The first few seconds of your first earthquake are disconcerting. You don’t know what’s happening. The undulation, the noise, the inability to focus — it’s all disconcerting. But once you’ve been in a few, you know the feeling. You don’t relax, but you don’t panic, either.
Such is another week in the dramatic life of LeBron James. Another ‘quake? Big deal. It’s like he lives in a village called Frackingtown.
Kyrie Irving’s gone? Isaiah Thomas’ hip is jacked up worse than the Cavs thought? …
Kevin Love’s shoulder? Irving’s knee? Dwyane Wade’s knee? For that matter, Larry Hughes’ foot?
Guys go down next to James year after year, yet very little has stopped the party since 2007 — and not at all since 2010. And while a whole lot of people got their knickers twisted when Cleveland temporarily braked the deal, the end result was as good as anyone in Northern Ohio could expect, given the complete lack of leverage the Cavaliers had once Irving’s trade demands and unhappiness became public. (No, Koby Altman’s future as a GM isn’t ruined; everyone around the league knows the straight jacket every Cleveland exec is in, with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert driving the bus. Hey, he paid for the bus; he can drive it if he wants. Altman did a hell of a job getting what he got.)
Yet rarely have the two best teams in a conference made a trade with one another the summer after, jangling up all the pieces from their five-game Eastern Conference finals series just a few months ago.
Thomas may miss the start of training camp. He says he’ll be fine eventually, but can’t say for sure he’ll be on the court at the end of the month. But there is no doubt in the James camp that whether Thomas is ready for training camp or not, or the start of the regular season or not, James will still be on the last East team standing in June 2018.
But that doesn’t mean this whole rigmarole with Irving sits well in JamesWorld. You don’t chase Michael Jordan’s ghost with fresh new faces; you need grunts like the guy who went all over France looking for Private Ryan. Irving had earned his stripes and James was expecting a grand pursuit of Paul George or Jimmy Butler this summer to close the gap with the Golden State Warriors, not losing one of his best teammates and having to scramble.
James was floored when the trade demand surfaced, even before it went public. As such, JamesWorld views this as “a Kyrie thing,” not a LeBron and Kyrie thing, or a LeBron thing. This is all on Kyrie. His unhappiness at his secondary role to James is right out of the Stephon Marbury Chronicles, when the then-Wolves guard chafed at being Robin to Kevin Garnett’s Batman. (By contrast, Tom Gugliotta was just fine being Commissioner Gordon.)
One can think Irving is nuts for wanting to leave James, yet understand his position as well. At 25, he’s already got a ring. And there is no doubt that playing with James is hard. Entire franchises bend like palm fronds in a gale to his every wish and desire. Things are done his way, all the time, every day. He’s not wrong to ask, because until last year, when Irving rose up over Stephen Curry in the last minute of Game 7, no one in wine and gold had done anything championship worthy other than him.
But now, Irving has. And he’s young enough to want to bend a few palm fronds his way.
I think he’s still nuts for wanting to leave LeBron. But as Chris Rock said about something completely different, I understand.
Much was made at Irving’s news conference in Boston last week of the fact that Irving has yet to speak to James since the trade, but what good would that have done by now? (’Bron? Drew. Yeah, man, uh … look, it’s not personal; I just can’t stand being on the floor with you any more. Much love.’) As with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook last year, it’s probably best they keep a distance for now. They’re young guys — they’ll have plenty of time to make up.
Anyway, James can afford to be sanguine about his future. Wherever he plays, championship opportunities follow. The Cavs don’t have that luxury. Which is why they were never going to blow up the proposed deal from the Celtics. That deal held the key to their future — their post-LeBron future. There was no chance they were going to walk away from that.
The unprotected 2018 pick, whether it’s the first pick next June or the fifth, gives Cleveland a chance at a pre-20-year-old talent that it never would have a shot at through the rest of this decade, and probably well into the next.
And that would be the case no matter what James decides to do next summer. Unless there are realignment plans being made in secret, the Cavs will still be in the Eastern Conference next year.
Even if James leaves after next season, are you telling me a team with a re-signed Thomas, Jae Crowder, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, along with 20-year-old big Ante Zizic and that high Lottery pick wouldn’t be one of the top eight teams in the East? It’s the East — a team with Ben Stiller, Blue Man Group and the guy who played Steve Trevor in “Wonder Woman” could win 32 games. (It’s obviously too early to speculate on where the Cavs will pick in the ’18 Draft and who they’d take, but let’s make up a name just for fun; how about we call him ‘Darvin Tagley’?)
Slept on by those not paying attention, Zizic could be the hidden gem of this whole deal; at 18, he helped lead Croatia to the silver medal at Under-19 world championships. Last season, he dominated the Adriatic League and played very well in the Turkish Super League. As a capper, his Turkish team made the EuroLeague quarterfinals, where he did stuff like this to grown men.
Success of any kind in ’18 for Cleveland would mean no Lottery pick in 2019, either. But the Cavs would have a whole lot of athletic, young big men to build around, even if Love (who has a player option at $25.5 million in the summer of ’19) were to walk. And they could always move him beforehand if they wanted to accelerate a post-LeBron rebuild.
They could be Denver Nuggets East. Except with ‘Darvin Tagley’ on their roster.
But Danny Ainge had to pull the trigger. The gulf between the Cavs and Celtics in the conference finals last year was enormous. Boston couldn’t match Cleveland’s firepower, whether in the halfcourt or in transition. The NBA is all about scoring, and if you have enough elite two-way players like Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on your team, you have a chance to be able to play enough defense to win big. The Celtics had very good defenders in Crowder and Amir Johnson, but you couldn’t start two non-scoring threats against the Cavs.
That’s over now.
Irving is defensively challenged — he may not even understand the meaning of the word that fans shout near the ends of games when they want their team to keep the other team from scoring. And, Cleveland’s record when James didn’t play and Irving as the next superstar up the last couple of seasons was, plainly, awful. Irving has to prove he really is a leader and capable of leading.
But he’s the best — the best — player in the league with the basketball. Better than Westbrook, who’s electric and fierce, and John Wall, who’s a blur. (Just ask Lil’ Duval. )There’s no one who can stay in front of Irving; he goes from zero to scalding in about four seconds.
I’ve never seen anyone tear apart a Gregg Popovich defense the way Irving did in 2015, dropping 57 on the San Antonio Spurs on the road in a performance for the ages. He is an elite scorer that puts defenses on their heels from the opening tip, capable of giving it to you from deep, in the paint, through contact and anywhere he pleases.
Ainge wasn’t a superstar as a player. But he was a good player, whose life, like that of other good players, was made easier playing with superstars. That’s the only kind of team that has a chance of beating Golden State — another team full of All-Stars. Well, Ainge has three now in Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford, and he’s banking on a fourth emerging in either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum. (Maybe Ainge had an inkling a point guard was going to shake loose when he moved down before the Draft from the first overall pick to number three, where he took Tatum. Maybe he didn’t and just got lucky Irving wanted to scratch his itch.)
The Celtics will be an offensive monster going forward. Irving’s played with a better three than Hayward in James, of course, but that’s not a criticism of Hayward, for God’s sake. And Hayward’s never had a point guard to play off of as dynamic as Irving. And neither of them have played with as good a screen setter and shooter as Horford. Boston’s floor spacing should be immaculate many nights, as teams futilely try to follow the ball, which should be pinging from one potential scorer to another in coach Brad Stevens’ myriad misdirections.
Hayward will have laughably easy 25-point nights; he’s become so good with the ball and so strong in the paint. Just look at all the different ways he scores in this game against the Nuggets, and none of them seem at all forced. What will defenses do when Stevens puts Irving in the Thomas role on dribble handoffs with Horford, and Horford rolls, and Hayward pops, and Brown or Marcus Morris cuts weakside?
The only potential problem? Ainge not only sent a lot of defensive want-to out the door in Avery Bradley and Crowder (Johnson went to Philly as a free agent); he got rid of almost everyone who knows the names of the plays. A whole lot of institutional memory went out the door, so it’s going to be hard for this team to come together quickly.
In that way, they’ll be a lot like the Cavaliers, who’ll be waiting for Thomas to get healthy and for James to make up his mind, two teams yet again on a collision course, but with a whole new manifest.
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Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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