Ever since the end of the 2017 NBA Finals, reports of LeBron James’ uncertain future in Cleveland and a potential move to Los Angeles in July 2018 have crept into the league’s consciousness, so much so that it now appears the Cavaliers are moving forward as if their hometown hero will leave in free agency.
James owns a $35.6 million player option next summer, and his refusal to commit to the Cavs long-term has complicated the team’s ability to fulfill Kyrie Irving’s trade request, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. In essence, it’s difficult for new Cleveland general manager Koby Altman to do what’s best for the organization, because it’s impossible to know what’s best for the organization:
Of course, Cavaliers officials prefer to re-sign James to a long-term deal and chase titles together into his twilight, but the Cavs are treating his unwillingness to commit as a call to protect themselves long term in the Irving trade, league sources said.
If LeBron, who has a full no-trade clause, plans to stay, the best possible path for the Cavaliers might be to acquire players who can win now, which opens the door for a number of additional trade possibilities involving Irving. But if LeBron plans to leave, Cleveland’s most logical route would be to seek players who the team can build around in his absence, and that severely limits the options in dealing the disgruntled point guard, because there are few better building blocks than a 25-year-old former No. 1 pick and four-time All-Star.
Without a commitment from LeBron, the Cavs are intent on landing a blue-chip recent lottery pick in return for Irving — a list that includes budding New York Knicks star Kristaps Porzingis, Denver Nuggets sophomore scoring sensation Jamal Murray or recent top-five picks Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson, according to Wojnarowski — but so far teams are refusing to meet Cleveland’s asking price.
In recent weeks, it’s become clear the Cavs are straddling the fence between winning in the present and building for the future, as they reportedly seek a quality veteran starter who can help LeBron this season, along with a talented young wing and a future first-round pick who they can market to fans should their superstar leave next summer. A Suns package of point guard Eric Bledsoe, Jackson and a pick seemed to make the most sense, but Phoenix has been unwilling to include Jackson in its offer:
The Phoenix Suns will NOT include Josh Jackson in any trade for Kyrie Irving.
— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) July 25, 2017
Instead, the Suns reportedly offered a pick, Bledsoe and Dragan Bender, who struggled through an injury-plagued rookie campaign in 2016-17. The Nuggets and Boston Celtics would presumably take the same approach in keeping Murray and Tatum out of any potential trade offer, particularly since neither team appeared on the reported list of Irving’s preferred trade destinations, which included only the Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. It’s unwise for any other team to offer a package of equal value without assurance Irving would re-sign as a free agent in 2019.
Former Cavaliers GM David Griffin twice suggested the Celtics were among Irving’s preferred landing spots, but Boston has not extended an offer, per Wojnarowski, let alone shown any sign of meeting Cleveland’s presumed demands of a package including, say, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder and Tatum.
And why would the Knicks swap Porzingis, who is still on his rookie contract, for Irving? The whole point of New York dealing for the Cavs point guard would be to pair the New Jersey native with the Latvian 7-footer and take the next step toward respectability, but a Knicks team with Irving and no Porzingis is in the same predicament of needing several more building blocks around one supremely talented foundational player. Not to mention New York just spent its 2017 lottery pick on a point guard, 19-year-old French prospect Frank Ntilikina.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor recently told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that Andrew Wiggins “is not available to anybody in a trade,” which led Griffin to “scratch off one potential trade destination” for Irving, considering Minnesota’s other young stud, Karl-Anthony Towns, is also an untouchable. Meanwhile, the Heat publicly denied a report suggesting they offered former All-NBA point guard Goran Dragic and potential breakout candidate Justice Winslow “as centerpieces for an Irving trade.”
That leaves the Spurs on Irving’s list, and they present the catch-22 scenario LeBron’s uncertain future creates for the Cavaliers, according to Wojnarowski. San Antonio can offer the veteran starters to help a James-led Cavs team this season, but outside of promising second-year guard Dejounte Murray and the their own (presumably) late first-round pick as underwhelming alternatives, the Spurs appear to be yet another team that can’t produce the youth Cleveland requires as a safety net without LeBron.
What good are LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green without James in Cleveland? Both can also opt out of eight-figure salaries next season, leaving the Cavaliers in the predicament of losing a large part of their return on Irving or re-signing two more veterans to a team that’s already saddled with paying Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver more than $65 million in 2019-20.
It seems Cleveland is coming to the realization that they cannot get equal value for Irving and could lose James to boot, which means the title window is closing quick and the Cavaliers may be on the verge of once again becoming the franchise that reached a conference finals just once without LeBron.
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