Kyrie Irving is suddenly the biggest domino on the market. The Cavs point guard shocked the NBA when news of his trade demand broke on Friday; he reportedly wants to run his own team rather than play in LeBron James’s shadow. He gave Cleveland a short list of potential destinations — Miami, San Antonio, Minnesota, and New York — but finding a deal that makes sense for all parties involved will be hard, especially this late in the offseason. Beyond Kyrie’s personal wish list, the team that could put together the most interesting trade package without mortgaging its future is Phoenix, which has more young assets than most teams. After several years of wandering in the NBA wilderness, haphazardly acquiring veterans while drafting near the top of the lottery, the Suns have put themselves in the position to bid for any available star. What they need to decide is whether Kyrie is the guy for whom they should cash in their chips.
Phoenix owner Robert Sarver has been patient this offseason, but not by choice, as he admitted in a press conference announcing a contract extension for general manager Ryan McDonough. Even during this latest rebuild, the Suns have had conflicting interests: They stunted the development of Alex Len, the no. 5 pick in 2013, when they signed Tyson Chandler in 2015, and they traded a future unprotected first from the Lakers (which could be a top-five pick in the 2018 draft) for Brandon Knight. They accumulated their treasure trove of young players almost by accident; Sarver likely would have pushed to move them for veterans had a trade presented itself.
Phoenix has looked for marquee names every step of the way. The Suns chased Blake Griffin in free agency, much as they did with LaMarcus Aldridge two years ago, even though star free agents rarely sign with rebuilding teams. They have also been linked to Kyrie for at least a month now; there were rumors on draft night that the Cavs and Suns entertained a trade built around Irving for Eric Bledsoe and the no. 4 pick. These are the types of conversations for which the Suns now have a seat at the table. And it all has to do with their youth.
Phoenix has a lottery pick under 21 years old at every position but point guard. Devin Booker, who scored 70 points in a game last season, is the most accomplished of their young prospects, and he has the chance to be an All-Star-caliber player if he can improve his decision-making and become even passable on defense. While it’s still unclear how good young big men Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender can be, they both have intriguing combinations of size, speed, and shooting ability. Josh Jackson, the no. 4 pick in this year’s draft, is the best defensive prospect of the bunch. He’s a versatile swingman with an inconsistent outside shot, which could be minimized next to guys like Booker and Bender, high-IQ players who can stretch the floor, play in the open court, and find Jackson when he cuts to the basket. Phoenix has the outlines of a great supporting cast in place; all it is missing is a centerpiece.
The Suns make such a good trade partner for the Cavs because they can deal for Kyrie without giving up any members of their young core. Bledsoe, who turns 28 in December, doesn’t fit the Suns’ timetable, but he does fit LeBron’s. While he isn’t as explosive a scorer as Irving, Bledsoe is a dynamic offensive player and the rare point guard with the length and athleticism to defend multiple positions at a high level. He’s also a client of Klutch Sports, the agency LeBron helps run, and Bledsoe’s presence might even make Cleveland more appealing long term for James. From there, the Cavs could choose between two former lottery picks (Len and T.J. Warren), who might benefit from a change of scenery, as well as Tyler Ulis, a second-rounder in last year’s draft who has already established himself as an NBA-caliber player. All three have relatively small salaries that could easily be packaged in a trade.
The biggest trade sweeteners at Phoenix’s disposal are two future first-round picks from the Heat, which they acquired in the Goran Dragic deal in 2015. The Suns will get Miami’s pick in next year’s draft unless it falls in the top seven, which seems unlikely with the Heat expecting to make a playoff push; the 2021 pick is unprotected. There’s no way to know how good the Heat will be four years from now, but they have a roster full of veterans without much cap flexibility, so there’s at least a chance the pick will become as valuable as the ones the Celtics have gotten from the Nets over the past few years.
Unprotected future firsts are worth their weight in gold in trades, and the Suns could beat almost any offer for Kyrie if they put theirs on the table. The Cavs are trying to win now, but they would have no problem packaging it with a contract and flipping it for a good player.
There are several reasons Phoenix would hesitate about pulling the trigger on a blockbuster deal. The first is that the list of teams Kyrie wants to play for doesn’t indicate a desire to lead a team. He would be a cog in the Spurs machine if he went to San Antonio, and no better than the third option in Minnesota behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler. If his trade demand is more about getting out of Cleveland one step ahead of LeBron, the last thing he’s going to want is to move back to the bottom of the standings. While he’s under contract for three more seasons, he has a player option for Year 3, and acquiring him would put the entire franchise under the gun. The Suns would still be several years away from contending in the West, and they wouldn’t have much time to convince him to stay in Phoenix.
The bigger issue is that Kyrie hasn’t done much in the NBA on his own. The Cavs were terrible before LeBron returned, which isn’t Kyrie’s fault given how dysfunctional the franchise was, but he hasn’t had to do much heavy lifting in the past three years. While he’s one of the league’s best individual scorers, he has been able to hunt for his own shot without having to run the team or play much defense, and that won’t work as the veteran leader on a young team. Kyrie would have to set a positive example on the court and in the locker room, and he would have to occasionally sacrifice his own stats to make everyone else comfortable — exactly the kind of selflessness that he reportedly has had trouble dealing with during his time playing alongside LeBron. Booker and Jackson need to initiate some of the offense, while Chriss and Bender need a floor general who will get them the ball in the right place and the right time. If Kyrie dribbles the ball into the ground and does his best Russell Westbrook impression, it won’t take him long to alienate his new teammates.
Forget his gaudy per-game stats and highlight-reel plays from the NBA Finals. There are numbers that should really concern any team that trades for him. The Cavs were minus-120 in 635 minutes with Kyrie on and LeBron off last season, and nearly half of those minutes (312) came with Kevin Love. Tyronn Lue could hardly afford to take LeBron off the floor in the playoffs: Their net rating plummeted from plus-13.6 with him to minus-13.8 without him. The Cavs had three All-Stars, yet were as close to a one-man team as they could be. Kyrie ranked 40th in assist percentage and 71st in defensive RPM among NBA point guards, and if he couldn’t be bothered to play defense or share the ball when he was contending for a title, what is he going to do on a team that will struggle to crack .500? No matter how many points a backcourt of Kyrie and Booker score, they might give up just as many on the other end of the floor.
Talent has never been the issue for Kyrie, one of the most gifted ball handlers and shot-makers in the history of the game. He was a no. 1 overall pick despite playing only 11 games in college, and he has been marked for stardom since his rookie year. However, even in the era of the scoring point guard, a primary option on a good team still has to do more than get buckets. Kyrie reportedly had issues with the way the Cavs catered to LeBron, but with great power comes great responsibility, and moving out from his shadow means taking on some of the less glamorous things James does in Cleveland. Playing with LeBron allows him to focus exclusively on the things he’s good at and ignore everything else. He’s not going to find a situation like that anywhere else.
Phoenix might be better off remaining patient, as much as it pains Sarver, and using some of its assets to facilitate a three-team deal with New York for Frank Ntilikina, which would give them a young point guard without accelerating the timetable for the team.
The good news for the Suns is they have a lot of options. The Western Conference is so stacked that almost nothing they do will get them into the playoffs. Even if all their young players develop on schedule, they have a tough few years ahead of them. They may not have much interest in getting better next season, anyway — not with several extremely talented players at the top of the 2018 draft, like Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr., DeAndre Ayton, and Mohamed Bamba, all of whom could round out their core well. For the first time in years, the Suns can see the light at the end of the tunnel. There are better landing spots for Kyrie Irving if he wants to win right away, but he already has that in Cleveland. If he wants to be on the ground floor of something special, he should ask for a trade to Phoenix.