It’s hard to tell the truth from the lies when it comes to the rumors swirling around Kyrie Irving and his demand to be traded by the Cleveland Cavaliers. But there are some things, regardless of how close you are to the situation, that are difficult to miss.
It seems there isn’t a single theory or angle that hasn’t been explored over the last few days since it became known that Irving was looking for an out from Cleveland, and perhaps mostly to move far away from LeBron James. That he wants to be the Alpha, that he wants to have a team like Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving. That he didn’t like seeing James’ friends getting special treatment from the franchise compared to his own friends. The list goes on and on.
Irving wants to be the number one player on the team, again. He did it for three years on a bad Cavaliers team before James arrived. His numbers were OK, he made 2 All-Star teams, but the Cavaliers were never close to making the playoffs, he didn’t get along with Dion Waiters (not that difficult to do), and before James returned there was talk about Irving being traded or not being the best thing for the franchise.
But is he a #1 guy? That’s the wrong question. Anyone can be a number one guy on the team, and Irving certainly has no problem with being the focal point of the offense if need be. He averaged 25.2 points per game last season while playing somewhat of a second fiddle. Give him a higher usage rate (was 30.8% last season), and we could see him put up 30 points per game or something close to that.
The question is whether or not you can build a contender around him while he plays the #1 role. The Golden State Warriors are showing that teams might be approaching this in a very wrong way, but most NBA teams are still thinking in terms of clear hierarchy, instead of something a lot more democratic, flowing and smooth.
The last three seasons might be misleading, because Irving wasn’t asked to be a playmaker, but mostly a scorer, which he did quite well. He’s not the passer Wall is, but he shot over 40% from three in two of the last three seasons and maybe after all we’ve been underestimating him as a facilitator and basketball visionary.
One thing that a team considering giving up something big for Irving while making him their designated go-to-guy on the floor: The Cavaliers were awful whenever he was on the floor without James last season, as in bottom of the NBA bad, or something close to it. Even when it was him and Kevin Love (which might suggest why it’s been so difficult for the Cavaliers to find a trade for Love), the Cavaliers had a negative net rating. The Cavaliers had a +8.4 net rating when LeBron James was playing last season, and were 17.1 points per 100 possessions better with him than without him.
The Cavaliers are in a bind, with both Irving and James, and with Love as well – He knows the team is trying to trade him, and probably isn’t that happy about going back to a place he isn’t 100% wanted in. The NBA is a business, but players, just as Irving has shown, see things in a less corporate way sometimes.
Cleveland will be looking for a young star in place of Irving, which makes things complicated. We’ve seen countless of trade scenarios drawn out over the last few days: From Andrew Wiggins making his way back to the team that drafted him, to a straight up deal between the Blazers and the Cavs for Lillard-Irving, to the Sacramento Kings with De’Aaron Fox making his way to Ohio. No one really knows.
Assuming the Cavaliers will try to keep Irving out of the Eastern conference if and when they ship him off, he might find out that he’s not the Franchise point guard he sees himself as. In the East he’s an All-Star, but in the West, with Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard, things become a bit more crowded, and more difficult for Irving to stand out. As Lillard said when asked on the subject – What’s wrong with making the NBA finals each season?