In today's NBA, teams will stockpile and withhold assets while waiting for the right player to become available. Sometimes it can take years, and there's no guarantee that a GM can land the coveted piece. In one of the most compelling offseasons that the league has produced in recent memory, Kyrie Irving has unexpectedly requested a trade from the Cavaliers. This isn't stereotypical rumor conjecture- Irving's agent publicly confirmed the trade request and new Cavs GM Koby Altman described the rumors as a "fluid situation".
Typically, it's rare for a top-20 player to publicly request a trade with multiple years left on his contract. It's even more unusual to see it come from a 4x all-star playing for a perennial favorite alongside the best player in the world. Players will take pay cuts and short term deals, willingly uprooting their families to Cleveland, just to have a chance to play alongside LeBron James. In contrast, ESPN reports that Irving is tired of playing in James' shadow, and craves to be the focal point for his own team.
ESPN followed up in another report, stating that Irving's preferred trade destinations are New York, San Antonio, Minnesota, and Miami. However, the 25-year-old has three years (player option after two) remaining on his contract, a deal that doesn't include a no-trade clause. If and when Altman decides to move Irving, the destination list will be irrelevant. The Cavs will seek the best return overall. There are only a few teams with a need at point guard who also have an asset pool big enough to land a player of Kyrie's caliber. Denver is one of them.
Kyrie fills a huge need
I wrote last week about Denver's uneven roster, and adding Irving would immediately solve a dire problem at point guard. Irving is a top shelf scoring talent and excels in virtually every offensive category. Per Synergy Sports, he ranked in the 83rd percentile or better on plays off of cuts, in isolation, as the ball handler in pick and roll, in spot ups, and coming off of screens.
Irving's best offense is in isolation scoring. He possesses arguably the tightest handle in basketball and consistently puts defenders on skates. Avery Bradley, the NBA's best on ball defender, said that Irving is the toughest player to guard in the NBA. Per Synergy Sports, 64 players attempted at least 85 shots in isolation this season, a list loaded with blue chip players. Irving scored 1.123 PPP in isolation, second in the league behind Isaiah Thomas's 1.124 PPP. No Nugget was even close to that level of production.
What's most impressive about Uncle Drew is his finishing ability at the rim. Irving makes up for underwhelming athleticism with his craftiness and creativity near the basket. He's a master at playing the glass from obscure angles, uses both hands effectively from 8 feet and in, possesses textbook footwork, has the ability to pump fake in mid air to distract defenders, and uses reverse layups as protection against shot blockers. Despite being characterized as a "below the rim" player, he's arguably the best finisher in the NBA. Just feast your eyes on this compilation.
Last season, Denver was 8-14 in outcomes decided by five points or less, a factor that contributed to the Nuggs narrowly missing the playoffs. In 2016-17, Irving's field goal percentage rose four points when the game went under two minutes, per NBAminer.com. He was 21st overall in scoring efficiency in "clutch time", a statistic that encapsulates the end of close games, ends of shot clocks, and ends of quarters. For all of their talent, the Nuggets lack a true isolation scorer to help close out games. Irving is one of the game's best.
Playing next to LeBron has forced Irving to refine his off ball game, often posing as a spot up shooting guard while James quarterbacks the offense. In Denver, he would certainly have more time with the rock in his hands, but his off ball scoring should flourish next to a passer like Nikola Jokic. Cleveland infrequently ran handoff plays for Irving, but when they did, he was incredibly effective, scoring 1.011 PPP. The dribble handoff and stationary handoff were predominant facets for Jokic's usage rate, and Irving's efficiency could skyrocket coexisting with him. Kyrie could use his quickness to zip around screens to get himself open for tasty Jokic passes from the high post.
Irving and the Joker would be absolutely dominant in the pick and roll. Jokic's 1.528 PPP on rolls to the basket ranked in the 96th percentile efficiency amongst all players, while Irving finished in the 83rd percentile as the ball handler in the pick and roll. Jokic started to draw extra defensive attention as he became more of a household name, and Kyrie's scoring presence would open up Jokic's deft scoring touch near the rim. There's a concern that Kyrie isn't a natural facilitator, but he wasn't playing a true point guard role next to LeBron.
So what will it take?
Given how Irving's trade market has played out so far, the Nuggets would be foolish to not engage with the Cavs. Phoenix's Devin Booker and Josh Jackson, Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins, and New York's Kristaps Porzingis are all reportedly off limits in Kyrie trade discussions...at least for now. The only publicized offer on the table would send Miami's Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow to the Cavs in exchange for Irving. Meanwhile, Carmelo Anthony reportedly refuses to waive his no-trade clause to go to Cleveland. In other words, the Kyrie trade market is pretty cold right now, so it doesn't hurt for Tim Connelly to make a lower than market value offer.
ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Cleveland is looking for a package similar to the one that New York gave up for Anthony. The Cavs could be appeased by an offer which includes young building block pieces as well as plug-and-play quality veterans. The Nuggets control all of their future draft picks and have plenty of promising players on rookie-scale deals. As a whole, Denver's roster is littered with coveted trade pieces. Some combination of Juancho Hernangomez, Tyler Lydon, Emmanual Mudiay, Malik Beasley, Will Barton, and either Gary Harris or Jamal Murray should be more than enough to fulfill the "up and coming asset(s)" requirement.
The bigger concern is finding the veteran role players who can help Cleveland win their' fourth straight Eastern Conference championship. Undoubtedly, the Cavs would covet Wilson Chandler, whose multi positional usage would ease the defensive burden from the 32-year-old James. But the Nuggets have shallow depth on the wing, and would probably prefer to trade Kenneth Faried, who's become dispensable after the offseason additions of Paul Millsap and Trey Lyles. Chandler is Denver's best defender and the only true small forward on the roster. They cannot afford to lose him.
Financially, the timing is right for a deal. Irving is under contract for two more seasons at an affordable $19M per year. He has a third-year player option, but he can make significantly more by opting out. Millsap's deal has a friendly team option after two years. The Nuggets could renegotiate Millsap's deal in 2019, offering him less money but more years. The added long-term security could be appealing for Millsap as he enters his mid-30s. A renegotiation would open up ample cap space to re-sign Irving to a max deal without interfering with Nikola Jokic's eventual contract. By then, the Nuggets would own Irving's bird rights, meaning that Denver could go over the salary cap to sign him.
*stats via basketball-reference
Will this happen?
On paper, Cleveland won't find a much better trade partner than Denver, whose deep asset pool carries a lot of trade value. Assuming that Kyrie is even available, the potentiality of striking a deal hinges on the Nuggets being able to retain Chandler. Further, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the Nuggets won't include both Harris and Murray in any deal for Irving. If those parameters are acceptable to the Cavs, then the likelihood of the Nuggets coming to a deal becomes more realistic.
Denver's attendance figures remains a massive issue, and while adding Millsap has risen the eyebrows of a depressed fan base, landing Irving would be the splashiest of acquisitions. Uncle Drew is a bonafide star who hit arguably the biggest shot of the last decade. The combination of his age, pedigree, championship experience and two years of team control are tantalizing factors, and a player of his class is not made available very often.
Cultivating players internally or signing stars via free agency is always the preferred route rather than trading for talent. So if Connelly truly believes that Murray or Mudiay can develop into a reliable point guard, then it would be wise to play out another year with them. They're barely 20-years-old, and point guard tends to be the position that necessitates the most years for full development. Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, Chauncey Billups, and Steve Nash all took at least half a decade to nurture their games to the NBA speed and style.
Former Nugget Mike Miller played with Irving in Cleveland during the 2014-2015. Miller stated that he's already spoken with Irving. "Like anything else, when people look at cities, Denver’s an unbelievable city we all know that. And with what the organization has built there, he would be crazy not to and he’s definitely, definitely interested in it.”
The Nuggets appear to be all in for 2017, but they'll only deal for Irving if they can keep enough role players to remain competitive in the uber talented Western Conference. Irving's trade value is low, so now is the perfect time for Connelly to steal him from Cleveland. According to NBA.com's Nuggets writer Christopher Dempsey, barring a Kyrie trade, Denver is expected to only make minor tweaks to their roster before the beginning of the season.