If there’s one thing we’ve learned this season from the NBA, it’s to expect the unexpected. High-caliber stars like DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George all got offloaded for less than their expected value. Chris Paul got signed-and-traded before free agency. The no. 1 pick was dealt for only the seventh time in NBA history. All this happened with the low hum of LeBron James’s potential 2018 exodus to Los Angeles getting louder and louder in the background. But the latest NBA news to break the internet wasn’t made by the King; it was made by one of his protégés. And that could just be the beginning. A foundational shift is brewing in Cleveland.
When the wild summer appeared to be winding down, news leaked Friday that Kyrie Irving requested a trade out of Cleveland, as first reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. The league is usually quiet around this time. Not this year, though. We’re having an offseason for the ages. Forget sleeping. Basketball is chugging 5-Hour Energy.
On Saturday, I wrote about why Irving wants out. It’s unclear what will happen next, but whether or not Irving is traded, a chain reaction is sure to follow. In an unpredictable league, let’s think about what led to this peculiar situation and what lies ahead.
How This Impacts the Cavs
Two sources have told me that Irving had planned on demanding a trade entering this offseason, but didn’t express it to the team until this month. NBA.com’s David Aldridge said the request came around the draft, "in hopes of being traded to Chicago" to play with Jimmy Butler. According to ESPN, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert found out July 7, then shared the news during a meeting with his front office in Las Vegas. The ESPN report stated that Gilbert left his group confident they would "emerge from this situation OK," since Irving has great trade value and would give the team "the chance to retrofit" their roster to better battle the Warriors.
Guys, Dan Gilbert might be right? Conventional wisdom would suggest that trading Irving would make the Cavaliers worse, especially given the returns for other recently traded superstars. But every situation is different. Irving’s value will likely never be higher than it is right now. He’s just 25 years old — younger than the other traded stars — fresh off a healthy, career-best season, with two years left on his team-friendly contract. Just because other teams made unwise decisions doesn’t mean the Cavaliers will. Irving is a trade chip that would potentially enable them to restructure the team in a way that might even entice LeBron to stick around beyond 2018. As constituted, the Cavs aren’t great enough to beat the Warriors. It seems twisted, but maybe trading Irving could be the shake-up they need to beat Golden State.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Cavs included Irving in trade talks around the draft — a detail that got lost over the weekend. "Long before Irving voiced his desire to be moved, Cleveland had considered the possibility, too," Woj wrote. "And perhaps did so with a nod from James."
I’m fascinated by the idea of LeBron potentially having given a "nod" to explore Irving trades — especially when, earlier this year, James said of Irving: "You know, no matter if we’re teammates for the rest of his career or for the rest of my career, listen, it won’t be because we didn’t want to play with each other no more. It will never be that."
Circumstances can change, though. James watched his team get extinguished in five Finals games by a Warriors club that just went out and improved its roster over the summer. The Cavs are stuck in neutral. LeBron is smart enough to know what they have now isn’t enough. Cleveland needs to make wholesale changes, which might include trading Irving — and maybe Kevin Love, depending on the return they could get for Irving.
In a way, the Cavs looking to add more firepower to their lineup is part of Irving’s issue with remaining on the team. A separate ESPN report indicated that there had been a tentative agreement on a three-way deal that would’ve sent Paul George to the Cavaliers, Kevin Love to the Nuggets, and Gary Harris and other pieces to the Pacers. Then the Pacers undid the agreement and sent George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. But even if George had been dealt to Cleveland, one source I texted with Sunday morning believed Irving still would’ve demanded a trade. He wants the spotlight.
The Cavaliers are now in a pickle. It’s reportedly been, by some accounts, 17 days since Gilbert first received a clear indication from Irving that he wants to be traded. That might feel like a long time, but we could just be getting started. Deals involving stars of Irving’s magnitude usually take a while. There’s also the fact that late July and August is usually when front-office executives take their vacations. It’s a moment to breathe away from the hectic NBA schedule. If a deal doesn’t happen by the end of July, it’s conceivable nothing will happen until closer to training camp or even the start of the regular season, like the 2012 James Harden trade.
This is not the first time that Irving has been reportedly disgruntled in Cleveland. In 2014, Windhorst told Cavs: the Blog that Irving’s camp had wanted him out of Cleveland for years. Other years-old reports from Chad Ford and Mitch Lawrence, among others, suggested that Irving wanted out, with Lawrence stating that Irving’s preferred destination was the Knicks. The stove got so hot that Irving refuted the rumors on Twitter.
Kyrie has repeatedly talked over the years about the difficulties that go along with learning to play with LeBron, as detailed this weekend on The Ringer. If Irving doesn’t get traded in the near future, he is a flight risk when it comes time for him to exercise his player option for 2019–20, no matter what happens with LeBron.
Gilbert and the Cavaliers front office know it. Gilbert expressed in October 2012 that he wished he followed a similar formula ahead of LeBron’s 2012 free agency to what Oklahoma City did in trading Harden to Houston. "The key thing, whoever you are and wherever you are, you cannot wait," Gilbert said at the time. "The big lesson was if a player is not willing to extend, no matter who they are, no matter where they are playing, no matter what kind of season you had, you cannot risk going into a summer and having them leave in unrestricted free agency and get nothing back for it."
Gilbert went on to say that, had the Cavs traded LeBron, the narrative would’ve been crafted as the team screwed up, not the player. In other words, LeBron jerseys wouldn’t have been burned. Fans would’ve instead raged against the franchise. "I’m sure the player or whoever would have said, ‘Of course I would have stayed. You guys screwed up and ruined the whole franchise,’" Gilbert said. "You’re in a no-win situation."
What About Other Teams?
The Kyrie situation doesn’t just impact the Cavaliers. What happens with Cleveland could determine the future of three other franchises. The Knicks have a new general manager in Scott Perry, who must fix their disaster. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is in search of the final piece of his superteam. And the Suns are young, and general manager Ryan McDonough is positioned to react to opportunities that might present themselves — either in the form of a splash move like Irving or taking on a salary to add even more assets.
Let’s start with New York, which lost Derrick Rose, a player the Cavs had met with last week; the team still has Carmelo Anthony on its roster.
Houston is still chasing Melo, but it has to make additional moves to make it work, and various reports have stated that the Rockets have been unable to find a team that’d take on Ryan Anderson’s remaining $61.3 million. Woj reported in early June that the Suns were willing to take on contracts for the cost of draft picks and young players. The Suns are important because, according to ESPN, the Cavaliers had talks with them leading up to the draft when they were trying to get George, with conversations involving the no. 4 pick and Eric Bledsoe. Vince Grzegorek of the Cleveland Scene had an eerily similar report in June that said Irving and another player would’ve went to Phoenix, and the Cavs would’ve kept Bledsoe and then flipped the pick for George. The deal died.
Bledsoe is the name commonly associated with any trade package involving Irving, usually paired with Carmelo. Bill Simmons proposed a trade idea that would send Irving to Phoenix, contracts and picks to New York, and Bledsoe, Melo, and a pick to Cleveland.
I like the Bledsoe-Melo haul for the Cavaliers. It’s not enough, but it might be as good as it gets. Bledsoe is a damn good two-way point guard. He’s worlds better than Irving is on defense and a sound distributor in the pick-and-roll, though he struggles off the ball. He has shot only 34.4 percent on spot-up 3s since 2014–15, per SportVU, compared with Irving’s 44.5 percent. Bledsoe is also significantly worse at pulling up from 3 off the dribble, a skill Irving has used in some handy moments for Cleveland.
Let’s Talk About LeBron Some More
If the Cavs are in such a state of upheaval, if the ground beneath their feet is crumbling, if LeBron can walk in a year, and Gilbert learned so much from his last bag-holding experience, why doesn’t he #blowitup and deal LeBron? It’s not unheard of for living legends to be traded. We’ve seen it happen across sports with Wayne Gretzky, Herschel Walker, Alex Rodriguez, and Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, among many others. Why not LeBron?
Simple: LeBron has a no-trade clause. ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported Sunday that LeBron will not waive his no-trade clause under any circumstances. It’s so weird that it’s even a conversation. Despite everything happening with the Cavaliers this summer, absolutely no one was talking about LeBron’s "contractual obligations" or his commitment to "leading the team," regardless of the club’s personnel. Fans might’ve been speculating about it, but none of it registered on the Richter scale.
The fact that I’m even mentioning this is another example of dysfunction in Cleveland. The Warriors aren’t just better than the Cavs on the court, they have institutional stability and are set up to be successful for years to come. It’s always season-to-season in Ohio. LeBron could leave, Kyrie could get traded, and what about Kevin Love? In the past three years, Cleveland has fired a coach and parted ways with a general manager. And now the young star point guard reportedly demanded a trade out of town. But in the end, all roads lead back to LeBron. And don’t for one second think he doesn’t understand that.
The timing — from LeBron’s frustrations, to Irving’s demand, to Emo LeBron jamming out to "Heavy Heart" by Meek Mill on his Instagram, to the waterfall of news reported this weekend — is all a bit odd. If it’s true that Irving wants out, he’s learned a lot from the LeBron "blueprint" for taking control of your own destiny. But LeBron is still the master, the most powerful man in sports.
The central question facing Cleveland is whether it’s building for a future with or without LeBron James. The fact that we are ending this piece on that note is apparently the very thing that annoys Kyrie. At the end of the day, no matter how he views himself, no matter what he’s done for the team, he is a secondary story line. We’re about to find out whether LeBron thinks it’s a story that’s important enough to keep pursuing, or if he’s ready for a new supporting character. Make no mistake: He’s going to have a major say in the matter.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly characterized Derrick Rose’s current status with the Knicks. New York cannot sign-and-trade him; it renounced his rights.