In the two weeks since Kyrie Irving’s request to be traded from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers became public, the story has gone through a few stages. At first, understandably, there was plenty of excitement. A player of Irving’s stature suddenly wanting to leave his team — combined with the potential ramifications for the Cavaliers and James — presents the perfect cocktail to send the offseason hype machine into overdrive.
But as time has gone on, and distance has allowed the initial rush of speculation about Irving’s possible landing spot to die down, the story has faded into the background. Yes, that is partly because the NFL has returned to its perch as the driver of sports discussion, but there’s also something else: trading Irving is arguably the most difficult and complex transaction in the NBA.
No, Irving is not the league’s best player — far from it. One can argue he is the league’s most overrated player, taking into account the one thing Irving does at an exceptional level — scoring — and offsetting that with the fact he does little else to contribute to winning basketball. He hasn’t proven to be a good and willing passer and his defense is terrible. He is closer to a 6-foot shooting guard than a 6-foot point guard.
And yet, it’s that exact skill set — his ability to get a bucket on anyone at any time and in any situation — that makes him the best complementary teammate James has ever had. It was Irving, remember, who delivered the biggest basket in Cleveland sports history when he buried that bomb of a three-pointer over Stephen Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the moment that punctuated the Cavaliers’ miraculous comeback from being down 3-1 in that series. It was instant lore, and gave Irving the kind of forever moment every player dreams of.
James is basically a point guard in a power forward’s body, and teammates playing alongside him need to be able to space the floor. In the rare moments when James is on the bench, they have to be able to create shots for themselves. Those are arguably Irving’s two best attributes — last season he made 40 percent of his three-pointers, averaging six attempts per game, and has a well-earned reputation as one of the league’s best isolation scorers. Despite his shortcomings, these qualities make him the ideal complement to the King.
That makes Irving more valuable to the Cavaliers than any other team in the NBA — at least for the next year, which is as long as James is under contract in Cleveland. It’s also what makes trading him a nearly impossible task for new General Manager Koby Altman.
In a normal situation, when a player like Irving wants to be traded, a team looks for a clear combination of young players and draft picks in return so as to begin rebuilding. Cleveland, though, is in far from a normal situation. With James on the roster and the team still heavy favorites to return to the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season, the idea of trading Irving for players and picks who can help in the future alone is a non-starter.
Cleveland needs players who can instantly be a factor, both to give James the best chance to win this season, and to potentially help convince him to remain with the franchise for the long term. And not only do the Cavaliers need players who can help them win now, but they need to find a team willing to part with those players.
And that is where Irving’s shortcomings as a player are highlighted. Yes, he’s a talented and wildly successful one commercially. He has reached superstar status off the court, with a massively popular shoe line and cover status for NBA 2K18, this year’s version of the popular basketball game series.
On the court, he is short of that level.
So for a team such as the Denver Nuggets or Phoenix Suns — two popular destinations for Irving in speculative trades — it might not make sense to move two or three prime assets that would make a trade viable for Cleveland (say Eric Bledsoe and Josh Jackson from Phoenix, or Jamal Murray and Gary Harris from Denver). If Irving won’t provide assurances he is going to stay in either city beyond the two remaining years on his contract, and it’s unclear if he will make those teams better in either the short or long term, then what’s the point?
That’s why it continues to feel like the most likely outcome is that Irving will be back with the Cavaliers for training camp next month, and he, James and Kevin Love will take one more run through the Eastern Conference next season. It should be noted that this has been the offseason of the unexpected move, from Chris Paul being dealt to Houston to Paul George going to Oklahoma City. But there are a lot of obstacles in the way of an Irving deal.
As for those who have questioned whether James would be willing to take Irving back, make no mistake: no one understands basketball is a business more than James. And for a man motivated to try to chase down Michael Jordan, he’s going to want the best chance to win this season.
So if Irving can be moved for a package that makes Cleveland better today? Great. If not? It stands to reason he’d rather make it work with the best complementary player he’s had alongside him.
And if James does leave Cleveland next summer, as many are already speculating he will, then the Cavaliers can turn around and trade Irving and Love for as many young players and draft assets as they can get their hands on and start over.