The Cavaliers’ “peculiar” off-season continued Friday, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported All-Star guard Kyrie Irving has requested a trade. Irving, 25, is one of the best scoring guards in the league, and has played a key role in Cleveland’s three straight trips to the NBA Finals.
According to the report, Irving is requesting the trade in part to separate himself from LeBron James. Irving reportedly wants to be on a team that can make him the focal point on offense. Irving has two years and an option left on his contract, and it’s worth noting a potential trade would eliminate his option of signing a “supermax” extension down the road.
The Irving news is shocking. Kyrie eloquently sang LeBron’s praises after the Cavs’ Finals loss in June, and he’s seemingly relished the big game opportunities he’s been afforded in Cleveland. But when considering the mess in the Cavs’ front office, and James’s own uncertain future in Cleveland, the trade demand makes a little more sense.
Why should Irving commit to Cleveland when James himself won’t? Tying yourself to LeBron also means tying yourself to someone who wants to maximize his leverage and always have an escape plan ready at all times. Irving’s trade demand could be as much about on-court fit as it is about LeBron’s unparalleled control over the organization. Suppose James were to leave next summer—and right now he doesn’t have many reasons to stay—Irving would be left on a team devoid of assets and tied up in salary cap knots.
On one hand, detaching yourself from LeBron and forgoing a guaranteed trip to the Finals every year sounds incredibly short-sighted. But Irving has already tasted the glory of winning a championship, and playing in a more stable situation could be more appealing to him than attaching himself to LeBron’s long-term desires.
There are going to be narratives about Kyrie wanting to be “the man” and how he cares more about personal glory than championships. I think the situation is a little bit more nuanced than that. LeBron has basically held Cleveland hostage by signing only short-term deals in his homecoming, and Irving, a star in his own right, shouldn’t necessarily let his career hinge on one player’s decisions.
And if Kyrie is really serious about wanting to join a team where he can play a different role, well, he’s not alone. Superteams like the Warriors and LeBron’s Heat are anomalies, not the rule. It may sound crazy, but is Irving really acting all that differently than Kevin Durant? He wants to leave one star for a situation that will make him happier in the long run. Playing alongside LeBron sounds like the best situation in the NBA, but for Irving it also means making huge sacrifices during the physical prime of his career.
One thing is for certain: The Cavaliers are, somehow, simultaneously the most dysfunctional team and the Finals favorite in their conference. They are reportedly hiring Koby Altman to be their general manager after letting David Griffin go right before the off-season. They have bad contracts up and down the roster. Kevin Love consistently pops up in trade rumors. And they’ve given LeBron no reasons to stick around after a not-quite-close loss to the Warriors in the Finals. Having James has masked a lot of issues for the Cavs the last three seasons, but he can only do so much for an organization that lacks tact starting at the top.
There is no guarantee Irving gets dealt, though it’s hard to imagine him sticking around with the disconnect between him and LeBron going public. It’s even harder to imagine the Cavs’ front office—whatever that even means at this point—not botching the situation in some way. And if those of us on the outside have no faith in Cleveland or have been photoshopping LeBron in a Lakers jersey for weeks, maybe Irving is just ahead of the curve.