Asked earlier this week for his comments on LeBron James’ reported frustrations with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ lack of roster upgrades during the 2017 offseason, Kyrie Irving told Sports Illustrated’s Maggie Gray that the Cavs were in “a very peculiar place, and we just need to make sure that all our pieces are aligned first, and then we go from there.”
“It’s the summertime, a lot of craziness going on in the NBA, so best to just observe, and then see what happens,” Irving said. “Obviously, there’s some things that I’m pretty sure our organization wants to do, and we’ll go from there.”
So, about that “observe and see what happens” strategy …
Kyrie Irving asked the Cavs to trade him in a meeting last week, sources told ESPN. Story posting on https://t.co/b8H6X39PKb shortly
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) July 21, 2017
Two sources confirm @WindhorstESPN report that Kyrie Irving has requested a trade from Cleveland.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) July 21, 2017
The request came last week and was made to Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. Irving has expressed that he wants to go play in a situation where he can be a more focal point and no longer wants to play alongside LeBron James, sources said.
Irving’s agent Jeff Wechsler would not confirm or deny whether Irving asked for a trade.
“Kyrie and I had a meeting with Cavs leadership where we discussed many different scenarios in reference to Kyrie and his future with the team,” Wechsler told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “The basis of those discussions and what went on in those discussions are between the Cavs and us. We are respectfully going to keep those private.”
The Cavs, as you might expect, are not super thrilled by this report … but for what might be a telling reason:
ESPN Sources: Cleveland disturbed news about Kyrie Irving was made public out of fear it could impact trade value.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) July 21, 2017
(So the issue is “this could hamstring us in trades,” not “this is totally bogus and we’re not entertaining the idea at all.” Hmm. OK, got it.)
The No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA draft — the player the Cavs selected after plummeting to earth following James’ decision to leave the franchise to join the Miami Heat — Irving just completed arguably the best season of his six-year NBA career. The point guard averaged 25.2 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting, a 40.1 percent mark from 3-point range and 90.5 percent accuracy at the foul line — all career highs — while dishing 5.8 assists, pulling down 3.2 rebounds and snaring 1.2 steals in 35.1 minutes per game over 72 appearances.
Irving began his career as the man on a young, talent-poor Cavs team left devastated by LeBron’s departure. He averaged nearly 21 points and six assists per game during his first three seasons, earning headlines with his highlight-reel handle and making a pair of All-Star appearances along the way. But the Cavs were dreadful in those three seasons, going 78-152 and failing to even sniff the playoffs. It was only after James’ return and the arrival of Kevin Love in the summer of 2014 that Cleveland’s fortunes turned, resulting in the Cavaliers making three straight NBA Finals appearances and winning the first NBA championship in franchise history in 2016.
The reported request is just the latest speed bump in a tumultuous offseason in Cleveland. After losing the 2017 NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors in five games, owner Dan Gilbert declined to renew the contract of general manager David Griffin, sending the Cavs into free agency without the lead basketball decision-maker who helped construct three straight Eastern Conerence championship rosters. (Gilbert also reportedly did so without so much as a heads up to James.) Irving “had a good relationship with Griffin,” according to Windhorst, who noted that the former GM played a pivotal role in convincing Irving to sign a five-year maximum contract extension in 2014 before James’ arrival.
Gilbert then tried to bring Chauncey Billups in as the franchise’s new president of basketball operations, and failed, reportedly due in part to Gilbert trying to get away with paying him well below market-rate for the position. The possibility that LeBron might pull up stakes in free agency next summer over concerns about the direction of the organization may also have weighed on Billups’ decision-making process.
With assets in short supply and the front office in flux, Cleveland’s attempts to secure top-line talent to supplement the core of James, Irving and Love sputtered. While the Cavs brought back Kyle Korver and Richard Jefferson, and brought in Jose Calderon, the Celtics added Gordon Hayward without sacrificing the assets to make another big move in trade.
The Toronto Raptors brought back Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka to team with DeMar DeRozan, and revamped the rest of their rotation. The Washington Wizards re-upped Otto Porter to secure the third piece of their young core alongside John Wall and Bradley Beal. And the Warriors? Well, all they did was foot an astronomical bill to bring back Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Zaza Pachulia and David West, while also importing bargain wings Omri Casspi and Nick Young.
The distance between the Warriors and Cavs appears to have grown, and the distance between the Cavs and the rest of the pack might have shrunk just a tad. And the situation in Cleveland remained far from settled …
Your friendly reminder: The Cavs still haven't hired a GM
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) July 21, 2017
… even before Friday’s bombshell announcement.
The trade request reportedly caught James by surprise, leaving the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player feeling “blindsided and disappointed,” according to Windhorst. It doesn’t sound like he’s going to be spilling too many tears in his wine about it, though:
LeBron James focused on training for next season and winning with whomever is on the roster, I'm told.
— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) July 21, 2017
“Blindsided” though James may have been, questions of top billing, timetables and uncertainty over when it would be the 25-year-old Irving’s time to move from understudy to signature star are nothing new. In fact, the topic came up several times during Cleveland’s 2017 postseason run.
After a win in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals that saw Irving take over and explode for 42 points to put the Boston Celtics on the brink of elimination, a reporter asked Kyrie about whether such moments and performances represent steps toward the “passing of the torch,” and whether that process might occur “at some point over the next several years.” Irving’s answer was … interesting:
It’s hard not to think about, because as I continue to get older and I’m playing with an unbelievable player like Bron, you know, from the outsider’s perspective, it could be seen a few ways. And for me, it’s — it hasn’t been anything short of difficult, trying to figure out when will it be my time, when will it — and the honest answer from me is that I cannot give any energy to anything that people say would be best for the team, or even sometimes what I think would be best.
My job is to be in the moment, especially with an unbelievable player like him. You have to just enjoy the ride just as much. You know, individual goals that you have to just push to the side because this team, nothing is promised, and who knows what would happen down the line, and this is probably hands down the best team that I’ve ever played with, and probably will play with if we all stay together.
After the Cavs eliminated the Celtics in Game 5, Irving fielded a question about the “synergy” that he and James had developed on the court. In his answer, he praised James’ remarkable abilities: “He’s been the driving force this whole entire playoff run, and all of us have just really helped him along the way with being just the teammates that we’re supposed to be.”
Irving also said that being around James’ greatness on a daily basis forces his teammates to make a choice: “either you can kind of sit back and just watch and observe, or you can pick your game up as well.” In so doing, he noted that “picking your game up” also requires a willingness to sacrifice, and to keep sacrificing:
In our beginning stages, I think that we didn’t want to step on each other’s toes because of how special we both are and the other pieces that we have on our team. That’s a hard balance to figure out. But the special ones figure it out, and I’m just eternally grateful to have a guy like that — as well as [Love], Tristan [Thompson], J.R., [Smith] all my teammates.
But when you look at how this team is run and who are the driving forces behind it, it has to be myself and Bron. We understand that. It falls on our shoulders, as well as everyone else, but we have to carry it. I accepted that. He knows I’m preparing every single day and I’m dedicating myself every single day to this game and I’m leaving it out there, and I expect the same from him.
When you get to that level of trust, and you allow someone to come into a friendship that extends well off the court, and you understand how great this era can be if we are selfless to the point where we don’t think about anything else except for the greatness of our team and what we can accomplish — [if] we stay in that moment, we’re very special.
That notion of sacrifice once again came up when Irving discussed his relationship with James just before the start of the 2017 NBA Finals, in referencing the challenge that both he and Love faced when James arrived:
[…] now you have to almost take a step back and observe, but at the same point, you want to keep your foot on the gas pedal. And I think that finding that balance is one of the toughest things to do, because you have so much belief and confidence in yourself, but also one of the biggest things that makes a great player great is how selfless he is and how much is he willing to sacrifice in order to see the betterment of the team.
Selfishly, I always wanted to just show everyone in the whole entire world exactly who I was every single time, and I can do that with a lot of great teammates around me. And I would rather have that and be competing for a championship every single day than waking up at 3:00 in the morning, getting jump shots, figuring out what the next direction is for the team.
That’s been the law of the land in the Eastern Conference for the better part of the last decade: when you play with LeBron, you don’t have to worry about the direction of the franchise, because you know you’re going to be competing for championships. After falling short in Game 5 against the Warriors, Irving heaped praise on James for his efforts in the series, and emphasized that he’d be doing “a disservice to myself if I didn’t try to learn as much as possible while I’m playing with this guy”:
Every single day demanding more out of himself, demanding more out of us, the true testament of a consummate professional. And understanding how things work, not only just in the game but off the court — things that matter, just taking care of your body, understanding the magnitude of what the goal is at hand, and what steps it takes in order to achieve that goal. You can’t skip any steps.
And that was one thing that I came to understand, because as a young player, you want everything to happen right now. And Bron’s been in this league for a while now, and he’s seen every which way from on the court, to off the court, to dealing with some of you guys, to dealing with the whole world of just choosing a side. Whether you want to believe in him or not, he’s still coming. And that’s the type of guy that I want to be with every single time I’m going to war, because I know what to expect, and you stand your ground, too, with a leader like that. You don’t want to take a step back. You move to the front line with a guy like that, and you want to bring your game up to another level.
That’s what I’m going to continue to do, because I know that if we continue to be with one another and keep utilizing one another, man, the sky’s the limit.
With some distance from the emotions of the Finals, though — and, perhaps, the opportunity to see the foundation of the Cavs’ conference dominance starting to crack, with Griffin gone and grumblings about James’ displeasure one year away from his chance to re-enter the market — Irving has apparently changed his mind. Early reports suggest that he might have his sights set on a few teams where he might think he’d have more of a featured role while still getting to play postseason ball alongside some top talent (well, with one notable exception):
Sources: In the Kyrie Irving meeting with Cavs, one of primary teams raised as a preferred trade destination for him: The San Antonio Spurs.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 21, 2017
ESPN Sources: On Kyrie Irving front, Cavs were given four preferred landing spots: New York, Miami, San Antonio, Minnesota.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) July 21, 2017
Where the Cavs would figure to get value for a player of Irving’s stature at this stage in the offseason remains unclear. Jimmy Butler’s gone. Paul George is, too. So is Chris Paul. Carmelo Anthony … well, he’s still available, but that situation is complicated, and how much his addition would even help the Cavs is very much an open question.
Ultimately, with two more guaranteed years on his contract before he can exercise a player option to hit unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2019, and without a no-trade clause in his contract, Irving only has so much leverage in picking out his preferred trade destination. It’s worth remembering, too, that frustrations aired during the heat of the summer can be worked out and resolved before training camp gets underway in September. Kobe Bryant demanded the Los Angeles Lakers trade him in May of 2007, and he wound up sticking around for another decade, making three more Finals and winning two more titles. Storms can blow over.
Even so, this is one hell of a whirlwind that Kyrie Irving saw fit to kick up in the middle of July. Now, he and the only NBA team he’s ever played for are left to reap it, and we’re left waiting to see where everyone has landed when the wind dies down.
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