Just when we thought the NBA offseason was finally ready to simmer down, Kyrie Irving came out of nowhere and demanded a trade from the Cavs. This isn’t one of those half-serious trade demands either, where the team humors the player but never really intends to pull the trigger. By all accounts, the Cavs appear ready to move on from the 25-year-old wunderkind who we recently ranked as the best ball-handler in NBA history. They even discussed their post-Kyrie plans with new free agent signing Derrick Rose. At this point it would be a shock if he isn’t moved by the All-Star break and a surprise if he’s on the roster come opening day.
There is a lot to unpack here and a lot of questions to answer, so let’s get started…
What Is Kyrie’s Motivation?
This is the biggest single question I have about this entire story. Was it simply that he saw the writing on the wall – LeBron probably leaving, no GM in place, Dan Gilbert cutting back on payroll, no young assets outside of Kyrie himself – and decided to get out while the going was still good, before he was left holding the bag for a franchise in disarray?
Or – as most reporting about this story has indicated – was it simply a case of Kyrie being sick of playing in LeBron’s shadow on and off the court?
Logic would tell us that it’s actually a combination of the two, but it sounds like Kyrie wanted out of Cleveland even before LeBron got there. Winning a title and making three straight Finals with the best player in the league was enough to keep him satisfied for a little while, but as soon as the first cracks in the Cavs’ foundation revealed themselves, he immediately asked for a trade.
Whatever the truth, it does seem a little weird that he didn’t wait until next summer. Even if he is as sick of LeBron as has been reported, would one more year playing together really be that bad, especially when the Cavs remain a Kevin Durant twisted ankle away from winning another title? Perhaps this guy is who to blame?
In the end, I’m guessing that he didn’t want to spend his prime being overshadowed by LeBron, and he didn’t want to be stuck holding together the pieces of an aging team built around LeBron when the latter jets to LA next summer. Therefore he decided to pull the trigger now. Kyrie is a super-smart, super-thoughtful young man with lots of ambition and a very, very high opinion of his own skill set.
Injuries marred his time at Duke and early NBA years, and then LeBron came along and sucked up all the oxygen in the city. My guess is that he sees himself as LeBron’s equal more than his sidekick, and there are people in his ear reminding him that he will never have the spotlight that someone of his talent deserves while playing with LeBron. I bet something like James Harden in Houston would be his ideal scenario: a good, competitive team that is always looking to improve, but there is zero doubt who’s the face of the franchise.
Where Does Winning Rank Among Kyrie’s Priorities?
Is it possible that the reason Kyrie didn’t want to wait a year was because he knew that if they DID win the title, it would increase the chances that LeBron would re-sign, therefore putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Kyrie to return for a chance at three rings in five seasons? If he really wanted out – because of an intense desire to be the face of his own franchise – this may have been a way to do it.
Clearly, winning isn’t Kyrie’s number one priority. If it was, he would stay with LeBron James. LeBron isn’t only a guaranteed trip to the Finals – he’s the perfect complement to Kyrie on the court, taking care of the majority of ball-handling and playmaking so Kyrie can do what he does better than almost everyone who’s played the game: scoring. More specifically, scoring in bunches while remaining efficient.
Winning does seem to be a priority, just not the priority. His list of desired teams included San Antonio and Minnesota, two places where he wouldn’t be the best player on the team, but he would be the biggest star. Basically, all things being equal he would like to win, but being “the man” is more important. Hence the inclusion of the hometown Knicks on his list.
Speaking of the Knicks…
Where Will Kyrie End Up?
The great Zach Lowe mentioned that the only thing that could salvage this situation may be a meeting of the minds between LeBron and Kyrie, à la the LeBron-Love Beverly Hills poolside summit two summers ago. It makes sense, but it also seems that Kyrie is sick of playing for a franchise where personnel decisions are made based on the results of LeBron’s cabana meetings. If they couldn’t iron out their differences over the course of three years together, one conversation may not be enough to do the trick.
As of now, the two most likely destinations seem to be Phoenix and Minnesota. Phoenix could build a package around Eric Bledsoe, Marquese Chriss, and a future pick (they say they won’t include Josh Jackson in any deal, which is absurd in its own right). Kyrie would have the spotlight and as many shots as his heart desired, and he would team up with Devin Booker to create a devastating offensive partnership (as well as a horrifying defensive one).
Minnesota could offer Andrew Wiggins and whatever else straight up, or wait until the season started and offer Wiggins and Jeff Teague (who can’t be traded until December) for, say, Kyrie and Iman Shumpert. That would be ideal on their end, but very awkward for Cleveland, Kyrie, and LeBron. If the team is moving on, it would make sense sooner than later for a variety of reasons. The Knicks could also get involved, but it might take a third team to make the particulars work. Either way it would result in Kyrie at MSG and Carmelo playing next to LeBron.
One dark horse that seems appealing are the Nuggets. They could basically offer anyone not named Jokic. The question is whether or not that would be enough to entice the Cavs. A Jokic-Kyrie partnership would be really appealing because Kyrie wouldn’t have to distribute the ball much (which I’m not convinced he’s interested in doing anyway) and could focus on scoring.
One thing is for sure: wherever Kyrie ends up, he will always be fun to watch.