Good morning, Koby Altman.
You’re the new, 34-year-old General Manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that’s made three straight NBA Finals and would be a favorite for a fourth trip in a row under normal circumstances.
Of course, almost nothing has been normal in Cleveland since the Cavs’ 4-1 Finals loss in June to Golden State. All due respect, that’s why you have the GM gig now, succeeding David Griffin, who couldn’t come to terms with owner Dan Gilbert on a new deal and whose contract wasn’t renewed after expiring at the end of June.
So, you’re now in charge. And before the ink has dried on your new deal, there’s a … problem.
We all know that LeBron James is the team’s championship-capable present, and will be as long as he stays in Cleveland, such are his prodigious talents. Even though he’ll turn 33 next season, he’s shown no signs of lessening his death grip on the Eastern Conference. But James understands his considerable leverage, which keeps you and the Cavaliers, consistently, on the clock to improve the team. And, as ever, he has potential options — the Lakers, the Clippers, either, both — when he is again a free agent in a year. James and his representatives have expertly handled his contract since his return, and that unspoken but real pressure he wields is not subsiding any time soon.
But what to do about Irving? He’s just 25, the first pick overall in the 2011 Draft, and he’s just entering the prime of his career. And now, he, too, is exerting the leverage he has; whether people like it or not, he has some. That does not help you, but it’s real.
So, what to do? Do you give in and move him, whether to one of his preferred destinations, or somewhere else? Do you spend the rest of the summer trying to talk him out of his desire to leave, or do you acquiesce before the start of training camp? And if you decide to trade him, will you have any better result than Indiana did moving Paul George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis?
Or, do you do nothing, and report to training camp as if nothing happened?
“Just don’t go to Golden State,” Celtics forward Marcus Morris Tweeted on Friday.
Cleveland’s position isn’t as dire as Indiana’s was with George. George will be a free agent in 2018; Irving has two more seasons left on his deal before he can opt out in the summer of 2019. George was the Pacers’ franchise player; with all due respect to Irving, that spot still belongs to James in Cleveland. And, the Pacers haven’t experienced anything approaching the three-year run the Cavaliers have with their Big Three of James, Irving and Love.
But that won’t make the next few days and/or weeks any easier for Altman, or the Cavs. What to do, what to do?
(The following are concepts, not rumors, much less facts, and shouldn’t be blogged about at home without a licensed doctor’s accompanying note.)
Even with Irving’s request hanging in the air, the Cavs would still enter next season as the prohibitive favorite in the Eastern Conference. So the Cavs don’t have to do anything, and may not until Altman gets his proverbial feet on the ground. At the worst, they could use the first half of 2017 to see if there’s a blockbuster deal out there for Irving that makes sense for them.
But this scenario gambles that James would be okay entering next season with basically the same team from a year ago, when he’s made it clear he wanted management to improve the roster in order to give Cleveland a better chance to beat Golden State in a potential fourth straight Finals matchup. And everything with Cleveland starts and ends with what James will do in 2018.
How would Cleveland handle media day if Irving and James are both still on the team? Reporters will have to be persistent in asking Irving if he wants out of town, or just doesn’t want to play with James. There’s a fairly significant difference there. And James will have to answer if he wants to play with Irving anymore under these strained circumstances. And that would just be the first day; all the ‘I’m not talking about that’ proclamations will be hard to enforce all year long. What happens when Irving goes 2-for-13 in a game, or if James starts dropping hints via his various social media platforms during the year that he’s not pleased? The status quo doesn’t, at least right now, seem like a realistic solution.
(Unmentioned, as ever, when it comes to the Cavs: what about Love, who’s been mentioned in trade rumors since the end of the Finals? Can Cleveland bring him back, or does it have to move him this summer? That would impact James’s thought process, too.)
Trade Irving This Summer
You may think Irving is the world’s biggest ingrate, but it’s not insane for him to think he should be the face of a franchise, the Cavs’ 78-152 record in his first three seasons in Cleveland from 2011-14 notwithstanding. At 25, he’s already made four All-Star teams, an Olympic Team and a World Cup of Basketball team. He’s generally considered the best ballhandler in the game and one of the two or three most unstoppable players with the ball in the league. And, he hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers franchise history, which sent Cleveland to its first major sports championship in 52 years.
So, if the Cavs decide they have no choice but to trade him, there would be lots of teams lining up for him.
ESPN’s Chris Haynes reported Friday that Irving listed New York, Miami, San Antonio and Minnesota as potential destinations. Might as well start there.
Sure, Carmelo Anthony has said he’d waive his no-trade clause to be dealt to Cleveland (or Houston). But that presumably was to join a team with James and Irving on it, not one where he’s dealt for Irving. And the Cavs would have little incentive in dealing the 25-year-old Irving for the 33-year-old Anthony — unless Krystaps Porzingis, was coming with him. That’s highly unlikely — even though I don’t get the feeling Porzingis, while liked very much, is viewed as a franchise player just yet by the new guys in charge in New York, team President Steve Mills and General Manager Scott Perry.
A Unicorn-less Knicks-Cavs trade would be difficult. Can’t see Cleveland considering New York’s first-round pick, point guard Frank Ntilikina, and Courtney Lee a suitable return for Irving; you’d imagine the Cavs might ask for someone like all-rookie selection Willy Hernangomez, too. (Ntilikina couldn’t be traded until next month per Collective Bargaining Agreement rules, anyway.) Including Anthony would complicate matters, but could — at least conceivably — bring someone like Love into what would quickly become an even bigger blockbuster.
There’s not a natural fit here, unless the Heat was willing to talk Hassan Whiteside, and why would Cleveland do that when Tristan Thompson is cheaper? Goran Dragic is very good, but he’s 31, and not likely to excite the Cavs even in the short term, even in a package including the likes of Josh Richardson or Justise Winslow. But, never count Riles out if he’s determined to get his man.
A straight Spurs-Cavs deal is unlikely; the Spurs just don’t have enough contracts and/or prospects to make it work. A third team would probably have to get involved, and an obvious candidate would be Phoenix, which has young players, solid vets and old guys on reasonable contracts — any of which could be put into a deal.
But the Suns would have to still want LaMarcus Aldridge, who they nearly wooed successfully two years ago before he opted to sign with the Spurs. Aldridge’s uneven play the last two years could certainly have scotched the Suns’ interest in him.
If not, Phoenix could move Eric Bledsoe — whose agent, Rich Paul, is also James’ agent — to Cleveland, the Cavs could send Irving to San Antonio and another contract like Iman Shumpert’s to Phoenix, and the Spurs could sharpshooter and defender Danny Green to the Cavs, with Aldridge going to the Suns. (Another wrinkle: James Jones, one of LeBron’s closest friends, just took a front office job in Phoenix after playing the last seven years with James in Miami and Cleveland.)
Or, Phoenix could just cut out the Texas middleman and deal directly with the Cavs; Bledsoe and whichever of the Suns’ young first-rounders last year suits Cleveland’s fancy — Dragan Bender or Marquese Chriss — could be a good starting point to talk turkey.
Trade Irving at the Trade Deadline in February, 2018
Waiting until the deadline would allow Cleveland to work on repairing the relationship with Irving, while also mining the league to get more teams involved in what surely would be a bidding war for an elite level point guard.
A league source says Irving initially wanted to go to Chicago before the Draft to play with Jimmy Butler, a fellow Olympian with whom Irving has become close. But the Bulls didn’t have the pieces to make a deal work with the Cavs, and opted to trade Butler to the Timberwolves for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the seventh pick overall, which became Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen.
But how would this work? Minnesota just committed $57 million to free agent point guard Jeff Teague, whom Coach Tom Thibodeau pushed hard to sign. Thibodeau loved how Teague ran pick and roll in Atlanta with Al Horford, and also appreciates Teague’s durability; the 29-year-old Teague has played in 459 out of a possible 476 regular season games the last seven seasons. So it’s hard at first blush to envision Thibs pulling off of Teague for Irving.
For purposes of this exercise, though, let’s say Minnesota is interested, if for no other reason than Butler would like to get Irving in town. Cleveland would certainly ask for Andrew Wiggins as the centerpiece in return; by then, he probably would have agreed to the extension that Thibodeau said last week was in the offing. That would mean Irving would play the two alongside Teague, with Butler at the three. Could that work? Offensively, yes, but it would be problematic at the other end of the floor.
Even if the Cavs were willing to take Teague back instead, they would certainly want more; maybe the Wolves’ first-rounder, Justin Patton, along with Teague, for Irving would be palatable. (Teague can’t be traded until December and Patton can’t be moved until August.)
The retooling Clips certainly could put a package together with all the pieces they got in the Chris Paul deal, but they might need some help from another team to pull off a potential deal for Irving. Denver is always a willing trade partner and is in need of a point guard upgrade; the Nuggets wouldn’t get Irving in a potential three-teamer with the Clips and Cavs, but L.A. just signed Milos Telodosic, the best point guard in Europe, to a three-year deal; he can’t be moved until December.
By then, Cleveland could send Irving to L.A., with Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams going to the Cavs. In this scenario, Teodosic would go to Denver with Montrezl Harrell, with veteran Darrell Arthur going from the Nuggets to Cleveland, and the Nuggets giving the Clippers one of their surplus of 2018 second-round picks.
Trade Irving in July, 2018
By this time next year, the Cavs should have some idea of James’s future intentions. If he has indicated he wants to stay in Cleveland, a potential Irving trade would be much different than if the Cavs believe James is going to walk. If James is leaving, the Cavs would be in full rebuild mode and would certainly want young players and picks; if James is staying, they’d want veterans who could help him win in 2018-19 and beyond.
Again: this is all academic. But if the Cavs wait a year and then decide to move Irving, there would again be a lot of potential trade partners.
The Celtics wouldn’t seem to be an ideal trade partner for Cleveland; the Cavs would be strengthening their closest conference rival, and Irving’s ball dominance would seem to be at odds with the ball movement that has been a staple of Boston’s offense since Brad Stevens’s arrival. But both the Cs and Cavs would have reason for walking past the conventional wisdom if it makes their respective teams better.
Boston certainly wouldn’t have to make a deal; the Cs are already in ascendancy in the East, so why sacrifice any assets to Cleveland at all? Just get some popcorn, re-sign Isaiah Thomas next July and watch the Cavs implode. If you’re Boston, you’d only deal for Irving if you believed him better than Thomas and a seminal talent, one who could help the Celtics compete with the likes of Golden State for a championship, and beat them. Well, he’s already been directly involved with beating the Warriors in the Finals, in Golden State, in 2016. And, Boston may well be keeping its powder dry to make a trade push for the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis next summer.
One suspect Altman will be eating lunch at his desk for a little while. Pass the mustard and mayo.
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