No matter what Kyrie Irving has reportedly asked for and no matter what he might want now, the Cavaliers have pledged their allegiance to LeBron James.
During a wide-ranging press conference on Wednesday—one that featured questions about David Griffin’s departure, Irving’s reported trade request and Derrick Rose’s arrival, and one that saw kudos for Koby Altman and a jab at Kevin Pritchard—Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert very publicly acknowledged that his organization is once again at the mercy of James’s next decision.
Gilbert and Altman, Cleveland’s rookie GM, found themselves in full spin mode after enduring a rocky month since their Finals defeat. Gilbert attempted to project a sense of steadiness by introducing senior members of his front office, by praising Altman’s experience and relationship skills, and by painting an unsuccessful attempt to hire Chauncey Billups to an executive role as a mutual decision. Altman, in turn, enthusiastically sold Cleveland’s unremarkable summer additions, complimented coach Tyronn Lue, and claimed to have made hundreds of phone calls on a draft night in which the Cavaliers didn’t make a single selection.
But those well-intentioned attempts at reestablishing a sense of normalcy were overshadowed by the implications of James’s upcoming 2018 free agency. “We do not hold all the cards,” Gilbert admitted to reporters, when asked about James’s future in Cleveland. “He’s very hungry for this season. Beyond this season, I don’t know. We’re focusing on this season.”
Altman might have ably subbed in for Griffin, who subbed in for Chris Grant, who subbed in for Danny Ferry, but the franchise’s fundamental dilemma is the same as ever: James can leave next summer, the Cavaliers are doomed without him, they know it, and they’re prepared to do whatever it takes to keep him happy. This agonizing year-to-year lifestyle is old hat for the Cavaliers, who lost James to Miami in 2010, signed him back in 2014, and then re-signed him in 2015 and 2016. (It’s worth noting that Cleveland’s crazy summer could have been much, much crazier if James hadn’t agreed to lock in for two guaranteed years during his most recent negotiation.)
The latest recruiting cycle began in earnest. Together, Gilbert and Altman repeatedly commended James for being “active,” “helpful” and “committed” this summer, noting that the four-time MVP played an instrumental role in Rose’s signing. Altman, who has been with the Cavaliers since 2012, also read from a familiar playbook, praising James’s skill, leadership and community activism.
“LeBron remains deeply committed to this organization, he remains deeply committed to this team and deeply committed to this city,” Altman said. “We have shared goals. We have shared vision. When you talk to him in the off-season, it’s always about how do we get better and improve. The goal is singular and focused on trying to win championships. We’re committed to him. He’s the best player on the planet and he’s been an incredible partner, especially during this off-season.”
For Cleveland, there’s absolutely no question that James, who in 2016 delivered the only title in franchise history, is worth the anxiety and tension that comes with his preference for leverage-granting short-term contracts. At 32, James has still shown no signs of slowing down, posting monster numbers (26.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 8.7 APG) and drawing MVP consideration while leading Cleveland to a third straight Finals, where he averaged a triple double.
James is as popular as ever—ranking first in sneaker sales and second in jersey sales—and as central to Cleveland’s success, too. The Cavaliers were 0–8 in games that James missed last year, losing by an average of 16 points, and their net rating plummeted from +7.7 with James on the court (equal to No. 3 in the league) to –8.5 (dead last) when he went to the bench.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Gilbert’s most honest moment came when discussing Cleveland’s failed attempt to pair James with Paul George via trade. “I would say Indiana could have done better than they did,” Gilbert lamented, knowing that the All-Star forward, who was later sent by Pritchard to Oklahoma City, would have better positioned James for his fourth title and helped the Cavaliers’ case to keep their franchise player in 2018.
Although the Cavaliers’ brass made repeated reference to their alignment with James, they conspicuously did not say the same about Irving, who reportedly requested a trade earlier this month and furnished Cleveland with a list of four preferred destinations: Miami, Minnesota, New York, and San Antonio. Driving Irving’s trade request, according to reports, is a desire to be the top option on his own team rather than James’s sidekick.
Gilbert confirmed that he met with the All-Star point guard and his agent, Jeff Wechsler, earlier this month and that together they discussed “several scenarios.” But the Cavaliers’ brass tap-danced around the specifics of the conversation, choosing to refer to Irving’s situation as “fluid.” The owner also noticeably qualified his response when pressed whether he expected Irving— who is set to enter the third year of a five-year deal that includes a player option—to be in training camp.
“Right now, Kyrie Irving is under contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for two or three years, depending on the last year,” Gilbert said. “As of now, he’s one of our best players and, sure, we expect him to be in camp.”
That hardly sounded like a take-it-to-the-bank prediction or a heartfelt entreaty to Irving, and Altman was similarly measured in discussing Irving’s future. While he hailed the 25-year-old Irving as “a core piece of what we’ve done” and a “tremendous player,” Altman seemed more interested in refuting reports that indicated a rift has developed between Cleveland’s two superstars.
“That’s the narrative, that’s not the truth,” Altman said. “The people who are in this building know the truth. … [James and Irving] have [co-existed]. A lot of this has been overblown. I think the people in this building every day haven't seen any of this animosity. Along with Kevin Love, this is a group that has gotten us to three straight Finals and won an NBA championship together. They play great together on the floor. We haven't seen a lot of this animosity that's been out there in the media.”
Here, again, the Cavaliers were carefully aligning themselves with James, who had previously used social media to push back on reports about his relationship with Irving. Of course, there’s a big difference between James not wanting to “beat Kyrie’s ass” and James actually wanting to keep his three-year partnership with Irving going. The closest the Cavaliers came to pitching Irving on a return was a brief and murky digression by Gilbert, who cited Kobe Bryant’s unfulfilled 2007 trade request.
“There was a time when [Bryant] was calling radio stations, saying he was demanding to be traded, and he won two championships after that point,” he said. “Things happen and you never know. I'm not saying that happens here. The possibilities of what will happen are wide. it's not just one path or one track.” Later, Gilbert added that he wouldn’t attempt a mediation between James and Irving, preferring to leave such communication, if necessary, to Altman.
With their careful statements, the Cavaliers left open every option on Wednesday, from granting Irving’s request to trying to mend fences to playing hardball if it comes to that. More importantly, though, they reaffirmed a simple message that all parties, including the disgruntled point guard, surely received: We are all in with James, despite his expiring contract and flight risk, and he’s still the priority. Everyone else, including Irving, is a distant second.
If Irving was watching the press conference hoping for an olive branch, a change of direction, a compromise, an apology, or an emotional appeal to come back into the fold, it never came.