Breezed through the regular season, cruised through the Eastern Conference playoffs, and found themselves in the finals against the Golden State Warriors. That’s where the trouble started for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After (almost) getting swept by maybe the best team in basketball history, the Cavaliers needed a great offseason to put together a team capable of challenging the Warriors in LeBron James’ last year under contract. That didn’t happen. Dan Gilbert refused to give his GM a contract extension, players got (understandably) antsy about management and the future of the team, and the leaderless franchise flubbed a free-agency period that saw Jimmy Butler, Paul George, Gordon Hayward, and Chris Paul all happily don new colors.
Now Kyrie Irving wants a trade.
Irving made a list of four teams he’d like to play for (San Antonio, Minnesota, Miami, and New York) because, while he doesn’t have a no-trade clause and gets no say in the decision, it’s nevertheless a fun exercise. The Cavaliers, who have little depth and a sharp 2018 deadline, will have to find some way to turn Irving’s enormous trade value into a championship-quality starting lineup. There are a few trade scenarios, but none of them involve acquiring a player as talented or productive as Kyrie.
Of the four teams Irving named, two (New York and Minnesota) have pretty realistic assets to offer.
The Knicks could offer Carmelo Anthony, or Kristaps Porzingis (not likely), and in return get Kyrie Irving and (maybe) J.R. Smith. Melo’s the real key here; while he’s a couple years beyond his prime, he’s still a productive player, and who knows what some renewed motivation could do for him. Pairing him with LeBron James in a win-or-else season is a very interesting prospect.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have a lot to offer in terms of young talent, but with the recently-signed Jimmy Butler on their roster, they don’t have a clear place for former no. 1-overall pick (of the Cavaliers, coincidentally) Andrew Wiggins. Swapping Wiggins for an established top-level point guard with three point-range would fill a big hole in their lineup. But they just signed Jeff Teague, whom they can’t trade until December, and it’s not clear where Cleveland would stand after such a move; while Wiggins is a developing talent, it’s not a surefire win-now strategy, the kind you’ll need to make the most out of LeBron’s contract. Plus, it’s not clear that the Wolves are willing to make that kind of blockbuster trade right now. They clearly had a blueprint for the offseason and completely remade their team. Irving is a much better point guard than Teague, but management may nonetheless be happy with the overall makeup of its new-look contender.
You can imagine Irving going to Phoenix for Eric Bledsoe, or Miami for … something (Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow?). You can dream up some bizarre three-team trade that has Kyrie going to the San Antonio Spurs and LaMarcus Aldridge becoming a Green Bay Packer, if you want. At this point, it’s all too weird to predict confidently.
The Cavaliers could also just not trade him. Irving has three years and $60m left on his contract (though the last is a player option) and requesting a trade isn’t a legally binding demand. That doesn’t mean standing pat is the right move. It’s hard to imagine Irving’s value getting much higher. Does that make it more or less likely he’ll get moved? Hard to say. Let’s not pretend that the Cleveland management is a perfectly rational, utility-maximizing actor. They’ve bricked a lot of makeable shots this offseason. What’s to say they don’t airball on this trade and treat us to the most awkward season of on-court drama in living memory?
Without Kyrie, you have to imagine that the Cavaliers’ win totals are going to go down, though not a huge amount. The Cavaliers rested players and bumbled about enough last year to show that they can win fifty-ish games and finish near the top of the conference without trying too hard. If they do trade him, they’ll surely get something worthwhile in return. Their title odds might also fall a little, but that’s been true of this whole offseason. It’ll be interesting to see if any teams overtake the Cavaliers in second place, with the Golden State Warriors still a better-than-even-money favorite to win the championship, months before the season even starts. Remember: LeBron has been to the finals in seven straight seasons with a (somewhat) rotating supporting cast.
Let’s crunch some new numbers …
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS 2017-18 ODDS
Odds Kyrie Irving starts the 2017-18 season with …
- Cleveland Cavaliers: 1/1
- New York Knicks: 4/1
- Miami Heat: 8/1
- Phoenix Suns: 8/1
- Minnesota Timberwolves: 10/1