Monday, July 31, 2017

Where Does Cleveland Go From Here?

By Ross Lancaster

Prior to two weeks ago, it was shaping up to be a summer to forget for all Cleveland Cavaliers fans. Owner Dan Gilbert ran off GM David Griffin — a LeBron James favorite — and couldn't find a successor as free agency began and continued.

A trade to bring in Paul George fell through, and past big-money contracts handed out in recent offseasons meant the Cavs couldn't open up the checkbook to bring in the year's best free agents.

With the front office in turmoil, inevitable rumors began that this coming season would be LeBron's last in his latest Cleveland stint. But none of all that could compare to the July 23 revelation that Kyrie Irving was seeking a trade out of Cleveland.

It's obvious that a centerpiece of the league's unquestioned second best team has the potential to shake up a franchise and the whole complexion of the league. But Irving's request, on the heels of the underwhelming hauls Minnesota and Oklahoma City paid for Jimmy Butler and George, respectively, comes at an awful time for Cleveland.

Irving isn't close to being the two-way player that Butler and George are. Additionally, the publicity of the trade request means the Cavs' leverage is shot.

Conventional wisdom says that Cleveland needs to pull a trigger on the deal in the coming months before the preseason begins. Yet all of its serious options for trades may be roadblocked or less-than-feasible if it hopes to grab a blockbuster haul for Irving.

The Celtics aren't going to trade with the team they hope to dethrone in the East. The Suns have assets, but don't want to part with Josh Jackson, their top draft pick in June. Phoenix has probably made Devin Booker untouchable, as well, and other promising players aren't experienced enough to pique Cleveland's interest as a contender.

San Antonio isn't an ideal option unless the Cavs resign themselves to a Butler/George-esque return. Minnesota likely doesn't want to give up Andrew Wiggins, and can't deal newly-signed Jeff Teague until about two months into the regular season.

Cleveland's recent minimum-salary signing of Derrick Rose makes a deal with New York for Carmelo Anthony a no-go, as I don't think the Cavs want to re-create 40 percent of the Knicks' unwatchable starting lineup from last year.

Denver has a collection of desirable young perimeter players on rookie contracts, but I can't imagine the Nuggets passing up a full season of a Nikola Jokic-led offense for Irving's ball-stopping style after the team was so dominant on that end of the floor after December. And Denver just signed Paul Millsap.

To me, the Cavs' best option in a deal involves trading with Miami and getting Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow in return. Dragic, along with Irving, Steph Curry, Kyle Lowry, and Mike Conley, was one of just five players last season to average 40 percent or better on three-pointers, more than 20 points per game and more than 5 assists per game.

Statistically, Dragic's 2016-17 was virtually identical to his 2013-14 season in Phoenix when he was Third Team All-NBA. He's also probably an upgrade on defense from Irving. Winslow has struggled with injuries in his two NBA seasons thus far, and is a poor shooter, but could add much-needed on-ball bench defense to Cleveland's arsenal and struggles on that end. And with the floor spacing the Cavs' offense provides, who knows how much Winslow's shooting could improve with open looks.

Yet, Miami is rumored to have already offered that deal, with the Cavs rejecting it.

But what if Cleveland doesn't actually have to trade Irving?

Sure, for now, it appears that Kyrie has burned bridges. LeBron reportedly wants to see him gone after the trade request, and the front office — now with an actual non-interim GM! — is working to move the point guard.

It still seems impossibly silly that the Cavs wouldn't make a smoothing over of the Irving relationship their top priority.

Forget everything else that's happened earlier this summer, and the prospect of LeBron James leaving for the Lakers next July. The blunt fact of the matter is that Cleveland's roster as currently composed is the best in the Eastern Conference.

Perhaps Boston's signing of Gordon Hayward will make the Celtics a more legitimate playoff contender next spring, but the degree to which Cleveland has dominated the East playoffs the last three years makes me very skeptical. So, if the goal is to win a championship, it's pretty tempting and logical to say that the Cavs are a mere four wins from the ultimate prize before the season even starts.

It seems crazy to me that Irving would want to throw that proximity to another title (and the ability to play one more year with a top-three all-time great) in the garbage, with the risk of being dealt somewhere like Phoenix, who is at least two years from even talking about being a mere playoff team.

If Irving is dealt, that assurance of being in the Finals becomes a good bit cloudier, especially if Cleveland doesn't get someone back who plays the point at an all-star level and has to go into the season with Rose, Jose Calderon, and Kay Felder as its point guards. Heck, even if the Cavs got someone of Dragic's caliber, it may take the team sometime to gel, as the first edition of the LeBron-Kyrie-Love Cavs did in 2014-15, starting 19-20 before finding a groove in mid-January that year.

Chemistry in basketball is a hugely important component of a game, especially at the highest levels and when the objective for Cleveland is to take down perhaps the greatest team ever assembled in Golden State at the end of the season. If camp began tomorrow, the Cavs probably couldn't make it work between Kyrie, LeBron and the front office.

However, we're still more than six weeks from camps kicking off. In that time, the Cavs' best choice is to hash everything out and prepare one more run at the title.

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