Report: Cavaliers explored trading Kyrie Irving last June, before his request

Kurt Helin
NBC Sports

Last summer’s trade request from Kyrie Irving came out of the blue for a lot of fans, and confused people — why would he want to leave a team that had been to three consecutive Finals and has the best player on the planet in LeBron James? Was his ego so big he had to do it his way?

That’s not how Irving saw it, he saw a team he thought no longer wanted him.

The Cavaliers explored trading Irving before he ever made his request, reports ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, who had a lengthy interview with Irving about the trade that sent him to Boston (and detailing Irving’s rise, it’s worth a read).

What they didn’t know was Cleveland had explored trading Irving in June, long before he asked out, a fact conveniently omitted when word of his demand leaked. Irving made the decision to remain silent while the details of his request were, in his word, “distorted.”

“I didn’t feel the need to say anything because I knew the truth, and so did they,” he says. “So it didn’t matter what others said.”

“They didn’t want me there,” he says….

In mid-June, shortly before Griffin left, team and league sources confirm, the Cavs explored a three-way deal with Phoenix and Indiana that would have shipped Irving and Frye to the Suns and brought Eric Bledsoe and Paul George to Cleveland. The Suns resisted, unwilling to part with their No. 4 pick, which they planned to use to draft Josh Jackson.

MacMullan asked LeBron James about Irving not being wanted, and he responded: “That makes absolutely no sense.”

The Suns were one of the teams in the Irving trade talks after his request, but it certainly is possible this was explored before.

What matters here is perception — Irving didn’t feel wanted. For whatever reason (the fact LeBron and Bledsoe are both represented by Rich Paul, a good friend of LeBron’s, played into that). So he tried to be proactive (especially with the specter of LeBron’s free agency in 2018 looming). Irving certainly feels wanted and loved in Boston.

Another critical part of the perception of what is going on: “explored” is a vague term. Teams “explore” trades on a very surface level for everyone on their roster (or close to it), because they want to gauge the value of that player to other teams, sort of a check on their own perception of the player’s value. This may well have been more than that, we don’t know how far down the “explored” road this three-way trade really went. Maybe a long way, maybe not that far. But it’s not how Irving perceived it.

Finally, the Cavaliers had just lost to the Warriors in the Finals, and Golden State looked (and looks) like a juggernaut. Cleveland’s goal is to win a ring, and that means making the roster better — more shooting, more wing defenders, more versatility. Would a combination of Bledsoe and George for Irving make the Cavaliers better? On paper yes, certainly defensively it would improve their matchups with the Warriors — and that was the only goal. There are few tradable assets on the Cavaliers at this point (Irving and Kevin Love were the only players who would return meaningful value) so then GM David Griffin explored it. Is that part of the reason (or the main reason) Dan Gilbert didn’t renew Griffin’s contract? Who knows. Gilbert is notoriously hard to work for and has not renewed the contract of any GM he’s had.

What matters is Irving wanted out by this point, and it got dropped in the lap of new GM Koby Altman on his first day on the job. He did about as well with an Irving trade as could have been expected.

Irving is his own guy, not always easy to read. His motivations can seem a mystery to outsiders at times. But like all superstars (and players in general) he wants to be wanted, and that feeling was gone in Cleveland. Which started a chain of moves that shook up the Eastern Conference.

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