Some 2010 déjà vu could be just what the Cavaliers need.
Let’s review the sequence of events for the Cavaliers this summer:
1. To no one’s surprise, LeBron James takes his team to the NBA Finals for the seventh straight season. To no one’s surprise, they lose to the Golden State Warriors in five games.
2. They part ways with GM David Griffin, failing to replace him with popular candidate Chauncey Billups after a ridiculously low contract offer. The position remains vacant for over a month.
3. They miss out on trades for Jimmy Butler, Paul George, and Chris Paul, and instead settle for free agents José Calderón and Jeff Green.
4. All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving demands a trade from the team.
In other words, the Cavaliers’ offseason has been a disaster of epic proportions.
The most recent development, Irving’s trade demand, now presents an especially delicate situation for the Cavs—the first of new GM Koby Altman’s career. If the team’s previous offseason dealings are of any indication, there’s a high chance they botch it. However, there exists one particularly ironic scenario in which all sides walk away (relatively) happy: If Kyrie Irving takes his talents to South Beach.
According to reports, Irving’s trade demand stems from his desire to escape LeBron’s shadow. Despite averaging a career high in PPG and posting a slightly greater Usage % than James last season, the Cavaliers are still LeBron’s team: the media knows it, the front office knows it, and Irving knows it, too. The situation echoes that of Irving’s idol and mentor Kobe Bryant, who played under Shaquille O’Neal from 1996 to 2004 before forcing management to trade the big man to Miami. More recently, Irving watched as James Harden inherited his own team in 2012, exploding as a Rocket after leaving Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
While the Cavaliers are certainly Kyrie’s best chance to succeed next season, perhaps personal accomplishments are more important to Irving than winning. After all, before James’ return to Cleveland in 2014, he seemed more than content with his starring role on a Cavaliers team that went 78-152 across his first three seasons. On the other hand, perhaps he simply doubts the Cavaliers’ chances against the Warriors next season, describing his team as in a “very peculiar place.” While Golden State could be just one twisted ankle away from serious trouble, Kyrie may be unwilling to sacrifice another of his prime years to a season of unlikely odds.
Strangely enough, Irving provided a trade wish list of four teams to Cavs management: the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, and Miami Heat. Normally, such lists are common only for players with a no-trade clause—something only James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dirk Nowitzki can claim. However, besides his lack of leverage, Irving’s list is largely nonsensical for another reason: On many of these teams, he’d still be second fiddle.
Take the San Antonio Spurs. There, he’d suit up beside hometown favorite Kawhi Leonard, who boasted the league’s second-highest PER (27.6) last season behind Russell Westbrook (30.6). Beyond having to share the spotlight, the destination is also the worst on the list in terms of trade value. With aging stars and few young, talented players, the Spurs have little to offer the Cavaliers in return for Kyrie Irving.
The same issues arise for the Minnesota Timberwolves. On a now fully-loaded roster featuring Jeff Teague, Jimmy Butler, Andrew Wiggins, and Karl-Anthony Towns, Irving would hardly find himself closer to the spotlight than in Cleveland. A trade sending Wiggins back to Cleveland, the team that drafted him first overall in 2014, would certainly be ironically pleasing, though Minnesota may decline to trade another young player after shipping Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and lottery pick Lauri Markkanen to Chicago earlier this offseason. Furthermore, any trade would likely need to include Teague as well, who is ineligible to be dealt until Dec. 15 after signing as a free agent this summer.
Next, we have the Knicks. Irving would immediately become the star of the franchise, playing alongside Anthony or Kristaps Porziņģis. With New York steadfastly refusing to trade the 21-year-old Porziņģis, Anthony would most likely be the centerpiece of the swap, given he waives his no-trade clause. However, Cleveland would need to find a third party to accept some of their more unfriendly contracts (Iman Shumpert, $10.3M; Channing Frye, $7.4M) before taking on Anthony’s $26.2M salary. At this point in the offseason, it seems unlikely—though not impossible—that all the pieces fall into place for such a deal.
Therefore, the Miami Heat provides the simplest and best deal for all sides. Here’s why.
The Miami Heat barely missed the playoffs last season, finishing ninth in the Eastern Conference with a 41-41 record. The addition of Irving in no way makes them an immediate contender, but a 25-year-old superstar certainly pushes them in the right direction. With warm weather, friendly tax rates, and Irving at their core, South Beach would once again become a free agent hotspot.
Statistically, Kyrie Irving and the Miami Heat are a near-perfect match. Irving is among the league’s best offensive weapons—even alongside James. He ranked 21st in assists (5.8 APG) and 11th in scoring (25.2 PPG) last season, just behind Stephen Curry (25.3). He is especially skilled at the line, converting on 90.5% of his free throw attempts, good for third in the NBA. On the other end, while his defensive effort is often criticized, he has averaged 1.3 steals and only 2.2 fouls per game throughout his career.
However, Irving’s game is not without its flaws. He sometimes struggles with pass efficiency, with a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1 (2.7 per game). Secondly, he is particularly uninvolved off the glass for a 6’3” point guard, securing only 3.2 rebounds per game last season. Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, both 6’0”, averaged roughly five.
A close look at the numbers proves just how well he and the Heat suit each other’s needs. The chart below compares Miami’s 2016-17 team rankings with Irving’s approximate player rating.
His exceptional long to mid-range ability will also help a team that shot just 38.7% from between 10-16 feet last season. Irving meanwhile shot 46.9% from that range and would face little competition for spacing.
One interesting wrinkle to this partnership is that Irving would reunite with former teammate Dion Waiters, who played for the Cavaliers from 2012 to 2015. The pair reportedly did not get along, as Waiters felt mistreated by management and offensively neglected by Irving in favor of Tristan Thompson. Now, it seems Irving, at least, is willing to bury the hatchet. Last season, Waiters notched 15.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game alongside center Hassan Whiteside, who averaged an incredible 17.0 points, 14.1 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks. While a talented Irving-Waiters-Whiteside trio may pale in comparison to Miami’s previous Big Three (James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh), a deal for Irving could reestablish Pat Riley as one of the greatest executives in the league.
What’s In It For Cleveland?
Whatever Irving’s motives, the Cavaliers have a significant problem now that his demand has gone public. With two years still left on Irving’s contract, the team is technically under no pressure to trade him. However, they must decide whether it is truly in their best interests to bring back a feuding Irving-James combo next year, thus inviting a sour locker room presence and media circus for what could be their last run at a title. James is set to become a free agent next summer, with the leading rumor suggesting he may jump ship to join the Lakers.
The Cavaliers could elect to keep Irving this year, allowing him time to change his mind or heal his relationship with an allegedly furious James. However, if the gamble fails, they risk pushing LeBron away in free agency, leaving them with a disgruntled Kyrie in 2018-19. At that point, Irving’s expiring contract would net the Cavaliers little return in a trade, suggesting the possibility they lose him for nothing the following offseason.
It may therefore be best for Cleveland to choose between James and Irving this summer. For numerous reasons, Irving loses the ultimatum. First is the issue of James’ no-trade clause. Second, by trading LeBron instead, the Cavaliers would needlessly abandon their last chance at a title. Third, despite James’ incredible value, few teams would be willing to sacrifice significant future assets for his one-year lease. Finally, no player with a VORP higher than James (7.3) has ever been traded the following season.
Of course, Irving’s lack of a no-trade clause gives Cleveland little incentive to send him to one of his four preferred destinations. The Cavaliers could listen to offers from any team this summer, including those surrounding the Suns whose package would most likely by Eric Bledsoe, and a Milwaukee trade that could net Jabari Parker.
However, Miami may be willing to send Cleveland more in a deal for Irving, based solely on his expressed desire to play there. Compared to the 26 teams unmentioned by Kyrie’s list, the Heat have more hope of re-signing Irving past his current two-year contract. With a variety of assets on their roster, Miami could put together an enticing package for Cleveland. In James’ final contract year, the Cavaliers are awkwardly stuck between win-now mode and a potential rebuild. Luckily, Miami can offer both an immediate contributor and young talent.
The centerpiece of a Miami-Cleveland deal would likely be Goran Dragić, who provides an equivalence to Irving both financially and statistically. Irving is set to make $18.9M next season compared to an even $17M for Dragić.
With the exception of points per game, the two guards posted nearly identical averages in 2016-17, especially in assists and steals. While Irving is clearly the better overall player, Dragić would allow the Cavaliers to remain a top contender next season. Under contract for one more additional year with a player option in 2019-20, Cleveland would have the flexibility to decide their future with the then-34-year-old guard. Regardless of James’ looming free agent decision, it’s a reasonably manageable contract for the Cavaliers, especially given the immediate benefits.
Miami can further ensure Cleveland’s future security by including one or more young, talented prospects. The top name in this category is small forward Justise Winslow, drafted 10th overall out of Duke in 2015. Winslow averaged 10.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 1.4 steals per contest last year. A torn labrum in his shoulder ended his season after just 18 games, though his upside remains intriguingly high.
While Cleveland would love to receive draft picks for Irving, Miami cannot trade a future first-rounder until 2023 following their 2015 deal for Dragić. Instead, they may consider including swingman Josh Richardson, who averaged 10.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.1 steals per game during his recent sophomore season. His production far outweighs his recently guaranteed $1.5M contract, eligible for an extension this August.
With this simple deal, Cleveland remains flexible yet competitive, while Miami receives the franchise cornerstone it’s long been awaiting. ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine tool predicts a satisfactory impact for both sides, especially given the delicacy of the situation.
While it remains to be seen where Uncle Drew will suit up next season, Irving could benefit from following James’ footsteps to South Beach. There may be plenty of jersey-burning to go around, but perhaps, someday in the future, Cleveland fans might just thank the Cavs for the move.
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