He wants be the man," said a league source. "So why wait? Why play the year out?" Two sources told me on Friday that Irving went into the offseason thinking about demanding a trade. It was only last week, during a meeting with the Cavaliers, that he made his desire for a trade clear. In his report, Windhorst wrote that "Irving considered requesting a trade after the Cavs’ championship last year but decided against it."
The timing is very odd. Why so late in the summer? If Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert hadn’t gotten rid of general manager David Griffin, maybe the team wouldn’t be in such disarray. The Cavs just hired Koby Altman to take over in Griffin’s role, but it might be too late for stability. The Warriors got better, while the Cavaliers stagnated.
ESPN reported that James is "blindsided and disappointed" by Irving’s trade demand. It’s the second time in a week a player has told LeBron "No." First Jamal Crawford turned down the Cavaliers for the young Wolves. And now Irving wants out.
If Irving is traded, regardless of the return, the pressure will only increase for LeBron and the Cavaliers. If James leaves next summer, the team would effectively be left with nothing. If LeBron thought he could leave Cleveland unscathed after delivering a lone title, he might be in for a rude awakening next summer.
But maybe a roster shake-up increases the chances of LeBron staying put. Cleveland could deal Irving for young assets or it could look for a package that satisfies LeBron’s preference for veteran teammates. Maybe a package bringing back one of his "very good friends" (like Carmelo Anthony) and/or his fellow Klutch Sports clients (like Eric Bledsoe) would work. Cleveland has options.
The difficulty is finding a trade that makes sense. Irving’s preferences reportedly included San Antonio, Minnesota, New York, and Miami. None of those teams can exactly put together an appealing package, at least on paper, unless LaMarcus Aldridge is flipped for assets, or Andrew Wiggins is included. Every team evaluates players and trades differently, though. Two league sources speculated that the Cavaliers would shop Kevin Love, depending on the type of package they get back for Irving. Love’s name has been included in trade rumors for almost his entire stay in Ohio, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it’s fascinating to think about how a team that’s just been to three straight Finals could blow it up around its centerpiece.
If I were the Cavaliers, I’d want a package for Irving that’d allow the roster to compete, regardless of what LeBron decides next summer. As I wrote in March and again in April, the Cavaliers helped get themselves into this mess in the first place by not building a sustainable roster that focused on developing cheap, talented, youthful players. They didn’t adopt the Spurs model, basically. They need to start thinking about building a sustainable future, whether that includes LeBron or not. Dealing a 25-year-old superstar point guard in Irving for a package highlighted by a 33-year-old past-his-prime forward in Melo could end up an all-time dumb move when there’s absolutely no guarantee it keeps LeBron around. Cleveland should be looking to trade Love for Melo, and Irving for a significant package to a different team. No matter what happens, Irving is a young, improving superstar with two guaranteed years left on his contract. The return better be supermassive.