This is news, and it’s unexpected, strange, and very much in line with the star-driven market that is the modern NBA. It’s a Friday news dump that almost certainly didn’t come from the Cavs, so read into that as you will, and cue the speculation. Irving reportedly wants his own team and has wavered on his desire to play with LeBron James. The Cavs are financially strapped, have done little to improve their roster this off-season, and are staring down another date with the Warriors as their best-case scenario for this season.
Before getting into specifics, I can’t stress this enough: The Cavs do not have to trade Irving, who does not have a no-trade clause and can’t force his way out without serious arm-twisting. The list of preferred destinations his camp reportedly gave the Cavaliers (the Spurs, Knicks, Heat and Timberwolves) can and may be given little credence, should the team choose to explore options. Cleveland is reportedly making assistant general manager Koby Altman the full-time GM, which at least temporarily abates the front-office leadership questions (they’re significant). The news puts the future of Irving and James even further in flux, as well as that of Love, who’s been in and out of trade rumors for two years.
Irving is owed about $18.8 million next season, with almost $60.3 million left on the last three years of his contract. He has a player option for the 2019–20 season, meaning he has two full years left of team control if the Cavs trade him before the season. Irving’s deal has a 15% trade kicker that the Cavs would have to pay him in the event of a deal (unless he waives it). The Cavs are above the salary apron and deep into the luxury tax as it stands. Remember that players who signed new deals in free agency can’t be traded until three months after the date they signed their contract, or Dec. 15, whichever is later. Any Irving trade is probably not imminent.
Additionally, it’s unclear which route the Cavs would go in terms of demanding a return. Do they move to keep LeBron happy, surround him with parts to help him try to contend next season and hope he stays next summer? Or do they aim for young parts in the event he walks? There’s an argument to be made for both. The Paul George trade stands as evidence that disgruntled stars with a foot out the door don’t always command starry returns. If Irving really doesn’t want to play with James, the Cavs have even less in the way of leverage, despite his youth.
The Cavaliers could also look to creatively leverage an Irving trade into an opportunity to shed long-term salary, given the serious financial constraints on the cap sheet, but a move like that would likely involve a step back on the talent front, which has immediate implications for James (who, for what it’s worth, has a no-trade clause). Speculatively, it’s possible this would need to be a multi-team trade to make sense.
And then again, if Irving wants to be the main star and doesn’t want LeBron...it’s entirely possible he can just wait a year and let that happen.
Here’s a breakdown of the four linked teams and an exploration of others who could butt their way into the conversation.
Miami and Florida’s player-friendly state taxes make the Heat a perennially attractive landing spot for stars. There’d certainly be some dark humor in Irving going to join James’s former team, and the Heat could feasibly put together an offer that would match up financially. The Heat could dangle Goran Dragic as a positional fit and near-salary match and young players like Justise Winslow and Bam Adebayo. That baseline wouldn’t be a terrible offer, assuming Miami felt it could keep Irving around. The Heat also have draft picks to offer. But they just signed James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to long-term deals, Tyler Johnson’s salary will balloon next summer, and the team would then be challenged to create flexibility to support Irving with better talent. Would the Cavs move Irving within the conference without a chance to immediately improve?
Irving and Jimmy Butler are friends from their days with USA Basketball, and the Timberwolves have plenty of talent, which makes it an attractive destination in terms of immediate opportunity to win. However, with Andrew Wiggins negotiating a long-term extension and the team having just tied up $57 million for Jeff Teague over the next three seasons, the Wolves aren’t especially flexible. If you take Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Wiggins out of the equation, Minnesota has little to deal in the way of long-term assets—the rest of the team's cap sheet basically consists of veterans on shorter-term deals and the $62 million owed Gorgui Dieng over four seasons. As the Wolves improve, the value of its future firsts will depreciate. Unless Minnesota is willing to move Wiggins back (oh, the irony), this seems unlikely.
New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony has reportedly been willing to waive his no-trade clause to join James in Cleveland, but trade rumors involving Melo and the Knicks have centered around Kevin Love, not Irving (who’s a New Jersey native). Anthony’s market value at age 33 and on a massive salary is already questionable, and Kristaps Porzingis, future firsts and potentially Frank Ntilikina are New York’s best long-term assets. Even if the Knicks were open to surrendering Porzingis, a third team may have to be roped in for anything to make sense financially — the Cavs would be stupid to take Joakim Noah or Tim Hardaway’s long-term money in any deal, and are too strapped for money to do that in the slim chance they’d consider it. A package of Anthony, Ntilikina and a future pick for Irving and the chance for the Cavs shed Iman Shumpert’s deal might be the best the Knicks could reasonably offer, and it doesn’t exactly improve Cleveland’s roster given the awkward overlap between Anthony and Love.
San Antonio Spurs
This seems like a long shot for a number of reasons. Yes, it’s fair to assume Kawhi Leonard is untouchable. Although the Spurs are a questionable system fit for Irving, who likes to dominate the ball and score in isolation, the winning culture and potential to play with Leonard holds appeal. That said, it’s unlikely San Antonio would have enough to swing this even if they wanted to. San Antonio possesses a nice salary counterweight in Tony Parker, who will make $15.4 million next season, the last on his deal, but an aging Parker coming off injury would hold next to no trade value for the Cavaliers. The Spurs have explored trades for LaMarcus Aldridge in recent months, so he could potentially be a trade chip, albeit one of diminished value. Young players like DeJounte Murray (a Klutch Sports client) could be included, or perhaps Patty Mills, who recently agreed to a four-year, $50 million deal, but none of this helps Cleveland much, and it’s not a very Spurs-like gambit in the first place. San Antonio rarely trades its first-rounders, and given the franchise’s success, their future firsts will likely fall in the 25–30 draft range in a given year. This doesn’t really make sense on paper.
Well, there’s Boston, which still has plenty of assets stockpiled and could make a godfather offer involving future draft picks, young players and potentially Isaiah Thomas. But the odds of Cleveland sending Irving directly to its main conference rival seem long, unless the Cavs are ready to punt on everything. (They shouldn’t be.) The Rockets just got Chris Paul, so no dice there, although they’re still after Anthony. Please, let’s not entertain the Thunder and Russell Westbrook. John Wall is a Rich Paul client, but with James’s future in Cleveland also murky and Wall yet to sign a (supermax!) extension, it might be hard for the Cavs to bet the farm. The Suns have a lot of young players and Eric Bledsoe. Let’s just stop it there.
Bottom line, the Cavs aren’t incentivized to make a trade this second. They have two years of team control, Irving doesn’t have a no-trade, and as it stands the team is still positioned to contend in a very thin Eastern Conference. It’s a softer panic mode. Maybe try to mend the fences before doing a full 180 on a team that just made three straight Finals. You can let it play out and move during the season if it breaks bad. But if this goes downhill, who knows which of the big three, if any, will still be in Cleveland a year from now.
As the round Earth turns...