It couldn’t have been easy for Kyrie Irving to walk into a meeting with Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and napalm one of the NBA’s best partnerships. Three years, three Finals appearances and one championship connected Irving and LeBron James, and yet if an ESPN report is true – that Irving explicitly told Gilbert that he no longer wanted to play with James – that relationship is damaged forever.
If there were words that could force Cleveland to move one of the NBA’s best players, Irving found them.
Three straight trips to the Finals, and in one meeting Irving made it clear: He wants nothing to do with a fourth. Much has been made about last month’s series, about how Golden State manhandled the Cavs. And it did. But Cleveland rolled to a 12-1 record in the Eastern Conference playoffs and would have been a Finals favorite against anyone else. The Cavs were beaten by a super team, but that doesn’t mean Cleveland – with James, Irving and Kevin Love – was not a super team itself.
History will remember a deconstruction of this Cavs team, and if it does, it will record this: Irving was first. James’ future is murky. The lure of L.A. is real – Is anyone naïve enough to think that a purple-clad James showing up for a Lakers summer-league game was a coincidence? – and Houston is seemingly intent on loading up the roster with anyone James was ever close with. But James is unpredictable, valuing winning above all else. Dismissing Cleveland as James’ home past next season is foolish.
Irving wasn’t willing to wait for James, for another “Decision,” and now he alone has placed Cleveland in a bind. Irving is 25, an All-NBA talent, and under contract for two more seasons. He’s the type of player you beg for, not one you look to trade away. The Cavaliers will be inundated with trade offers, if they aren’t already, yet finding a trade partner with the assets needed to keep the NBA’s second-best team in contention will be difficult.
“The price is going to be super high,” a Western Conference team executive told The Vertical. “There is a lot riding on this for Cleveland. They might have to wait until Dec. 15 [when contracts of players signed this summer become tradable] to do any deal. It could be an awkward few months.”
Irving reportedly handed Cleveland a preferred-team list – Minnesota, New York, Miami and San Antonio – but for the Cavaliers, that list is meaningless. Irving doesn’t have a no-trade clause, and the two years he has left on his deal limit his leverage. He may want Miami, but Phoenix, with Eric Bledsoe (a Rich Paul client), Brandon Knight and a wealth of assets, could make a better offer. Irving may crave a union with Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, but Sacramento, with De’Aaron Fox and a collection of solid vets, could put together a sweeter deal.
The Cavaliers have no allegiance to Irving here, and would be foolish to show any.
“It’s difficult, in the sense that since it’s public, teams know the Cavs have to trade him,” former Nets and Sixers GM Billy King told The Vertical. “It’s going to be hard to bring [Irving] back into the locker room and say, ‘Forget about it, let’s play.’ On the other hand, they can get teams into a bidding war. If I’m Cleveland, I’m looking for two to three starting-level players to fill out the roster and make the bench stronger.”
As for Irving, King said, any team acquiring him would be wise to gauge what he wants in the future – and if it is in a position to provide it.
“It’s got to be a team that he thinks he can win with,” King said. “Because you have to look at what you are giving up. Making a deal like that, you have to really feel that you can re-sign him.”
These are complicated times in Cleveland, and the Cavaliers will make these franchise-changing decisions with its front-office brainpower severely depleted. Koby Altman could be a good general manager, but his experience is limited and he has Gilbert, as hands-on as ever, looking over his shoulder. Dealing Irving could need to be the first in a series of team-altering transactions, a reshaping that needs the kind of experienced hand Gilbert deemed unnecessary.
Irving has made his feelings clear, and yet you have to wonder: Will he regret it? He wants an offense built around him, but is he ready for the growing pains that inevitably come with it? Irving is young and emboldened, with a championship no one can take away from him. But ask Stephon Marbury if he could do things differently in Minnesota, or Shaq and Kobe if they could turn back time? Success, history tells us, can be taken for granted.
Irving wants out of Cleveland, wants away from the NBA’s best player. He’s a prodigious talent, ready for a spotlight outside James’ long shadow. In a landscape in which stars are beginning to cluster, Irving is ready to branch out on his own. In a league where championship-caliber teams can be counted on one hand, Irving wants off one. The deconstruction of the Cavaliers, anticipated for next summer, may have just begun.
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