On any given night, Kyrie Irving is one of the five best offensive players in the NBA. He belongs to an elite group of players that that can guarantee you a bucket in a tight game or the waning seconds in Game 7 of an NBA Finals. Give him the ball and clear out. Despite Curry’s much-improved defence and Klay Thompson’s elite level ability to shut down opposing guards, Irving had his way against the Warriors in the last two NBA Finals.
So why, then, is Irving demanding a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers?
It isn’t uncommon. The NBA has a history of superstars asking for trades.
However, a trade demand from a star who has made it to two consecutive NBA Finals, won a ring, and got to play alongside the best player in the world, is unprecedented.
There are a bunch of theories flying around: Irving wants his own team, Irving knows that LeBron is leaving after his contract is up this season, Irving and LeBron James do not get along. As conspicuous as the trade demand has been (it was allegedly leaked), the reasons for the trade demand remain shrouded in secrecy, hearsay and theories.
We could speculate, but it would change nothing about the trade demand. What we can do, though, is analyse five possible trade scenarios:
Before Nikola Jokic appeared on the scene, the Denver Nuggets did not have a single definitive path to pull themselves out of the West’s middle class. Now they do, making them an attractive destination for Irving. It is no secret that Irving isn’t a pass-first point guard. That will not be a problem for the Nuggets who have two agile and incredibly intelligent playmakers in Jokic and the newly-acquired Paul Millsap; players alongside who Irving could find that passing gene that is missing in his otherwise perfect offensive game. The Nuggets do not have spare assets lying around, so the trade will cost them dearly.
The Cavaliers will expect some combination of Jamal Murray, Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris, to go along with picks. No surprise then, that this would derail Denver’s rebuilding plans if Irving decides to leave in two seasons when his current contract is up. Involving a third team would offset some of the downsides to the Nuggets, and possibly net the Cavaliers a natural point guard, which neither Harris nor Murray is. Nevertheless, finishing within a touching distance of the 2017 Playoffs, and Jokic’s talent makes the offer of having Irving in a Nuggets uniform a bit too sweet to pass up.
It’s strange that Irving mentioned the Heat on the list of teams that he would like to be traded to. Maybe it’s the great weather. Maybe it’s the chance to help a once-great franchise reclaim its glory days. Maybe it’s the team best suited for a run in the playoffs (remember, the Heat missed the 2017 Playoffs by one game). What it isn’t about is Irving wanting to play with Dion Waiters. Irving and Waiters suffered a dysfunctional relationship when they suited up for Cleveland during the non-LeBron years. Waiters is a Tier II player who believes he has Tier I talent.
Waiters, believes the Heat are his team, and any “threat” of losing that stature to an actual superstar is sure to hurt his ego. Any move that involves Irving making it to Miami will most likely involve Waiters trying to force his way out of there. This won’t be too big a loss for the Heat, who can then build around a core of Irving and Hassan Whiteside, and dangle Waiters for solid pieces to help with the rebuild. The Cavaliers, desperate for a point guard will not settle for anything less than Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, and a wing player who can defend and make three-pointers (Tyler Johnson or Wayne Ellington). Iman Shumpert has been woeful for the Cavaliers, so throwing him into the deal in return for a pick is in play.
The X-factor of the trade is Pat Riley. Do not underestimate his appetite for a deal that could have the Heat go up against LeBron in the 2018 Playoffs.
New York Knicks
In preparation for the inevitable departure of Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks have one of two choices: either rebuild around Kristaps Porzingis or take part in the Irving sweepstakes. In Irving, the Knicks will continue to be led by an established superstar with shaky defence, and who alongside Porzingis will form one of the most potent one-two combinations in the league. Irving can be a nifty passer when he is committed to well, passing the ball. Unlike in Miami, where Whiteside needs lob passes to be effective, Porzingis is a more evolved and complete offensive player. With Irving to worry about, Porzingis will get room to breathe against opposing defences and grow into his potential as a superstar.
A third team would have to be included to make this trade work, and there is no dearth of them. Admittedly the most intriguing one includes the Chicago Bulls, who after the departure of Jimmy Butler, will be happy to take on expiring contracts as part of their rebuild. One would do well to remember here that it is the best interests of Cleveland to keep LeBron happy. If the Chicago deal comes through, expect the trade to net the Cavaliers two of LeBron’s closest friends, Anthony and Wade, with JR Smith and Shumpert getting dumped on the Bulls, and Irving making his way to the Knicks with a smaller contract like Channing Frye.
This will undoubtedly free up Porzingis to wreck havoc in the paint while Irving does his dance at the perimeter. It will hopefully signal a change in the fortunes of a franchise that has become the poster child for being dysfunctional.
The Suns were not on Irving’s short list of requested destinations. But they do make a ton of sense. While there would most certainly have to be a third team involved, the Cavaliers will end up with Eric Bledsoe and the Suns with Irving.
In Bledsoe, the Cavaliers are getting one of the most underrated shooting guards in the league, someone who can go toe-to-toe with Irving on select nights. More importantly, he defends both guard positions effectively. The knock on Bledsoe is his injury history – he has played just 97 of the 164 games in the past two seasons. If Bledsoe can stay healthy, there is no doubt that he is, dare I say, the best available replacement for Irving.
In Irving, Phoenix will have their first superstar since Steve Nash and Amare Stoudamire from nearly a decade ago. The lone superstar in Phoenix, the Suns will undoubtedly become Irving’s team, something he made evident he craved when he demanded a trade in the first place.
Arguably the juiciest trade on the block. Not only does Minnesota have the best haul to offer the Cavaliers, but they also have the most enticing situation for Irving. Along with newly-hired coach and GM Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota is now home to Jimmy Butler (a top-15 player), and Taj Gibson (a reliable forward with playoff chops). No matter how they try to structure it, there is no getting around a deal that involves sending Wiggins to Cleveland.
Trading for Irving gives the Wolves a death lineup of Jeff Teague, Irving, Butler, Gibson and Towns. Even in the loaded West that is a team that will make the playoffs and is good enough to give the Warriors some trouble in a first or second round matchup. Minnesota also allows Irving to hide on defence behind the combined defensive talent of the rest of the team. Let’s also not forget Thibodeau’s ability to eke out the best out of a scoring guard (remember 2011, Derrick Rose?).
For Cleveland too, this deal makes a ton of sense. Wiggins will not find a better situation than to grow under LeBron’s guidance. Even if LeBron decides to bolt next season, the Cavaliers have in Wiggins, a superstar of the future who they can start a rebuild around. Also, let’s not forget it gives them another long body to compete with the Warriors come June 2018.
It defies all logic that he would leave LeBron’s side to seek out his own team, especially when this same Cavaliers team virtually guarantees him a third consecutive trip to the Finals. No matter where he ends up, this trade request has put a target on Irving’s back. If he stays in Cleveland, every move of his will be dissected and over analysed; if he gets traded, then anything short of a first round playoff appearance will be deemed a failure.