NBA Saturday: Irving Won’t Be Last Man Standing

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Kyrie Irving delivered the most unexpected move of the NBA’s offseason when it was reported on Friday by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst that the point guard had requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Windhorst further reported that this move had “blindsided” teammate LeBron James and that James was “devastated” by this development.

This is the same Irving who just last month was in the Finals facing off against the Golden State Warriors for a third straight time with James and the remainder of the Cavs. The same Irving who just last year sank the three-point shot of a lifetime in Game 7 of the Finals to put away the Warriors, mailing in Cleveland’s epic 3-1 series comeback. And the same Irving who almost assuredly would have been a key component next season in the Cavaliers quest to make it to the Finals for a fourth straight season.

But instead, this Irving wants to take a different route, and quite frankly, you can’t blame him.

As information about the request from Irving to Cavs owner Dan Gilbert became public, the word reported by Windhorst was that Irving was ready to join a team where he was the “focal point” and no longer wanted to play in the shadow of James. But during Irving’s request, he gave a list of teams that he would prefer to be traded to. Those clubs were the San Antonio Spurs, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami HEAT, and New York Knicks.

It should be noted that Irving doesn’t possess a no-trade clause in his contract. So requesting to be traded to any particular team could wind up being a futile request, as Cleveland owes him no such favor. Should they decide to trade their franchise point guard, it would be wise to take the best offer available, not adhere to Irving’s request.

What else is interesting about Irving’s request is that two of the four team’s on his list, San Antonio and Minnesota, already have players that would stop Irving from being the “focal point” of the team, as he so badly desires. Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs is arguably a top-five player in the entire NBA, and the Wolves have Karl-Anthony Towns, Jimmy Butler, and Andrew Wiggins.

It wouldn’t exactly be the “Kyrie Irving Show” in either of those cities.

However, the narrative of wanting his own team could be a bit stretched out at the moment, and potentially even a scapegoat excuse for what Irving could believe is the end of the road for the construct of the Cavs as they currently stand. James is a free agent next summer, and the buzz around the league is that The King is looking to leave town for the second time in his career.

Before James returned to Cleveland from his Miami sabbatical in the summer of 2014, Irving had averaged just 26 wins a season as the “focal point” of the Cavs team. Granted, the club wasn’t nearly as talented as it is today, but nevertheless, Irving didn’t equate to enough wins for a postseason berth until the best player on the planet decided to return home. This request by Irving could be related to a personal feeling that James may take his talents elsewhere next summer, leaving his 25-year-old point guard on a depleted roster with minimal cap flexibility and assets. In a word, the move to be traded ahead of the curve is a proactive approach by Irving.

What usually gets lost in remembering James’ triumphant return home to Cleveland in search of delivering the city its first ever NBA championship is the mess he left behind in Miami for some of his running mates — particularly, Chris Bosh.

Bosh turned down a four-year, $88 million deal from the Houston Rockets in July of 2014, not wanting to break up the “Big 3” core of himself, James, and Dwyane Wade that had just lost to the Spurs in the Finals after winning back-to-back championships. But instead, James bolted from South Beach to The Land, leaving Bosh and Wade high and dry.

Two summers later, Wade left Miami for Chicago.

Amid a multitude of health issues, including blood clots in his lung, Bosh has barely seen the court since James left town. But that hasn’t stopped Miami from affecting his career in a negative way. HEAT president Pat Riley ended Bosh’s tenure last September, citing recent physical exams that didn’t leave Riley comfortable enough to put Bosh back on the court, despite Bosh’s optimism in achieving that goal. It wasn’t until earlier this month that the HEAT officially waived Bosh, setting him free to pursue other NBA opportunities.

Of course, health issues are out of the control of any one person, and certainly in no way was James’ departure from Miami an affecting factor in Bosh’s medical situation. But, the fact that James didn’t communicate his plans to return to Cleveland with his teammates left an individual in a sticky situation that took nearly three years to gain clarity.

At the end of the day, it wouldn’t be surprising if Irving wants to avoid being stuck in a similar situation: Left to pick up the pieces of a team that James up and leaves.

Despite the reports of Irving wanting out and the conversation about him wanting his own team, the Cavs aren’t in a pressure situation to trade their point guard right away. Under his current contract, Irving is controlled by Cleveland for this upcoming season and the season after until he gains a player option for the 2019-20 year. So, conceivably, the Cavs could keep Irving around for another season while they take one last swing at a championship and then deal him if James does, in fact, decide to walk. Obviously keeping a player on board when he doesn’t want to be there isn’t an ideal situation, but if Irving is looking out for his best interest, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Cavs did the same by using their last chance at league-wide relevance before potentially falling back into oblivion.

Time will tell if and when Irving ultimately gets traded out of Cleveland. But for a dynamic scoring point guard on the cusp of his prime, trying to stay ahead of the curve and look out for his own best interests shouldn’t garner criticism.