Kyrie Irving reportedly wants out of Cleveland. That was the shocking news that broke Friday afternoon, first reported by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and later confirmed by TNT’s David Aldridge and others. Irving, per Windhorst, requested a trade at a meeting with owner Dan Gilbert last week, and “expressed that he … no longer wants to play alongside LeBron James.”
The timing of the news could hardly be worse for the Cavaliers, who have been without a full-time general manager for over a month, and who are less than 12 months away from the possibility of James leaving as a free agent. So what do the Cavs do?
There are several options, none of which are ideal. The Cavs will have to choose the one that is least damaging.
Option 1: Keep Irving
The degree of Irving’s discontent is unclear. If it’s manageable, the Cavs could try to mend their relationship with their All-Star point guard, gamble that his ego doesn’t impair the team’s on-court performance, and make another run at a championship. Just because Irving has requested a trade does not mean the Cavs have an obligation to deal him.
The downsides of this plan, though, are plentiful. For one, if Irving really is unhappy, getting back to the Finals and upending the Warriors is improbable. Heck, the latter’s improbable even if Irving is perfectly content. But if Irving wants out, that also makes it extremely unlikely that the Irving-James partnership will last more than two more seasons. If James leaves in free agency, Irving could choose to stick around. But if James stays, it would logically follow, based on Friday’s news, that Irving would leave Cleveland when he can become a free agent in 2019.
Therefore, if the Cavs refuse to heed Irving’s trade request, they risk losing one or both of their superstars for nothing over the next 24 months. To avoid that scenario, they’ll have to trade one of them.
Option 2: Trade Irving, try to win a title in 2017-18
The first Kyrie trade option is to flip him for pieces that can keep the Cavaliers in immediate contention for an NBA title. The Cavs could seek a lesser point guard plus other role players in return. They could try to add another two-way wing and a serviceable ball-handler. They could perhaps package Irving and Kevin Love (or Tristan Thompson) for a dominant big who can stretch the floor.
Whatever they hunt for as a return package, this seems like the most likely Irving trade scenario. That’s because of the uncertainty surrounding LeBron. With the specter of James bolting for Los Angeles or elsewhere next summer looming large, the Cavs must do everything they can to challenge for a title in 2018. There’s two reasons for that: 1. It might be their last chance in a while; and 2. LeBron would presumably only stay in Cleveland if his supporting cast in the present gives him a realistic shot to unseat Golden State — or at least continue his streak of Finals appearances.
Irving reportedly gave Gilbert and the Cavs a list of preferred destinations at his meeting. The list: San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat and New York Knicks. There’s no shortage of win-now options for the Cavs on those four rosters. For now, though, we’ll leave the speculation to the rumor mill.
And remember: Unlike the Carmelo Anthony situation, the Cavs are not restricted by Irving’s reported four-team list. Irving does not have a no-trade clause. The Cavs are free to send him wherever they please.
Option 3: Trade Irving for future assets
If the Cavs are more concerned with the long-term health of the franchise, and if they’re unsatisfied by trade packages that would allow them to stay competitive with the Warriors, they could deal Irving for some combination of young players and valuable draft picks. Irving should fetch a hefty return. He’s 25 years old, has two years left (with a player option for a third) on a deal that will pay him under $20 million per season, and has already made four All-Star teams in his six years in the league.
His trade value will be ever so slightly diminished by the knowledge that he wants out of Cleveland, but there should be enough interest in Irving that that will hardly matter. The Cavs could realistically get a young player on a rookie contract with All-Star potential plus at least one high first-round draft pick for Irving if they go this route.
The issue with Option 3 is that it would seemingly push James further toward the exit door.
The counterargument: If James is likely to leave anyway, why not concede that and build for the future?
The response: If you concede that James is gone, why not trade him. too?
Option 4: Trade LeBron and Kyrie (and Kevin Love)
This is unthinkable. It almost certainly won’t happen. But … if the Cavs acknowledge that a championship in 2017-18 is unlikely, that Irving is unhappy, and that James will probably depart next summer, would they consider blowing this whole thing up? They could get ungodly sums in return — young stars, picks, etc. — and might then be set for one of the quicker rebuilds the league has ever seen.
Again, there’s almost no way the Cavs actually trade LeBron James. But if LeBron makes it clear that he is gone after this upcoming season (another thing that probably won’t happen, but not totally implausible), it wouldn’t be ludicrous to consider starting over.
One possible impediment, though: James has a no-trade clause, meaning he would have a say in any deal the Cavs try to make. Their options, therefore, would be limited, if not non-existent.
Option 5: Trade LeBron, keep Irving and build around him
Again, if LeBron is leaning toward leaving next July, and if the source of Irving’s trade request really is his restlessness playing second-fiddle to James, Cleveland could consider trading James and keeping Irving.
But this makes even less sense, because an Irving-led Cavs team would not be a title contender. As good as Irving has been over the past few years, he’s a defensive liability, and has yet to show he can carry a team in the playoffs. With Irving on the floor and James off it during the 2016-17 season, the Cavs got outscored by a whopping 120 points in 635 minutes.
Plus, if there are other reasons behind Irving’s trade demand, there’s nothing stopping him from leaving as a free agent in 2019, regardless of where LeBron is playing at that time. So if the Cavs are going to blow it up, they should really blow it up.
But again, these last two options aren’t really options, especially given James’ no-trade clause. Trading the best player on the planet, the hometown hero, the man who brought the city its first title in over 50 years, just isn’t feasible as long as there is a non-zero chance he stays in Cleveland beyond 2017-18.
So which of these options is the most feasible?
Options 1, 2 and 3 are all feasible. The most feasible is probably Option 2. Options 4 and 5 only come into play if LeBron tells management he will not re-sign.
James, according to Windhorst, was unaware of Irving’s feelings until learning of his request after Irving’s meeting with Gilbert. He will leave the handling of Irving’s request to the front office — a front office that is now being led by former assistant general manager Koby Altman, who will reportedly soon have the interim tag removed.
It’s quite the hectic situation for Altman to be thrown into in his first month on the job. And it’s a situation that could alter the league’s landscape, depending on how it is dealt with in the coming weeks and months.
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