Less than three weeks ago, Kyrie Irving reportedly walked into a meeting with Dan Gilbert and requested a trade because he was no longer interested in playing with franchise centerpiece LeBron James, a power play that has thrown the Cleveland Cavaliers into a tailspin. As the Cavs work through their options and sift through the emotional fallout of Irving’s request, and what it means for their present and future, Cleveland’s ownership, front office and stars must be stinging all the more knowing what was very nearly theirs in the recent past: a fourth All-Star to bolster their efforts to topple the Golden State Warriors.
Last week, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported that the Cavs were very close to landing Paul George from the Indiana Pacers …
Just how close was Paul George to teaming up with LeBron? pic.twitter.com/e6ulIp0FFA
— ESPN (@espn) July 18, 2017
… and on Sunday, in a massive story about how things have fallen apart in Cleveland, ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst made it clear just how little separated George from wearing wine and gold.
One text message.
To be precise, per ESPN: “a text message from Indiana Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard [that] undid an agreement on a blockbuster deal for George the Cavs were just starting to celebrate, a moment that now lives in infamy within the organization.”
The saga begins just before the 2017 NBA draft, after George informed the Pacers that he planned to leave Indianapolis when his contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season, and after Cavs owner Gilbert had chosen not to bring back David Griffin, preferring instead to head into the draft and free agency without a general manager. Before being shown the door at Quicken Loans Arena, Griffin was reportedly working on multiple fronts to put together packages of young players and assets that could land George or fellow All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, going so far as to leave “for his successors potential trades” that could have imported either George or Butler even after his departure.
According to Shelburne, McMenamin and Windhorst, talks on a Butler deal never got close, but Cleveland did keep working on George.Its most substantive discussions in the run-up to draft night involved the Phoenix Suns, a team replete with young players and draft choices, including 2017’s No. 4 overall pick, and the Denver Nuggets, who likewise had multiple intriguing young players and the evening’s No. 13 pick, and had eyes on Kevin Love as an upgrade at power forward.
The general idea: Cleveland offloads star-caliber talent for young players/draft assets, and flips them for George. Those talks fizzled, though; by the end of the draft, Butler was headed to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Denver’s No. 13 pick had been shipped to the Utah Jazz for Trey Lyles. (Utah drafted Donovan Mitchell out of Louisville. He looks good.)
Cleveland’s front office remained in flux over the next week, with Gilbert failing to land top choice Chauncey Billups as the Cavs’ new president of basketball operations (reportedly due in part to Gilbert trying to pay below-market-value on the position’s salary). Even without a clearly defined top basketball executive, though, the Cavs’ remaining execs, led by assistant GM Koby Altman, kept plugging away at a deal … and, from the sounds of things, got awfully close:
The Cavs kept working with the Nuggets, trying to win a deal that would satisfy the Pacers and allow Denver to get Love and the Cavs to get George. Both were concerned about Boston, who could trump their offers for George but might have been waiting to see if it could secure Gordon Hayward in free agency after July 1.
On the afternoon of June 30, the sides thought they had a deal. On a conference call between the teams, everyone tentatively agreed. George to the Cavs, Love to the Nuggets, [Denver guard Gary] Harris and other pieces to the Pacers, sources said.
Plans were put in place for a call to be arranged between George and Gilbert, an important step before the trade would become final, sources said. The front office began making other plans to complement George as free agency was about to begin.
But then Pritchard, who had been on the conference call when the deal was tentatively agreed to, sent the message that his team was backing out, sources said. There was no deal.
And then, hours before the start of free agency, Sam Presti swooped in, and George was on his way to Oklahoma City. Bon voyage, Dreams of LeBron and PG Together on the Wing in Cleveland. A couple of days later, Denver got its power-forward upgrade in Paul Millsap. Everyone moved on.
The Cavs, for their part, used their limited remaining flexibility to bring back Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson, and to bring in Jose Calderon, Jeff Green and Turkish forward Cedi Osman — a crew not exactly on par with George’s gifts as an All-Star-caliber two-way playmaker who would seem to represent exactly the kind of perimeter talent Cleveland needs to credibly do battle with the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
So the Pacers chose to turn down Harris (a good shooting guard who moves without the ball, can shoot and plays defense), Lyles (who had fallen out of favor in Utah but has shown some shooting and playmaking chops since coming out of Kentucky) and a protected first-round pick for George, in favor of importing Victor Oladipo (who might not be better than Harris) and Domantas Sabonis (who really struggled with his shooting and rebounding as a rookie) as a preferable haul. Why they did that remains unclear. Maybe Pritchard and company wind up getting the last laugh, but at the moment, that choice — to say nothing of the decision to move quickly rather than waiting to see what the Celtics might’ve been willing to part with once they got their Hayward signing wrapped up — looks pretty dicey.
Whatever the Pacers’ reasoning, Pritchard’s text scuttled what might have been the Cavs’ best chance to quickly reload for another shot at Golden State. (Ditto for Irving’s decision to wait until July 7 to say he wants out.) Just over three weeks ago, Cleveland was on the precipice of re-entry into the NBA’s arms race; now, the Cavs look like a past-tense super-team on the path to devastation. What a difference a text makes.
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