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NBA Sunday: Kyrie Irving Could Make Sense For The Sixers

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With the stroke of his mighty pen and gargantuan expectations on his shoulders, three years ago, LeBron James announced to the world that he intended to finish what he started in Cleveland.

Sure, the four years he spent in Miami were a success—four conference titles and two championships was nothing to sneeze at—but James sought to get one for ‘The Land,” which he eventually did.

Even back then, though, three years ago, we knew that Kyrie Irving, from a mentality standpoint, was more Kobe Bryant than he was Tony Parker. Bryant, in a desire to become his own man and prove his worth as one of the NBA’s all-time great players, willingly waved goodbye to Shaquille O’Neal, despite the fact that the duo made it to four NBA Finals in five years and won three of them.

Parker, on the other hand, will go down as one of the best international players in NBA history—not simply one of the best players. Because Parker spent the prime years of his career in San Antonio, in the comfy confines of Gregg Popovich’s system and Tim Duncan’s greatness, it’s fair to say that he’s been overshadowed. His greatness, while appreciated, is quite often overlooked.

Parker himself is fine with it, but upon the return of James to Cleveland, we had our doubts about Kyrie Irving, and, whether in the long run, he would be.

As it turns out, he’s not, and as he reportedly seeks a new team to call his own, his joining the Philadelphia 76ers is a move that could make plenty of sense.

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Of all point guards that have entered the NBA, Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving are the two who seemed to catch on the quickest. Playing the lead guard position in the league is one of the more difficult things for a young player to learn, especially one who, in the case of Irving, only had a few college games under his belt.

In many ways, the lens through which we look to define greatness is foggy. We have collectively witnessed the devaluation of the scorer. Players like LeBron James, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard are applauded for their versatility and overall ability to impact winning on multiple fronts, while players like Carmelo Antony, Irving and, to a lesser extent, James Harden, are often criticized because what they happen to do best at the NBA level is score.

Somewhere along the line, we were taught to downplay the most important statistic in pro basketball: buckets. Those whose primary weapon is their ability to score, rather than being built around and protected—think Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks—are considered lost causes.

The ultimate irony is that although it was Irving who hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, the masses mostly believe that James could have won that series with almost any other elite guard by his side. But it takes a special, special player to make that shot under those circumstances. In years to come, after James Harden, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and Bradley Beal fail to hit those shots in similar circumstances, Irving’s three-point shot will be given newfound respect. It takes a special player to hit that shot just like it takes a special player to be the most dominant scoring force in the Finals.

Despite what the masses have been told as it relates to a score-first guard, I’d take Irving on my team in a heartbeat and figure out the rest later. Every coach and most executives around the league would, as well.

In pairing Irving with James, the Cavaliers had the good fortune of combining two mega forces. And with news breaking that Irving wants out, despite the San Antonio Spurs, Miami HEAT, New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves being the top four teams on his list, the one that makes the most sense is in Philadelphia.

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With little remorse and no regard for those whom he would hurt, LeBron James packed his bags for Greenwich, Connecticut and delivered news that changed everything.

He left Cleveland before, and as the whispers have grown louder that he is preparing to do the same, he has sat by, idly and eerily silent. Especially with the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, a superstar that wishes to marry his franchise has tremendous financial incentive to do so. James Harden and John Wall, for example, each recently signed four-year extensions that will pay them an average of $42.5 million per year.

The signing of an extension in today’s NBA is a comforting commitment that allows a franchise to sleep easy at night.

James insists on causing the Cavaliers to have nightmares.

If James intended on finishing his career in Cleveland, he would not have allowed his status and his pending free agency to have become such a topic of discussion. He would have directly addressed his situation and, at the very least, declared his allegiance to Cleveland and assured everyone that his refusal to sign a long-term deal was more about economics than anything else.

In other words, if you’re the Cavaliers, it should appear obvious that James already has one foot out the door. The team may be the cream of the East, but there’s little reason to believe they will be able to topple the Golden State Warriors. So, if you’re the Cavaliers, with James’ intentions to leave becoming more transparent by the day, a trade involving Irving—if it were to happen—is one that should be made for the betterment of the future of the franchise. This would be an obvious departure from the way the team has built around James in his second go round, as everything done has been for the here and now.

Until James let it be known that he intends to remain, the Cavaliers must begin preparing for life not only without Irving, but one without him, as well. Unless James commits to signing a multiyear extension now, any Irving deal should be made with the assumption that James is already gone, because trading Irving for pieces that are designed to help James win today—such as moving Irving for Carmelo Anthony—would be a disaster if James himself decides to bolt next July.

So long as the scenario is plausible, the most irresponsible thing the Cavaliers could do would be to trade Irving without getting future assets in return.

That’s why, for the Cavaliers, the Sixers would make an ideal trading partner.

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At this point in his career, after hearing his name called and witnessing his tremendous growth, it’s hard to believe that Irving is only 25 years old. He is a seasoned veteran, someone who knows how to win and a player who knows what it feels like to be a champion. That is exactly the type of player that Bryan Colangelo should be trying to fit in with the Philadelphia 76ers, especially if such a player were amenable to taking the fortunes of the franchise upon his shoulders.

Although Irving doesn’t own a no-trade clause, the fact that he only has two guaranteed years left on his current contract gives him some leverage in any trade discussion. Few teams would be willing to part with significant assets if they aren’t given some assurances that Irving would be willing to re-commit after likely becoming a free agent in July 2019.

So the first and most obvious question would be whether or not Irving would be amenable to re-signing in Philadelphia and fully committing to the franchise. Whether or not he would be is dependent on his personal priorities, but at this point, it appears that Irving is intent on spreading his wings, becoming the savior of a franchise and earning a legacy for himself, similar to what Bryant accomplished after his breakup with Shaquille O’Neal many moons ago.

In Philadelphia, if Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could remain healthy, with J.J. Redick, Amir Johnson and Nik Stauskas, Irving would immediately have a few core contributors that could help the Sixers make inroads in the weakened Eastern Conference. With Markelle Fultz, Jahlil Okafor and the future first round picks owed to the Sixers by the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings, it’s easy to imagine a deal that would make sense for both the Cavaliers and Sixers, even if the Sixers ended up moving Fultz, an unknown quantity, to Cleveland.

Although the mere suggestion of moving Fultz in a trade is bound to evoke negative sentiments from fans in Philadelphia, the simple truth is that the odds do not favor Fultz being a more effective lead guard than Irving. While it is possible, it certainly isn’t promised—and you can bet Danny Ainge shares similar sentiments.

Once upon a time, for the Chicago Bulls, the thought of trading Derrick Rose was unimaginable. But with an injury here and some infighting there—everything changes. As a class, NBA general managers are all about maximizing opportunity while mitigating risk, and the Sixers will likely spend the next three years hoping that Fultz can become as impactful as Irving already is. In real life, NBA prospects are stocks, and we simply don’t know whether Fultz’s value will increase or decrease or whether he will ever be able to live up to the expectations that people have of him.

Many thought that Kris Dunn was one of the best prospects in last year’s draft—how’s that proclamation looking now?

Dunn will obviously have the opportunity to fulfill his potential as a member of the Chicago Bulls, but we simply can’t allow a player’s potential to be great cause us to roll our eyes when a player whose true value and impact is already known becomes available on the market.

No responsible general manager would, either.

When Bryant Colangelo spoke exclusively with Basketball Insiders during the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League, he was proud of the progress that his team had made and, more importantly, the flexibility and the assets that they’ve managed to hoard. Adding Irving to an already impressive core would push their rebuild to the next level and make Philadelphia a premier free agent destination again. With the lack of long-term commitments in Philadelphia, with Irving, there’s no reason to believe that impactful players that are being squeezed out of contention out West wouldn’t give an Irving-led Sixers team consideration. Look at Gordon Hayward, for example.

Most importantly, relocating to Philadelphia would give Irving a franchise that he could truly call his own and one that’s merely a stone throw from where he came of age in West Orange, New Jersey. They are ahead of the curve in terms of their rebuild and happen to be in a conference that’ll become wide open should James take his talents to Los Angeles.

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In the NBA, it’s never easy to trade a superstar. After just six years in the league, Irving has become a household name and helped to deliver something that the City of Cleveland will never forget. In short, he’s a truly special player, even if his best asset—his ability to score—has been devalued.

As Irving looks to move on and find a franchise he can call his own, judging by the teams he’s reportedly interested in, it’s obvious that he’s in search of an impactful legacy, not necessarily a team that’s contending at this very moment. At the very least, it would be interesting to know whether he would consider the Sixers or not.

For Colangelo and the franchise, their return to respectability, despite the excitement surrounding them, is surrounded by uncertainty and “if” scenarios…

If Joel Embiid can stay healthy…

If Ben Simmons is as good as advertised…

If Markelle Fultz is the real deal…

On the other hand, Kyrie Irving is a sure thing. So if Bryan Colangelo got a call from the Cavaliers, at the very least, he would listen.

With LeBron James already seeming to have one foot out the door, for the Cavs, the most prudent thing to do when entertaining trade offers for Irving it to imagine that he’s already gone. He has the power to end the speculation over his future, and especially with Irving’s status hanging in the balance, could easily notify management of his intention to remain long term and encourage the team to move Irving for pieces that will continue to help him contend today.

Short of that, the Cavs should do what James has been for all these years—acting in its own best interest.

Engineering a trade that sends Irving to Philadelphia in exchange for future assets would be exactly that.

Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.

About Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and international basketball.