Deal­ing Irv­ing might not be in the cards

The Washington Post Sunday - - BASEBALL - On the NBA tim.bontemps@wash­post.com

In the two weeks since Kyrie Irv­ing’s re­quest to be traded from LeBron James and the Cleve­land Cava­liers be­came public, the story has gone through a few stages. At first, un­der­stand­ably, there was plenty of ex­cite­ment. A player of Irv­ing’s stature sud­denly want­ing to leave his team — com­bined with the po­ten­tial ram­i­fi­ca­tions for the Cava­liers and James — presents the per­fect cock­tail to send the off­sea­son hype ma­chine into over­drive.

But as time has gone on, and dis­tance has al­lowed the ini­tial rush of spec­u­la­tion about Irv­ing’s pos­si­ble land­ing spot to die down, the story has faded into the back­ground. Yes, that is partly be­cause the NFL has re­turned to its perch as the driver of sports dis­cus­sion, but there’s also some­thing else: Trad­ing Irv­ing would be an ex­tremely dif­fi­cult and com­plex trans­ac­tion.

No, Irv­ing is not the NBA’s best player — far from it. One can ar­gue he is the league’s most over­rated player, tak­ing into ac­count the one thing Irv­ing does at an ex­cep­tional level — scor­ing — and off­set­ting that with the fact he does lit­tle else to con­trib­ute to win­ning bas­ket­ball. He hasn’t proved to be a good and will­ing passer, and his de­fense is ter­ri­ble. He is closer to a 6-foot shoot­ing guard than a 6-foot point guard.

And yet, it’s that ex­act skill set — his abil­ity to get a bucket on any­one at any time and in any sit­u­a­tion — that makes him the best com­ple­men­tary team­mate James has ever had. It was Irv­ing, re­mem­ber, who de­liv­ered the big­gest bas­ket in Cleve­land sports his­tory when he buried that bomb of a three-pointer over Stephen Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Fi­nals, the mo­ment that punc­tu­ated the Cava­liers’ mirac­u­lous come­back from be­ing down 3-1 in that se­ries. It was in­stant lore, and it gave Irv­ing the kind of for­ever mo­ment of which ev­ery player dreams.

James is ba­si­cally a point guard in a power for­ward’s body, and team­mates play­ing along­side him need to be able to space the floor. In the rare mo­ments when James is on the bench, they have to be able to cre­ate shots for them­selves. Those are ar­guably Irv­ing’s two best at­tributes — last sea­son, he made 40 per­cent of his three­p­oint­ers, av­er­ag­ing six at­tempts per game, and he has a wel­learned rep­u­ta­tion as one of the league’s best iso­la­tion scor­ers. De­spite his short­com­ings, these qual­i­ties make him the ideal com­ple­ment to the King.

That makes Irv­ing more valu­able to the Cava­liers than to any other team in the NBA — at least for the next year, which is as long as James is un­der con­tract in Cleve­land. It’s also what makes trad­ing him a nearly im­pos­si­ble task for new Gen­eral Man­ager Koby Alt­man.

In a nor­mal sit­u­a­tion, when a player like Irv­ing wants to be traded, a team looks for a clear com­bi­na­tion of young play­ers and draft picks in re­turn to be­gin re­build­ing. Cleve­land, though, is in far from a nor­mal sit­u­a­tion. With James on the ros­ter and the team still a heavy fa­vorite to re­turn to the NBA Fi­nals for a fourth straight sea­son, the idea of trad­ing Irv­ing for play­ers and picks who can help in the fu­ture alone is a non-starter.

Cleve­land needs play­ers who can in­stantly be a fac­tor, both to give James the best chance to win this sea­son and to po­ten­tially help con­vince him to re­main with the fran­chise for the long term. And not only do the Cava­liers need play­ers who can help them win now, but they need to find a team will­ing to part with those play­ers.

And that is where Irv­ing’s short­com­ings as a player are high­lighted. Yes, he is a tal­ented and wildly suc­cess­ful one com­mer­cially. He has reached su­per­star sta­tus off the court, with a mas­sively pop­u­lar shoe line and cover sta­tus for NBA 2K18, this year’s ver­sion of the pop­u­lar bas­ket­ball video game se­ries.

On the court, he is short of that level.

So for a team such as the Den­ver Nuggets or Phoenix Suns — two pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions for Irv­ing in spec­u­la­tive trades — it might not make sense to move two or three prime as­sets that would make a trade vi­able for Cleve­land (say Eric Bled­soe and Josh Jack­son from Phoenix or Ja­mal Murray and Gary Harris from Den­ver). If Irv­ing won’t pro­vide as­sur­ances he is go­ing to stay in ei­ther city beyond the two re­main­ing years on his con­tract, and it’s un­clear whether he will make those teams bet­ter in ei­ther the short or long term, then what’s the point?

That’s why it con­tin­ues to feel like the most likely out­come is that Irv­ing will be back with the Cava­liers for train­ing camp next month, and he, James and Kevin Love will take one more run through the Eastern Con­fer­ence next sea­son. It should be noted that this has been the off­sea­son of the un­ex­pected move, from Chris Paul be­ing dealt to Hous­ton to Paul Ge­orge go­ing to Ok­la­homa City. But there are a lot of ob­sta­cles in the way of an Irv­ing deal.

As for those who have ques­tioned whether James would be will­ing to take Irv­ing back, make no mis­take: No one un­der­stands bas­ket­ball is a busi­ness more than James. And for a man mo­ti­vated to try to chase down Michael Jor­dan, he is go­ing to want the best chance to win this sea­son.

So if Irv­ing can be moved for a pack­age that makes Cleve­land bet­ter to­day? Great. If not? It stands to rea­son he would rather make it work with the best com­ple­men­tary player he has had along­side him.

And if James does leave Cleve­land next sum­mer, as many are al­ready spec­u­lat­ing he will, then the Cava­liers can turn around and trade Irv­ing and Love for as many young play­ers and draft as­sets as they can get their hands on and start over.

TONY DE­JAK/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Kyrie Irv­ing is a good fit along­side LeBron James, so the Cava­liers could ig­nore his trade re­quest and take another shot at the ti­tle.

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