For the Cavs, pursuing a young star is a move created by fear. Fear that the best player in the NBA, and by far the greatest in franchise history, will leave a roster in ruins once again.
While Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon has since denied it, Chris Sheridan (formerly of ESPN and SheridanHoops.com) says that this will be James' final season in Cleveland.
Chris Sheridan @sheridanhoops
NBA source said today: "This will be LeBron's final season in Cleveland. He is 100 percent leaving. Relationship with owners beyond repair."2017-8-16 19:42:38
If James were to publicly admit this will be his farewell tour, trading Irving for an up-and-coming star makes sense. Irving represents the Cavs' best (and only real) chance of upgrading the roster with veteran help or securing its future.
Now, new general manager Koby Altman walks a dangerous line: chase a title with James still in uniform or stay competitive should he choose to play for someone else next fall.
No one can reasonably ask James to blindly commit to the Cavs for the rest of his career, at least not with Dan Gilbert as the majority owner.
Instability in the front office and coaching staff has been a trademark of Gilbert's tenure since he bought the team in 2005. In the three years since James returned, Cleveland is on its second head coach and GM—despite going to three straight NBA Finals.
One of James' prerequisites in 2014 free agency was an owner willing to go deep into the luxury tax, which Gilbert has done. Even in the Cavs' championship season of 2015-16, Gilbert lost $40 million after spending $185 million on the roster and luxury taxes, according to Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes.
Every move ownership and the front office have made over the past three years has been with a championship-or-bust mentality. Until now.
Instead, "the Cavaliers find themselves far more fixated on a young star, including New York's Kristaps Porzingis, Boston's Jayson Tatum, Phoenix's Josh Jackson and Denver's Jamal Murray," notes Wojnarowski. While there is some carry-over between building block and star power with Porzingis, the other three are rookies or second-year players who couldn't make nearly the impact Irving would.
If the Cavs trade Irving with Tatum, Jackson or Murray as the primary return, it would signal an eye toward the future and make James' free-agency decision easy.
Could the Cavs win the Eastern Conference again with a core of James, Kevin Love and Tatum/Jackson and Murray? Probably, although the Boston Celtics would have certainly narrowed the gap.
Could they seriously compete with the Warriors for a title? Probably not.
Despite all of the chaos that has engulfed the past two months, this is still a really, really good basketball team that should once again sit atop the East. A trip to the Finals isn't guaranteed, but it's as close to a promise as the franchise may ever have. Starting the rebuild now seems foolish, especially with James still playing at such a high level.
Should the Warriors stumble in any way, Cleveland could still be right there to win another championship.
Flipping Irving for win-now star talent puts the Cavs back in the Finals, and, with the right return, could even get them closer to a title. Moving him for someone with more potential than production sets the team back, essentially wasting one of James' last remaining prime years.
The last time Cleveland tried to build around a young star didn't go so well, remember?
Ironically enough, Irving, who so badly wants to carry a team now, failed miserably when given the chance with the Cavs from 2011-2014. While it's true he came into the league at 19, Cleveland won an average of 26 games per season with zero playoff appearances.
Irving and Tristan Thompson were a great start to the rebuilding process, but the Cavs missed on other first-round draft picks like Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev and Tyler Zeller (who they traded for on draft night in 2012).
Are the Cavs really willing to try that again if James bolts next summer?
Cleveland has also proven to be a poor market for attracting free agents not named LeBron James. The biggest splash the Cavs made in those four years was Andrew Bynum, and he lasted all of six months before being traded after feuding with coaches.
Dealing for a star and getting him to stay becomes extremely difficult as well. Love refused to sign long term if the Cavs traded for him before James returned, per Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin's Return of the King. Rebuilding can be a cruel process when there's no transcendent star to come in and fix everything.
Franchises tank for the chance to land someone like James, a rare talent who can be the best player on a championship team. Cleveland doesn't need to find the next James, it just needs to do everything necessary to keep him.
Right now, there's no good reason for James to go anywhere.
He's already won a championship with the Cavs, been to the Finals all three years and has another great chance at making it 4-of-4. The talent around him is both abundant and complementary. Love, Thompson and Korver all have three years left on their deals. J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert are locked in until 2019, too.
If winning is the most important thing for James, it's hard to argue he should go anywhere else, especially the loaded Western Conference. There's also the resistance he may have to uprooting his family for a third time, especially with his sons close to playing at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School.
If Irving is traded for a rebuilding piece, however, James would have his reason to leave. An ideal situation would be to trade for an established starter to take Irving's place while getting back a younger piece to groom.
How can the Cavs do this? One option is to be patient. Bad blood and awkward practice sessions aside, Cleveland doesn't have to trade Irving before the season starts. In fact, waiting until the deadline opens up a whole new talent market. Guys who signed contracts this summer? They're available. Disgruntled stars across the league? They can often be had at discounted rates.
Eric Bledsoe and a young player/pick from the Phoenix Suns would be a tremendous fit, giving Cleveland both a veteran starter and building block should they need it. DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans could become available if he and Anthony Davis can't keep the team afloat, given that the former will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. In the right deal, Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge or even Mike Conley would make sense in Cleveland as well.
Pieces like these wouldn't need time to grow into their potential. They'd be ready to compete with James immediately, and if even that's not enough to keep LeBron, the Cavs would already have a productive player in place to usher in a new era.
Getting back a young star to groom isn't a bad option—it just can't be the only option. Making one the centerpiece of a deal would be equivalent to packing James' bags for him.