Just when we thought the NBA free agency period was coming to a close, and the league was about to enter a bit of a lull before the season started up again, Kyrie Irving went and “ruined” all of that, when the word of his trade demands went public in late July. It was a basketball bombshell that dominated the NBA universe for the next week or so, mostly because of the magnitude of the player the trade demand came from, but especially because Irving’s teammate happens to be the most famous (active) basketball player in the world: LeBron James.
With the relationship between Irving and James seemingly fractured, and with James’ looming free agency departure next offseason, there’s a strong chance that Irving could actually be traded by Cleveland sooner rather than later. If that was, in fact, going to happen, here are four destinations that would make the most sense (in order of least likely to most likely):
Minnesota Timberwolves — It raised more than a few eyebrows when Kyrie Irving placed the Minnesota Timberwolves of his list of preferred trade destinations, when he first approached the braintrust of the Cleveland Cavaliers with this trade demands. Irving seemingly wanted to play for venerated head coach Tom Thibodeau, but him going to Minnesota didn’t seem to jive with the idea of going to a team where he’d be the focal point of the entire organization. Minnesota already has Karl-Anthony Towns, considered to be one of the transformative big men in the entire league. He is the foundation on which the Timberwolves will rebuild their team, and rightfully so. On top of that, the Timberwolves got themselves another mega-star this summer, when they acquired Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls.
So, how would Irving going to Minnesota — and being someone who’d be reluctant to share the ball with Towns and Butler — work out? Plus, the great irony in all of this is that any trade for Irving would almost have to involve the Timberwolves sending back Andrew Wiggins to Cleveland. You’ll no doubt remember that Wiggins was famously omitted from James’ “I’m Coming Home” article in Sports Illustrated, as the wheels were set in motion for Cleveland to trade Wiggins to Minnesota for the rights to Kevin Love (at James’ behest). As interesting as this deal would make the Timberwolves, it just doesn’t appear to be that realistic at this point in time.
Miami Heat — Ever since LeBron James left town in the summer of 2014, Pat Riley has been trying to lure marquee players back to South Beach and put the Heat back among the contenders in the Eastern Conference. Many people thought the Heat were a dangerous darkhorse in the Kevin Durant free agency sweepstakes in 2016, and they reportedly finished as the “first runner up” in the chase for free agent forward Gordon Hayward this summer. But as long as there’s the allure of South Beach, no state income tax in Florida, and Pat Riley showing off all the championship rings he’s accumulated, you can never count out the Heat from adding a superstar. What Riley has failed to accomplish in free agency could potentially be solved via a trade, in terms of bringing a superstar back to South Beach.
Irving would easily be the new centerpiece of the Heat, even though they signed center Hassan Whiteside to a maximum contract last summer. But can Riley and the Heat put together a package that would tempt the Cavaliers enough to trade him? A few league observers have discussed a deal that would send Irving and Iman Shumpert in exchange for Goran Dragic, Wayne Ellington, and Justise Winslow, but many people feel that such a package isn’t rich enough to tempt the Cavaliers. Dragic and Ellington are fine players, but nothing close to the caliber of player of Irving. Winslow is an intriguing young prospect, but he’s been riddled with injuries since he arrived in the NBA. On top of that, Miami doesn’t have any picks in the 2018 NBA Draft to sweeten such a deal. This deal feels like something Cleveland might pull the proverbial trigger on, if they feel absolutely compelled to trade Irving and can’t really find any other deal that tempts them.
Phoenix Suns — Phoenix seems like they’ve been in the lottery nearly every year since their “seven seconds or less” days, but they’ve continually failed to acquire that franchise-altering superstar via the draft (as evidenced by their seven-year playoff drought). Trading for Kyrie Irving instantly changes that, giving them that sought after star that continually eludes them, and giving Irving a team that would unquestionably be his “own” (which he seemingly desires). Because Phoenix has made so many selections in the draft lottery for the better part of the last decade, they would seem to have the cache of young assets that Cleveland would theoretically want in return. But the question for this deal is how much Phoenix would be willing to give up in return.
Any trade package offered by Phoenix appears to start with point guard Eric Bledsoe, who is represented by Klutch Sports Group (owned by Rich Paul — a close friend of LeBron James), and who’d fill the void left by Irving. But what after that? The Suns are reportedly refusing to include sweet-shooting Devin Booker or recent lottery selection Josh Jackson in the deal, and the Cavaliers seem to want at least one of those guys — if not both of them — in return for Irving. Phoenix can simply try and wait things out with their current nucleus of talent, and aren’t necessarily in a rush to go and get Irving. And, of course, Cleveland still has the option of not acquiescing to Irving’s demands. So, in terms of this deal, both teams are “playing chicken,” waiting for the other to cave in.
New York — A trade involving the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, centered around Kyrie Irving, makes so much sense that it’s actually shocking that it hasn’t taken place yet. First and foremost, such a deal would allow Irving to (somewhat) follow in LeBron James’ footsteps, and “return home” as a welcomed hero. Irving spent much of his life growing up in New Jersey, essentially in the suburbs of New York City. That’s why New York was one of the four teams originally included on Irving’s preferred trade destinations, when he famously told the ownership of the Cavaliers of his trade demands. In addition to that, New York has the perfect package of players they could send back as part of a trade for Irving: a proven win-now player in Carmelo Anthony (who happens to be one of James’ best friends), and a lottery selection in point guard Frank Ntilikina (who was coveted by former team President Phil Jackson, meaning the current regime really has no true loyalty to him).
Sending Anthony and Ntilikina to Cleveland not only allows the Cavaliers to remain a contender in the Eastern Conference, but gives them a young, pass-first point guard to groom as a future stud. Meanwhile, Irving would be hailed as nothing short of a prodigal son returning home to Gotham. Even with Kristaps Porzingis being a cornerstone of the Knicks, he wouldn’t be able to captivate Knicks fans — and sell a whole bunch of tickets — the way Irving could. Plus, Irving and Porzingis, plus some of the other young pieces the Knicks have developed, would instantly make them a playoff team in the watered-down East. A package of Irving plus one of Cleveland’s bloated contracts (like Channing Frye’s expiring deal, or Iman Shumpert’s deal) for Anthony and Ntilikina would be a win-win for both parties.