Pity the Cleveland Cavaliers.
You may ask, why? Why pity a team with the greatest player in the world, three All-Stars, and three number one overall picks in four years? Why pity the only team that can currently make any kind of argument that they can beat the Warriors in a fair fight? Champions for the first time in the city’s history a mere two years ago? And no, it is not because Jose Calderon will be their backup point guard.
No. Pity them because, for all their riches, theirs will be a desert soon – and a desert in Ohio no less.
Team success grows from the top, and the Cavaliers (just like the Knicks) are rotten from the head down. Dan Gilbert, he of Comic Sans infamy, in spite of all the competitive advantages in the world, will ruin this. And he might just ruin it three to five years earlier this time than anyone could have reasonably expected.
After what seems like months long background noise about a potential LeBron James departure in the summer of 2018 and a less than an amiable parting of ways with well-regarded general manager David Griffin, the unraveling has begun in earnest. Kyrie Irving has demanded a trade, and in doing so has positioned himself as the first piece to fall in what could turn into a cascade of dominoes that flips the perennial Eastern Conference Champions into bottom feeders once more. Kyrie Irving has aspirations to be the star of his own squad and to emerge from the (admittedly vast) shadow of LeBron.
Beyond significant Eastern Conference schadenfreude, why do the Knicks care about this?
Well, on top of expressing to Cavaliers brass earlier this week that he would like to be traded, Irving and his agent also expressed that his four preferable trade destinations are the Spurs, Wolves, Heat, and the Knicks. Because Knicks fans are so used to dealing with Melo’s No-Trade Clause, they might instinctively feel like that is meaningful. However, Irving has two years left on an affordable deal (~$18 million per), is in his prime, and ultimately has no leverage concerning his final destination in a trade.
But in spite of all that, the Knicks are not a terrible option for newly minted Cavaliers GM and Griffin disciple Koby Altman. Altman has to walk the difficult path of both attempting to satisfy LeBron’s immediate desires to remain competitive while also threading the needle of sustainability in the event that the worst happens again. Melo would be the centerpiece speaking to former, while a third team alongside the Knicks future picks and perhaps young players would go toward satisfying the latter.
How realistic is it that the Knicks could pull this off? At first blush, it appears that many other teams are in a position to make very competitive offers, but let’s take a closer look. Of the other three teams that Irving has expressed a preference in playing for, the Spurs have very few assets that would tempt the Cavaliers other than perhaps Danny Green. The Wolves would need to move off of Teague in any deal, and as a newly signed free agent he can’t be traded until December 15th and it’s unclear what other assets could be included to make the trade worthwhile to the Cavaliers. I doubt very much if the Wolves are willing to trade Andrew Wiggins in the deal, even if the Cavaliers thought he was a good fit. The Heat have a few compelling players like Goran Dragic but don’t have any picks to speak of. The Sixers and the Celtics are both obviously in possession of assets that would allow them to comfortably outbid the Knicks, but both seem to have stabilized at the point guard position around Fultz and Thomas respectively. Teams with a bevy of young players like the Nuggets, Denver, and the Kings don’t have the same kind of win now add-on pieces that will keep the Cavaliers from losing too much competitive ground next season. The Suns are perhaps a realistic option, and much can be made of the fact that Eric Bledsoe, a possible Irving replacement, is signed with Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports. But it remains unclear if the Suns, who seem content on remaining firmly in rebuilding mode, will see the value in acquiring two years of Kyrie. This is also what makes them such an appealing potential third team in an Irving to Knicks deal.
Most other teams are either too good, too bad, or too asset poor to really find their way into the discussion – though after everything that has happened this offseason I suppose it is impossible to outright dismiss almost any teams chance of trading for Irving. Further, it seems likely that Irving’s trade value is going to be greater to one of the four teams he specifically referred to, as it stands to reason he would be likely to re-sign – conversely, the other 25 potential teams are likely to give up less relative value.
In short, the Knicks have a real shot here. It’s difficult to impossible to find a trade partner that will not make Cleveland worse at least in the short term, and ultimately what the Cavaliers do will speak volumes to their confidence concerning their ability to re-sign LeBron James. But the Knicks - perhaps with the assistance of the Suns or another third team - present a middle way for the Cavaliers that allows them to both make the case to LeBron now and also prepare for their uncertain future. The Cavaliers can acquire some combination of future assets as well as LeBron’s best friend in Carmelo Anthony, whom he has openly expressed a desire to play with in the future as recently as last season.
A Knicks package of Melo, one of Hernangomez or Frank Ntilikina, an unprotected 2018 first round pick, and perhaps another protected 2020 pick would get the Knicks into the discussion, particularly if a team like Phoenix is willing to help facilitate and trade Eric Bledsoe to the Cavaliers. That is a lot, no doubt, but don’t think for a moment that the Knicks front office won’t give it serious thought – even in the least advantageous version of the trade. If there is any way that the Knicks could come away with Irving without giving up Frank, then it’s an extremely compelling deal.
Kyrie Irving is a no question star in this league, but there remain very real questions about how a team centered around him would perform over the long term. His defense remains passable to occasionally awful, and he has a reputation for selfishness that this latest demand to “be the guy” is not exactly doing anything to disprove.
So then how valuable is Kyrie? In the regular season last year he was perhaps the Eastern Conferences third or fourth best guard behind Wall, Thomas, and arguably Kyle Lowry.
However, Kyrie cooks during the playoffs like few others. He is a proven closer and has demonstrated his ability to be at least the best of the second best players on championship teams. Much credit is given to LeBron for his Herculean effort in rewriting what seemed like inevitable history in the defeat of a 73 win Warriors team, but he needed Kyrie’s production to make it remotely possible. In games 5-7 Kyrie shot 53% from the floor, 50% from downtown, and averaged 32 PPG. They’re still replacing the lights in Oracle Arena.
His offensive performances are transcendent in a way that the Garden will not have seen consistently since the likes of Bernard King. He makes an efficient scoring diet out of sometimes ludicrously difficult attempts. But for all that, he has been in the absolute best possible situation as a player during his time with LeBron, and it’s likely his production and efficiency would both take somewhat of a step back no matter what other team he goes to.
Is Kyrie Irving a great fit on the Knicks squad? It’s debatable. If the Knicks are required to relinquish young Frank Ntilikina in the deal, their perimeter defense – the bane of every Knicks team for time immemorial – figures to remain atrocious. If by some long overdue miracle the Knicks are able to concoct a deal wherein they retain KP, Frank, and get Irving – then you are beginning to see the outline of something with true potential. Irving is still young at 25 and will be under team control for 2 more seasons, and the Knicks would inherit full bird rights. Further, while Porzingis and Kyrie are a natural fit on the offensive end – they would rain fiery death with a plethora of pick and roll/pick and pop actions – Frank is actually the ideal backcourt partner for a player like Kyrie Irving.
The league is in a golden age of score-first point guards. Long past are the days wherein NBA analysts would wring their hands about whether or not Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook are “true” point guards. Score first playmakers are the norm, but such a load on the offensive end generally means that it isn’t optimal for that player to then also go and defend the best guard on the opposing team. So although Frank is nominally a point guard, his skill set and build suit him wonderfully to play behind Kyrie, spotting up for threes and locking down the Curry’s and Westbrook’s of the world while Kyrie saves himself for further reality-bending layups. Franks greatest weakness figures to be his lack of explosion off the dribble, and so the Knicks are once desperate for the space created by dribble penetration – this is Kyrie Irving’s greatest weapon, and it is from this weapon that he changes the gravity on the court.
Look, it’s easy to get excited about Kyrie Irving lighting up the Garden on a nightly basis, but this isn’t a no brainer. There are many permutations of a trade for Kyrie Irving that could make the Knicks worse, some that will make them better, and a treasured few with franchise changing potential. Mills and new GM Scott Perry are reportedly looking to make a splash, but the temptation to once more totally mortgage the future in service of the present should be resisted.
As ever, God resides in the details. Even more so in the case of the Basketball Gods. But to return the Garden to Eden, it’s to those heights that the Knicks front office must aspire.