How LeBron is communicating to the Cavs, and how Kyrie is mistaken
Photo Courtesy / Erik Drost / CreativeCommons
(Note: The Cavaliers are apparently signing Derrick Rose. I wrote this before seeing that news, but it wouldn't seem to change much except to make it even more likely Kyrie Irving will be traded.)
Been on the internet lately? Seen or heard anything about the Cavs?
The revelation that Kyrie Irving wants to be traded - wants to leave a near-guaranteed Finals team in order to stake out his own place in the game independent of LeBron James - has swept through the basketball landscape like a hurricane.
There's a lot to unpack in this. To consider how this reflects on Kyrie personally, how the Cavs maneuver from here, how it alters LeBron's near-term path.
Let's start with one of two Cleveland items that featured on ESPN today, Chris Haynes reporting LeBron will not under any circumstances waive his no-trade clause this season: "No matter the reconstruction of the Cleveland Cavaliers' roster, no matter the potential for heightened inner turmoil, no matter the win-loss record, and with or without Kyrie Irving."
Haynes also makes it clear LeBron is not committed to Cleveland beyond this year. Just that, as far as this year is concerned, he will play for the Cavaliers and there will be no further discussion of the matter.
That's kind of a strange thing to declare, in a vacuum. Why would the Cavs, uh, trade LeBron James? Why would LeBron think they would even think of doing such a thing? Why do you even bring it up?
You do it to make it clear Cleveland can't pick Kyrie over you.
This is the chaos Irving has injected into the Cavs. There's always been a kind of unacknowledged precariousness to LeBron's second Cleveland go-round, with him taking a series of short contracts with opt-outs. It's always kept James in control, with the ability to do pretty much as he pleases.
He's never threatened to leave, but he's always had the option to, and the thing about options is they have a way of eventually starting to look pretty good. Dan Gilbert is a loose cannon of an owner, egotistic and impulsive and self-destructive. He's orchestrated a shambolic, damaging offseason and, coincidentally, this is the first summer that real rumblings have bubbled up of LeBron thinking about finishing his career elsewhere.
Kyrie was always supposed to be the anchor of a post-Bron Cavs. But apparently he wants to be the man (a decision of debatable soundness), and there's no guarantee in Cleveland he can get out of LeBron's shadow.
That's where the Cavs are stuck between a rock and a hard place now. It wouldn't necessarily be insane to decide to keep, and build around, a 25-year-old Irving and try to cash in a 32-year-old, potentially want-away LeBron. Even without a commitment to a new team, there are still probably precious few players in the NBA Cleveland couldn't get in a trade for James.
But the new Cavs front office won't get to make that choice. That's what Haynes' report is all about., LeBron (reasonably) seeing a scenario in which Cleveland decides the equation of Kyrie + LeBron trade return is more attractive than running James out for one more go with no guarantee he'll stay and a potentially ruinous departure in a year or two.
If and when LeBron leaves Cleveland a second time, it's going to be on his terms. I certainly don't blame him. If I'd have saved a franchise like that, particularly for an owner like that, I'd also make it quite clear that it's my way or the highway.
But now the Cavs are stuck trying to extract proper value for Irving.
Zach Lowe wrote about that harrowing process. I recommend reading the whole thing and running through some of his trade scenarios, none of which seems like a slam dunk.
This is a tricky proposition, because it's still not clear exactly what Kyrie's value is as a player. As a one-on-one attacking talent, Irving is one of the five or so best in basketball. He's a magnificent ball-handler, with a low center of gravity and unparalleled balance. He's explosive off the dribble, one of the best drivers in the game, and he can pull up and knock down shots.
But he's an abysmal defender, and it's not clear he can run a ball-movement offense.
The first part isn't a death sentence. He's especially bad, even among offense-first point guards. He's not quick enough laterally, he has short arms and frankly he's just not that committed. Among the top point guards by ESPN's real plus-minus, only Isaiah Thomas had a worse isolated defensive RPM.
But you can cover for that. After all, the Cavs are proof. They've been to the Finals three straight years and won a championship because LeBron (overwhelmingly) and guys like Tristan Thompson, JR Smith and Iman Shumpert (and even Kevin Love, who's done a lot of good work to be acceptable on that end of the floor that he doesn't get credit for) can cover for an especially bad defender like Irving.
Especially when that bad defender is your point guard. There isn't really an elite point guard in the game whose defense makes up a big portion of his value, except Chris Paul. It's just not nearly important as it is for a big or a two-way wing.
The problem is with Kyrie's distribution. He can create, definitely, it's just that it's usually for himself.
Irving already posted a 30.8 usage percentage last season, a career high and perfectly in line with what someone like, say, Stephen Curry might produce. But he seems to have his eyes on being a dominant first option, a 30-points per game type. That's all well and good, but I'm not sure he can fill the Russell Westbrook model.
Westbrook's usage rate last season was an unthinkable 41.7, but his assist percentage was an equally implausible 57.3. Irving's career high assist percentage is 36.5, and that was when he was a rookie. Westbrook's been clearing 40 for most of his career.
Irving's just never displayed an elite ability to incorporate his teammates. Yes, he's been playing with LeBron, who on any team is going to dominate that responsibility. But as Lowe notes:
"Over the past two seasons, Irving has jacked about 26 shots for every 36 minutes he plays without James, per NBA.com. Only six players have ever topped 25 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes in any season, and only one of them -- Wilt Chamberlain -- did it twice. Even Kobe Bryant never pulled it!
"Meanwhile, Irving's assist numbers in those minutes barely ticked up."
This is a problem. How do you fit Irving, an awful defender and resistant distributor, almost Iverson-like, onto a successful modern team? There's no doubt he can go score 30 a game for a bad team. Heck, maybe that's all he wants to do. That'd be fine, I guess.
But one of the most eye-popping teams Irving mentioned that he'd like to be traded to is San Antonio. In theory, he'd be perfect next to wings like Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard who can cover for him defensively and let him take primary initiating responsibilities.
But that would require the kind of spreading of the ball that Kyrie right now is already chafing at.
You could say he'd look great on, like, Milwaukee, next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. But you run into the same problem there, where you want the ball in Giannis' hands.
The ultimate problem here is Kyrie is a perfect secondary ball-handler. Sometimes you let him go one-on-one and break down a defense, sometimes you use him off-ball to get him open for a shot. He can do these things extremely well, and it's no accident he's flourished as such next to LeBron.
But it's not clear he's an adequate primary initiator. It's not even clear that, in wanting to be "the man" for some team, that he understands that's what the modern point guard role requires.
That's what Cleveland has to sell him as though. The return the Cavs get for him will tell us what the rest of the basketball world thinks.