Cavs Can't Afford to Bet on Potential Alone in Looming Kyrie Irving Trade

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterAugust 17, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 7:  Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Three of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 7, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Cleveland Cavaliers have one real chance to improve their team before LeBron James hits free agency in 2018, and the road they take could decide the four-time MVP's future for him.

With a Kyrie Irving trade almost certain, Cleveland appears "fixated" on acquiring a young star to eventually replace James rather than helping him win a title now, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

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."

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.

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers recieves his championship ring from owner Dan Gilbert before the game against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.   NOTE TO USER: User e
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

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?

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 04:  Kyrie Irving #2 and Dion Waiters #3 of the Cleveland Cavaliers walk off the court between free throws in their 117-98 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on April 4, 2014 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

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.

BOSTON, MA - MAY 25:  LeBron James #23 and Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate and hug in the locker room after winning Game Five of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics during the 2017 NBA Playoffs on May 25, 2017 at th
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

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.


Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers' lead writer for Bleacher Report. Stats provided by NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Salary numbers provided by spotrac.com.


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