Happy Tuesday, WFNY!
The NBA continues to cycle through its annual offseason parade of newsworthy events. We’ve had the draft, the free agency period, Summer League, the out-of-left-field trade demand from a player who decided being the man is more fun than winning, and now Monday night the schedule was released. Pretty much all that’s left is media day, training camp, and pre-season. Then it’s back to the regular season where the Cleveland Cavaliers will be trying to win the Eastern Conference for the fourth consecutive season and possibly winning their second NBA Championship.
That sounds fun and all, and of course, most fans are eager for the NBA to return, but in Cleveland, the story remains none other than Kyrie Irving. While some fans rightly prefer to just ignore all the noise and let whatever happens just happen, for others this is a daily walking reminder that this is going to be a very strange season on so many levels for the Cavaliers.
I recorded three podcast episodes with Craig Lyndall over the weekend. The first one (on Ezekiel Elliott) is out.
The second one (about DeShone Kizer) is also out.
The third one isn’t out yet but will be soon, and it’s about Kyrie Irving. In that podcast (spoiler alert!) Craig and I talked about the chances of Kyrie playing out this season with the Cavaliers. I said that, in my opinion, Kyrie is now more likely to begin the season in Cleveland than he is to be traded before the season starts. I also said that my hope, naive and unlikely as it is, is that Kyrie has to show up to camp and the team works everything out and Kyrie ends up deciding to stay with Cleveland.
I still think there’s a very tiny chance that happens, but as unlikely as it is, two articles have come out in the last couple days that challenge both the likelihood and the wisdom of opening the season with Kyrie on the roster.
First, SB Nation’s Tom Ziller wrote a piece making the argument that the Cavaliers aren’t actually better off waiting to trade Kyrie. He specifically compares it to the Kobe Bryant situation, but in a more big picture sense, he talks about Kyrie’s desire to be the top dog over winning actually complicates this issue further because the solution for the Cavaliers doesn’t exist, unless the Cavaliers are willing to turn on LeBron James (Ha!).
In some sort of utopia, LeBron could cede control of the offense completely to Irving, letting him put up the MVP numbers he apparently believes he can. James could become another of Kyrie’s jump shooters, a new Channing Frye or Kyle Korver. He could defer to the brash New Jersey kid to the point of discomfort, and likely to the Cavaliers’ discontent as the No. 1 seed in the East flutters ever further away. The Cavaliers could give Kyrie exactly what he says he wants by subduing the Greatest of His Generation and Maybe All Time, a thriving living legend who could win MVP every year if the voters wouldn’t get bored.
They could. They shouldn’t. They won’t.
The Cavaliers have now seen the true Kyrie Irving. He prioritizes the glory of self over collective achievement. That’s peculiar to be certain, but it’s not indefensible. (Kyrie’s only indefensible crime is the Flat Earth nonsense. I wish he’d drop that gimmick off the edge of the planet.)
Given what the Warriors have done, the Cavaliers’ margin for error is infinitesimal. Internal strife is self-inflicted pain. The Warriors and others will do Cleveland enough harm that the Cavaliers can’t afford to be helping them out.
Then, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote a piece laying out how the Cavaliers are approaching trading Kyrie from the point-of-view of a team preparing for a future without either LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. Woj talks about how LeBron’s unwillingness to commit to the Cavaliers’ future is forcing the Cavaliers to try trading Kyrie for a young star rather than a package of veterans who would help the Cavaliers win the next few seasons with LeBron.
The process of building out the franchise’s roster long term has accelerated with Irving’s trade request. The Cavaliers have witnessed James’ exit strategy twice — once to leave Cleveland and once to return — and the Irving trade request has left them unwilling to squander the opportunity to replenish young assets on a roster that could be crippled in a post-James Cavaliers era that is stocked with high-priced veterans.
The Cavaliers find themselves far more fixated on a young star, including New York’s Kristaps Porzingis, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Phoenix’s Josh Jackson and Denver’s Jamal Murray, league sources told ESPN.
Cleveland is determined to get an elite young player for Irving, which means this: The trade plan the Cavaliers would have prioritized, with James committed for the long term — veterans to surround James and draft picks — isn’t in motion. If the Cavaliers knew they had James committed, for example, San Antonio could emerge as a more intriguing trade partner. The Spurs have interest in Irving, league sources say, and Irving’s willingness to commit to an extension with the Spurs makes for legitimate win-now deal possibilities for Cleveland. Without James beyond next season, though, the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Danny Green hold no appeal.
It’s somewhat interesting how different Ziller and Woj see the Cavs’ mindset when it comes to LeBron’s future with in Cleveland. That context perhaps somewhat shapes their opinion on what the Cavs are (and should be) doing. My only point of contention here would be with Woj. I’m not sure I entirely agree that the Cavs’ desire for young players and long-term assets is a direct reflection on their thoughts about LeBron’s future. I personally think the Cavs should be going that route regardless, whether LeBron stays or not.
I’m not sure how much better the Cavs’ chances of winning a title are this season with players like Aldridge, Parker, and Green compared to getting a young star (or potential star) like Porzingis, Tatum, Jackson, or Murray. Is that ever-so-slight margin of error in readiness really worth more than the future potential of young players? I don’t think so. LeBron James and Kevin Love with the experienced role players the Cavaliers have are probably good enough to have a real shot at winning the East on their own.
The issue of readiness in young players is muted on a good, veteran team that is ready to win now without relying on the young players. The best example of that is a guy like Kawhi Leonard. He stepped in right away and in his rookie season, he was starting on a team playing in the Western Conference Finals. He wasn’t asked to do too much, but he was starting and he was contributing. By his second year, he was showing signs of the star he would become and at the end of that second season he was starting in the Finals and was arguably the Spurs’ second-best player in that Finals loss to LeBron’s Miami Heat team.
If the Cavaliers can acquire a player they think can be an impact player (perhaps no Kawhi Leonard quality, of course, but certainly a contributing player with the potential to be an All-Star down the road), I would much prefer that route even if LeBron stays. The only way I wanted a veteran player in return would have been if it was someone like Paul George, Chris Paul, or Jimmy Butler. You know, the guys the Cavaliers probably could have made a run at acquiring had Kyrie asked for this before all those guys were traded.
So what should the Cavs do? Is trading Kyrie a necessary step as Ziller implies? Is the future without LeBron and Kyrie as inevitable and as near as Woj implies? Who knows. I’m forever the optimist when it comes to players on the teams I root for. I hope for the best and I hope they stay on my teams. I still think LeBron is more likely to stay after this season. But when it comes to the Cavaliers as a team, I just want them to be able to maximize the return on a Kyrie trade or else don’t trade him at all. I would rather risk the locker room distractions than give someone a bargain in a Kyrie trade.
And yes, after all of this, reading all of these opinions that make a lot of sense to me, I still am hoping that Kyrie shows up to training camp and that LeBron and Kyrie can agree to make this work for one more season and take one more shot at a title in Cleveland. After that, the Cavs can trade Kyrie at a time when all potential cards are on the table and the best return can be acquired. And as for LeBron, he’ll do whatever is best for him and his goals. All Cleveland can do is make the most of the situation put in front of them and explore every option to make the team the best they can. It’s not fun and none of this is what the front office imagined this season would be like, I’m sure, but here we are. In the meantime, it’s going to be a long season filled with rumors and opinions until the day Kyrie is finally traded.