Arena: Sorting Out the Kyrie Irving Drama
The LeBron-Kyrie beef is the new Durant-Westbrook beef, only it’s more unexpected, more dramatic and more fluid, as Cavs’ general manager Koby Altman would say.
The situation is murky and confusing since neither Kyrie, nor his agent have publicly confirmed the rumors. But here’s a quick timeline of the reports that have come out:
July 2: ESPN reports LeBron is “not actively recruiting” free agents to Cleveland.
July 7: Kyrie meets with owner Dan Gilbert and asks to be traded.
July 21: Reports surface that Kyrie wants a trade. Preferred destinations are NYK, MIN, SAS and MIA.
July 21: Rumors surface that LeBron was “blindsided and disappointed” by Kyrie’s request.
July 22: Stephen A. Smith reports that Kyrie’s camp believes LeBron leaked his trade wishes to the media.
July 24: Derrick Rose signs a 1-year deal with Cleveland for the veteran’s minimum
July 26: LeBron and Rose seen working out in Vegas with Suns’ PG Eric Bledsoe
July 27: ESPN reports that LeBron is “gauging Josh Jackson’s availability.”
Absent from this timeline is, of course, the firing of former GM David Griffin (who LeBron loved), Chauncey Billups turning down the GM job because it “didn’t feel right” and the subsequent hiring of in-house candidate Koby Altman just a few days after the Kyrie trade request became public.
Trying to make sense of this timeline is an exercise in creating NBA conspiracy theories. Why would Irving want to leave a team coming off three straight NBA finals appearances? Why would he forego a legacy as one of the most impactful Cavaliers of all time?
The answers are unclear, but the speculation has run rampant around the league that Irving wants to be “the guy” and feels marginalized by his sidekick role. However, his list of preferred destinations does not exactly back up that theory. Though he’d clearly be “the guy” in Miami, Irving would be at least sharing the spotlight in all of his other preferred destinations. Kawhi Leonard is already the superstar in San Antonio, Kristaps Porzingis is utterly beloved by Knicks fans, and in Minnesota, Irving would likely be the No. 3 option behind Karl Anthony-Towns and Jimmy Butler.
That said, it seems like Kyrie’s request may have come from a place of malice toward LeBron and perhaps the entire Cavaliers franchise. Let’s not forget, Irving signed his 5-year extension ten days before LeBron agreed to come back to Cleveland. David Griffin convinced Irving that his "vision" for the organization was to build around the strengths of the young stud point guard and embrace a youth movement driven by blue-chip young players. That vision abruptly changed the day LeBron decided to come home, as Cleveland traded rookie, first-overall pick Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Griffin would go on to make a series of win-now moves catered to James’ strengths and the notion that this was Kyrie’s team quickly evaporated.
Another theory supported by all of my fellow tin-foil hat wearing NBA conspiracy lovers is that this has all been a plan set in motion by King James himself. After reports on July 2 claimed LeBron was not recruiting in free-agency for the first time since he got to Cleveland, the chatter began that this was his last season in the ‘Land.' With the reports surfacing that James may have actually been the one who told the media about Irving’s request, a growing number of NBA followers have begun to think that this may be LeBron’s way of being able to vacate Cleveland again without being chastised for it. In other words, if Irving and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert are portrayed as the bad guys in this situation, fans won’t be as upset when their “savior” leaves them again.
James has stated that he intends to play out the last year of his contract, but has not made any guarantees about staying with his hometown team. He was upset that Gilbert fired Griffin. He was upset about Cleveland’s overall inactivity in free agency. Now he's disappointed with Kyrie and the direction of which the organization is heading. If he can manipulate the narrative to make the media and fans believe that Cleveland is a straight up dumpster fire that he desperately must flee from, he won’t be seen as a villain when he leaves. Fire up the “LeBron to the Lakers” rumor mill, because this conspiracy theory is not going away anytime soon.
Let’s take our tin-foil hats off for a moment, however, and examine how the Cavs’ management should handle this delicate situation and what the best interests of the team are.
First and foremost, the Cavs need to do whatever they can to secure that LeBron stays in Cleveland beyond this season. Cleveland’s management has been ripped time and time again for catering to James’ wishes, but in a situation like this, they may have no choice. Second of all, they need to receive some sort of up-and-coming talent to help build their future in case LeBron does end up leaving next offseason (they are currently insisting the inclusion of a “blue-chip young player” in any Irving trade). Third of all they need to eye players that could help them eventually dismantle Golden State. It would have been ideal if Cleveland could have traded Kyrie for Jimmy Butler or Paul George, but his request came after those stars had already been traded.
Cleveland has no reason to send Kyrie to any of his preferred destinations because he does not have a no-trade clause in his contract and thus, cannot veto any trade. Irving has two years and a player option left on his contract at solid bargain of around $19 million per year and is just the kind of young available all-star that rebuilding teams salivate over. The Suns, Nuggets, Heat, Knicks and Celtics have emerged as potential trade partners, but Phoenix has emerged as the most obvious destination.
Any trade with the Suns would be centered around Eric Bledsoe, LeBron’s good friend and workout partner. Bledsoe is also represented by LeBron’s agent, Rich Paul, who probably has more influence than any agent in the NBA when it comes to getting his players what they want. James has reportedly tried to gauge the availability of Suns’ top-pick Josh Jackson, but the Suns apparently view him and Devin Booker as untouchable. Phoenix may be able to appease Cleveland’s demands by trading Bledsoe, TJ Warren and last year’s No. 4 overall pick Dragan Bender. Bledsoe is no where near the shooter that Irving is, but he is a better defender and wouldn’t be a huge downgrade from Uncle Drew. Warren only has one season left on his rookie-scale deal, but he could be a valuable reserve at small forward who could give King James some desperately needed rest or play alongside him in small-ball lineups. Bender had a rough rookie season, but he’s still a mobile 7-footer who can shoot threes and has tremendous potential. Meanwhile, trading for Irving would solidify a young core that could eventually become one of the NBA’s best. An Irving-Booker backcourt would instantly be amongst the NBA’s best. They'd be well complimented by an incredibly athletic forward tandem of Jackson and Marquese Chriss, both of whom are 20 and have tremendous upside. With those youngsters and the veteran Tyson Chandler at center, Phoenix would immediately become one of the league’s most exciting teams.
It is unclear whether or not this Kyrie-LeBron beef can be salvaged, but if Cleveland wants to be proactive about the situation, a trade with Phoenix could satisfy LeBron and keep them in contention for the NBA title this season and beyond.