The NBA, with its small roster sizes, outsized impact of star players, and high media visibility, has always made its storylines and dramatic episodes have a vibrant resonance. There may be no stronger one this season than the contretemps swirling in Cleveland the last few days. One star wanting out, the greatest player of this generation allegedly interjecting, and the arrival of a faded one time MVP the latest development.
Objectively, it’s only been two years since the 3-1 Comeback Championship, and the last two seasons have featured a largely foregone conclusion of Cleveland/Golden State finals. But this next chapter may mark a sudden power shift in the already lackluster East if chemistry issues disrupt the conference’s acknowledged top team the last two years running.
Tired of playing second fiddle in importance to LeBron James (a common trend among stars playing alongside an even brighter light – see James Harden with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in his Oklahoma City days ), Kyrie Irving demanded a trade on July 7th. Important to note: he lacks a No Trade Clause, so the Cavaliers are free to seek the best possible package for him – despite his wishlist of the Timberwolves, Spurs, Heat, or Knicks.
Zach Lowe of ESPN has summarized many of the current trade rumors and potential destinations, with Boston, Denver, and New Orleans as the most likely destinations, Phoenix as an outsider if the Suns are willing to overpay. Then again, have we yet seen Ainge willing to forfeit his treasure trove of his assets? (Recall my earlier discussion of the Jimmy Butler debacle, and of course, there was the whiff on Paul George).
Too, there’s the matter that though Irving is just 25, and under contract for two seasons, his stardom is more gild than gold. Yes, he scores a ton, and can rack up assists. But last season, he attempted 26 shots per 36 minutes – unheard of chucker territory that even the notorious ballhog Westbrook would blanch at. As Lowe notes, not even Kobe Bryant in his most audacious hero ball days attempted that. More to the point, and what will really damage Irving’s trade value, his defense is as awful as his offense is glorious. Such paper stars enthrall surface level fans, but those who dig deep into basketball’s intricacies are aware of the pitfalls of such one-sided players.
As for King James himself, Stephen A. Smith said on a recent podcast that sources close to LeBron have reported that James “would be tempted to beat his ass” if he and Kyrie were to meet face to face in the near future. Hardly the stuff of repairing a fractured relationship, and so it seems Irving’s departure is certain – the question is whether it’s before the regular season, or if it’s a December or January trade that treats us to the spectacle of two renowned teammates who hate each other playing through the first frame of games
If those signs aren’t enough, last night, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced the signing of Derrick Rose, former Chicago Bulls icon, late of the New York Knicks, to a one year veteran minimum. While Rose has physical limitations due to injuries sustained over his career, last season marked a turnaround amidst tumult with the Knicks – 18 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists on 47.1% shooting. Being surrounded by a team that will remain in contention so long as King James reigns should help further accelerate Rose’s climb back to relevance (and at 28, D-Rose is still very much in his traditional prime despite the injury issues), and it’s hard to imagine he could much worse than Irving defensively, who had -1.5 Defensive Box Score Plus Minus and posted a career-worst 4.1 Win Shares last season.
Ultimately, the threads of this saga are still spinning themselves out, and it will be critical for Cleveland to avoid the catastrophes committed by Chicago and Indiana in the Butler and George situations. Financially and age-wise, the Cavaliers have the leverage to be patient and collect a package worthy of an All-Star, flaws though he has. But this is a delicate situation, an impending deal, whichever they take, that will not only chart the short-time window for multiple titles, but echo for years after. Make the right decision, and we’ll see yet more repeats of the Cavs/Warriors end game. The wrong move will rechristen Cleveland as The Mistake By The Lake, the glory years soon to be only memories.