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Cleveland Cavaliers

Why Cavaliers should consider trading Kyrie Irving

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving speaks after Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors in Cleveland, early Thursday, June 8, 2017. Golden State won 118-113. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
AP Photo/Ron Schwane

The Cleveland Cavaliers fell short of the title this year and will be looking for a way to get past the Golden State Warriors to win the title. To do that, they’re going to need to make a trade. The player they’re most likely to trade is Kevin Love. But before they do anything at all, they should consider trading Kyrie Irving.

If you’re a Cavs fan, there’s a very good chance right now you’re looking up the price of plane tickets so you can fly over here to punch me in the head. I get it. Kyrie is very popular in Cleveland, and I fully understand why. He’s a superstar — especially in the clutch. He hit the shot that won the city’s first ring in five decades. And I’m just making this assessment as a means of logical analysis, without any sense of “loyalty” involved.

But there’s a case that Kyrie, not Love is the better player to move.

Market Value

All those reasons that the Cleveland faithful would have a fit if the Cavs traded Irving are the very reasons that Cleveland should trade him. All the misgivings about Kevin Love which make him expendable are why Cleveland should reconsider if they should try parting with him.

Irving just had some of the most spectacular performances of his career in the postseason, including a ridiculous performance when he dropped 40 points on 27 shots, spinning shots off the glass in every which way. Kyrie has a “master’s degree in English,” and it makes him one of the most entertaining players in the league.

His ability to score with the ball is unrivaled. And frankly, he’s also an underrated playmaker and passer. There are plenty of reasons a team would be willing to pay a king’s ransom to acquire him.

Love had his best season in Cleveland yet and has had his name circulated in trade rumors for the last two seasons. Love is making 22.6 million next year.

Love is making 22.6 million next year. Irving is making $19.9 million.

One reason the Cavs should think about trading Irving is that they can get more back — not just more than they can get back than if they traded Love — but more back than he’s actually worth. Irving’s market is at an all-time high. His postseason heroics have overshadowed the very real defensive liabilities that keep him from being a true top-10 player.

Actual Value

Irving is a better player than Love, but not by much. Look at the metrics:

Player PER TS% WS/48 RPM
Kyrie Irving 23.00 58.00 0.17 2.07
Kevin Love 21.10 57.30 0.163 5.11

In fact, if you look at RPM, Love is actually a better player.

But numbers don’t mean everything. Fit factors in too. Based on numbers at NBA.com, this is how the Cavaliers fared with all three of their stars on the court, just Kyrie and LeBron James and just Love and James:

Grouping Ortg DRtg NRtg
James, Love and Irving 116.4 108.5 7.9
Just James and Love 111.9 97.5 14.4
Just James and Irving 119.5 108.5 11.0

It’s interesting that both duos are better than with the entire trio on, but that probably has more to do with playing against bench units than anything else. What I want to focus on here is the difference in the offensive and defensive numbers more than the net rating.

The James/Love tandem’s offensive rating is equal to the second best in the NBA. Their defensive rating would qualify as the best.

The James/Irving team’s offensive rating would have been easily the best in the league, but the defense would be 25th.

Both players have value to the Cavaliers, but while Love’s value is on both sides of the court, Irving’s is only on the offensive end.

Don’t get me wrong. Irving’s ability to get to break down defenses is a massive plus. What he did against the Warriors’ elite defense is more than evidence enough of that. But that’s mitigated to a degree by the fact he’s also a defensive liability.

And there were moments in the Finals when he was huge, and there are extremely limited splits in the Finals that come out in Irving’s favor. But sometimes we look for the exception to disprove the rule, and clinging to 55 minutes over a whole season isn’t responsible thinking.

I’m really not trying to present this as a contest over which player is “better,” but there’s a valid argument that Love is actually more valuable to the Cavaliers. Part of that might be there’s less redundancy with him and LeBron. Irving and James can fall into the “take turns running isos” offense. And Irving’s defense is far more suspect.

But let’s just say that the value is even. Then, if they get more back for Kyrie than they would for Love, the net is better if they trade Kyrie than if they trade Love.

Obviously, they’d need whoever they got back to be able to make plays with the ball because LeBron can’t be your only playmaker. But if they can get someone who can do that and help on the defensive end, the Cavs can build a better trio than they currently own.

Paul George is worth it

If the Cavs want to win a title, ultimately, they have to be able to match up against the Warriors. And part of the reason they can’t right now is that the Dubs are just longer and more versatile. They can do more with lineups than Cleveland can, and they eventually find something in their bag of tricks that the Cavs can’t stop.

So what they need to add this summer is a versatile player who can defend multiple decisions, make plays for himself and others and hit the long ball, playing effectively off of LeBron. And George is every bit that player.

There are caveats to this–the biggest one being that George has an option on his contract next year and there are numerous rumors that he can’t wait to go to Los Angeles. Playing alongside the King and having a very real shot at a championship certainly could persuade him to reconsider, though, and the affirmation of those reconsiderations would have to be behind any deal.

If the Cavaliers were to trade Kyrie to the Pacers, I postulate that George, LeBron and Love would be a better trio than Irving, George and LeBron, if for no other reason than the versatility of lineups would be enhanced by the former move and limited by the latter.

With the first trio, LeBron could effectively lineup as the starting point guard which gives the Cavalier’s an enormous positional advantage against almost anyone. How many 1s are equipped to stop James? And for that matter, how many are there he can’t defend? Then consider the ramifications of LeBron, George and J.R. Smith as your defense on the perimeter with Love and Thompson in the paint?

If the Cavs wanted to “go small” they could play Love at the 5, LeBron at the 4 and whichever minimum-level backup point guard they land (Aaron Brooks to stick with the Indiana theme?) at the 1. Or they could go super-positionless and move Love to the 5 and bring in Richard Jefferson to play the 3. Then they’d be fine with all the switching.

Imagine if LeBron is guarding Curry full-time while George is on Durant. The Warriors’ offense suddenly gets a lot easier to solve.

The Cavs would vault from being the 22nd-best defense in the league to one of the top two or three. And while they’d still be much improved with Irving, George and James, they wouldn’t be elite.

More importantly, they’d shed a lot of their versatility. Irving and Smith are more or less stuck at 1 and 2. LeBron would almost fall into the full-time power forward by default. The Cavs would struggle to go smaller or bigger. They could get creative playing James at the 5, but that’s got its drawbacks too. He’s more effective as a perimeter defender and weak-side rim protector than as a low-post defender.

They’d get less versatile, not more versatile, which would make for more of a struggle to matchup with the Dubs.

Finally, all the either/or scenarios assume that the Pacers would want to do the deal. And they might be very reluctant to do one for Love. Building a team around Myles Turner and Love seems like ill-fitting. Building a team around Irving and Turner seems to fit great.

The other end of this goes back to the first point. Irving is worth more. Paul George might be a better player than Irving, but Irving is a bigger star. He’ll put butts in seats (which any team with LeBron isn’t going to struggle doing). The Irving trade makes more sense for Indiana, ergo, it’s more realistic.

There is one huge caveat to all of this: James and Irving are close, and James has left a lot of flexibility in when he can leave. So, if they did do something, they’d have to get his approval first.

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