Kyrie Irving has reportedly asked the Cleveland Cavaliers for a trade, likely ending the super-team Cavs as we know them.
According to reports, the Cavs feel confident about trading Irving, believing his age (25) and contract status (two years, with a third-year player option) make his stock particularly high.
However, while the Cavs are likely to get a good return for Irving, finding the perfect return for him is particularly challenging because Irving carries a unique value for the Cavs.
Irving is undoubtedly one of the most talented scorers in the NBA, but his value in other areas is lower. He’s mostly ceded playmaking duties to LeBron James and his defense is, to put it kindly, lacking.
This becomes one of the Cavs problems when they take on the Golden State Warriors. Against a team with several elite offensive threats on the floor at any time, the Cavs lack the defenders or positional versatility to properly match up. Irving is one of those problems — he’s at risk guarding Stephen Curry, but surrenders too much size against Klay Thompson or any forward.
Despite being a less-than-ideal matchup against the Warriors, Irving offers one trump card — nobody can contain him. The Warriors have been one of the best defenses in the league the last three years and possess several long, talented defenders to put on Irving. None of it matters. In the last two Finals, the Cavs leaned heavily on Irving to get basket after basket against the Warriors’ tangle of arms and he did so successfully, averaging 29 points on 47% shooting in 2017 and 27 points on 47% shooting in 2016.
Being a shot-creator who doesn’t defend well isn’t an en-vogue skill in today’s NBA, but in the case of the Cavs, Irving’s scoring ability is of tremendous importance. At 32, LeBron James can’t carry the offense for 48 minutes per game. Irving has shouldered that burden, making the difficult look routine.
In Game 4 of this year’s Eastern Conference Finals, with LeBron James in foul trouble, Irving stepped up when the Cavs were trailing. With a potential series tie on the line, Irving exploded for 42 points, roasting excellent perimeter defenders like Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart.
He did the same in this year’s Finals, making near-perfect Warriors defense look meaningless.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst discussed on “The Lowe Post” the conundrum in which the Cavs find themselves. They could target longer, more athletic players to better match up against the Warriors, but they would dearly miss Irving’s scoring. The chances of getting back a player who can do both are extremely low.
“There are trades out there that I think actually makes the Cavs better equipped to deal with the Warriors, but I don’t know if you’re gonna replace a guy who’s as valuable in a postseason setting in Kyrie Irving, who, if you need two points, the man will get you the two points,” Windhorst said.
Lowe added, “There aren’t but three or four guys in the NBA who can do what he did in Game 4 against Boston when James was in foul trouble. That’s it.”
Lowe and Windhorst mentioned a hypothetical trade in which the Cavs would trade Irving to the Milwaukee Bucks for Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton, and two first-round picks. The deal would be a good one for the Cavs — Middleton and Brogdon are both young, long defenders who can spread the floor, and create in small doses when needed. They could be ideal players to help defend the Warriors.
Yet, neither are elite scorers who can carry an offense for entire quarters. In the postseason, particularly against stout defensive teams like the Warriors, teams have to rely on one-on-one scoring. Perhaps nobody has carried that burden better than Irving in recent playoff history.
This is the type of problem the Cavs are surely discussing as they weigh potential trades. They could use more shooting, more defense, and more athleticism — critical assets in the NBA today. They would also dearly miss Irving’s scoring, even if he doesn’t check off every box needed.
Even for a team with LeBron, losing a player of Irving’s caliber is going to hurt.