Cleveland Cavaliers Face Demise of Their Own Design Following Kyrie Irving’s Trade Request
Dan Gilbert and, by extension, Koby Altman tried it. They really did.
The Cleveland Cavaliers owner and newly-named general manager sat before a mass of media members on July 24 and did their darnedest to present a strong, unified appearance. But regardless of whether the most optimistic among Cavs supporters (assuming such a person even exists in one of the most tortured sports cities ever) picked up what they were trying ever so desperately to put down, there’s no future in their fronting (RIP MC Breed). In the aftermath of the news breaking—or leaking, depending on who you ask—that All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade in a meeting with the team’s brass earlier in the offseason and LeBron James’ subsequent shock, a once dominant franchise is in utter disarray.
To be clear, the Cavs, contractually, don’t have to meet Irving’s request, let alone his reported desire to be shipped off to the New York Knicks (where he “very badly” wants to play), Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs or Miami Heat. He still has two more seasons remaining on a five-year, $94.3 million deal he signed in 2014. Unlike Carmelo Anthony, he doesn’t have a no-trade clause. Nonetheless, he has likely played his last game in wine and gold.
Cleveland, like every other team in the NBA, had its championship dreams shattered last July when Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. It’s never prudent to keep somebody who wants out. And Irving’s imminent departure doesn’t mean the Cavaliers are immediately doomed. They could still make a deep run through the 2018 playoffs without him. But it does mean there won’t be anything worth salvaging beyond then—especially with James a threat to take his talents elsewhere next summer. Cleveland could be staring at an unpromising draft picture and no superstars to attract big-name free agents.
And it didn’t have to be this way. But when your organization is headed up by Gilbert—the caricature of an owner who hasn’t done much without former general manager David Griffin other than own a team located in the region LeBron James was born—a rebuild that could’ve been avoided is now a reality you’re forced to face.
Here’s where the Cavs (read: Gilbert) went wrong.
The First Botched Trade
In a move as inexplicable as the decision to select Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall in 2013, Griffin resigned just four days before the 2017 NBA Draft. His exit left the Cavaliers stranded like a ship without a rudder. Coincidentally, his departure came on the same day Cleveland reportedly entered into trade talks that might have brought Jimmy Butler to the Cavs.
The deal would’ve likely meant the end of Kevin Love’s time in Cleveland. The Cavs would’ve pulled the trigger without hesitation to add Butler, a sizable defender at 6’7”, 231 pounds who’d give Kevin Durant hell in the Finals. Butler also could’ve spared James precious playing time. The 32-year-old led the NBA in minutes played per game last season, averaging 37.8.
Butler could’ve easily been inserted into Cleveland’s starting lineup at small forward, his natural position. Keeping Irving and J.R. Smith, as their starting backcourt and sliding James down to power forward alongside Tristan Thompson at center would’ve ensured the Cavs once again ripped through the Eastern Conference. Butler’s 2016-17 player efficiency rating (25.19) was second among players classified as shooting guards, behind only James Harden (27.43). James, meanwhile, played power forward 82 percent of the time during his last MVP season in 2012-13, according to Basketball Reference.
Whenever they went big and played James and Butler on the wings, defenses wouldn’t be able to do more than pick their poison. James and Butler each averaged 9.5 drives per game, tops among players listed as forwards by stats.NBA.com.
Butler now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Second Botched Trade
To the Cavaliers’ credit, Butler isn’t they only superstar splash they pursued this summer. Paul George popped up on their radar as well—a would-be move that made just as much, if not more, basketball sense.
George enjoyed his finest offensive season as a pro in 2016-17, averaging 23.7 points on 46.1 percent shooting from the field, including a 39.7 percent clip from three-point range and 89.8 percent rate from the free-throw line, good enough for fifth in the league. His 53.4 effective field-goal percentage was also a career-high. He could’ve blended beautifully as a dual-threat scoring option off James and Irving’s penetration. George rated third among starters at forward in catch-and-shoot situations, putting up 7.4 points per game on a 43.6 percent success rate. His 5.4 drives per game were the 16th most in the league.
We’ll never know exactly when and for how long the conditions of the proposed deal were in place. But, at some point, Cleveland balked at a trade that would’ve made the former Pacers star a Cavalier over a lottery-protected pick.
George now plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It’s hard to believe anyone who hit and seldom missed at the rate Griffin did when it came to personnel decisions would let not one, but two, blockbuster coups fall through the cracks. Since becoming the full-time GM in May 2014, he made shrewd moves to acquire Love, trading former No. 1 selection Andrew Wiggins. He also snatched up key role players such as Smith, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson in 2015-16, and Kyle Korver and Deron Williams this past season.
Griffin had to see the writing on the wall and decided to save face and quit while he was ahead. When asked why no GM has ever been re-signed under his regime, all Gilbert had to offer was a snide remark, saying they’ve each served four years—a “presidential term.”
Unprovoked, he also commented on what the Pacers received in exchange for George, coyly saying they ‘could’ve done better’
So could he.
Gilbert needs to realize he’s a businessman, not a basketball guy. Owners who understand they’re delegators, not dictators, prosper in the long haul. Given Griffin’s track record, Gilbert had no reason to distrust his then-GM. Even if he had no intentions of keeping Griffin through 2017-18, he could’ve at least, for the sake of the franchise, allowed him to navigate them through the offseason. It would’ve been disingenuous, especially if Griffin had landed George, but that’s better than downright stupid. Now, it appears the Cavaliers could be destined to return to the days in which they couldn’t score suitable running mates for James on the free-agent market. They missed out on the primary targets, including Amar’e Stoudemire, Michael Redd and Ray Allen, during James’ first tenure with the team—failures that ultimately pushed James to South Beach in 2010.
Who knows? Griffin might’ve been able to talk some sense into Irving and convince him to stay. The man penned an inspirational letter following Game 4 of the 2016 NBA Finals, which helped propel the Cavs to one of the most improbable comebacks in sports history.
Altman is beginning what’s likely his dream job under nightmarish circumstances. It’s a predicament in which his people skills (earning the trust of one of the greatest players) as much as his professional acumen (managing the cash-strapped bottom half of Cleveland’s top-heavy roster) will be tested. With an estimated 20 teams pining after Irving, it’s on Altman to evaluate and analyze every inquiry, then execute a deal that brings in the right assets to ensure both the Cavs’ immediate success and long-term relevance. That’s a lot to ask of a guy whose NBA experience dates back just five years.
Heck, the dude was selling commercial real estate 10 years ago.
Saddled with the league’s most expensive payroll ($144.2 million) heading into next season, Cleveland must do all it can to get the best return on its investments while James is in uniform. But the King is no kiddie just entering his prime. He’s well aware of where he is, entering his 15th season and still playing at an exceptionally high level. He knows what he’ll likely be up against in the Warriors, arguably the greatest outfit ever assembled, should he reach the Finals again. The player option he can exercise at the end of the 2017-18 campaign makes him the captain of his fate. The Cavs can’t realistically expect him to stick around and wade through tempestuous weather if the first post-Irving season ends in calamity.
Should James chuck Northeast Ohio the deuces again, Cleveland has only itself to blame. It’d be time for designed demolition—unloading hefty salaries of key role players such as Tristan Thompson (due $17.4 million in 2017-18), J.R. Smith ($14.7 million) and Iman Shumpert ($11 million), in addition to figuring out the future of Kevin Love, who can become a free agent in 2019 (player option).
A city that hadn’t won a professional sports championship in more than 50 years prior to 2016 would still be eternally grateful for a three-year stretch, during which its team went 161-85 (.654). No one would be able to take away what the Cavs were.
But given all that’s happened, and all that’s yet to unfold, there’s every reason to fear what they might soon become.
Follow Nick on Twitter @Birds_Word.