Late July is generally not supposed to be the time for landscape altering transactions in the NBA. The heavy lifting is normally done sometime between draft week in late June and shortly after the free agent moratorium ends in early July. Logical teams want to make their big moves first and conduct the rest of their offseason accordingly, filling in the edges around the larger picture front and center.
Life doesn’t always stick to the plan you’d prefer, though. Sometimes, a really good player ups and decides he no longer wants to play with the league’s best player and one of the greatest players of all time. On the court, there’s little sane reasoning for anyone not to want to play with LeBron James, a preternatural basketball phenomenon and, seemingly, one of the most malleable chess pieces in existence. Off the court, though, you can squint and see why it may be tough to be a number two, to live in James’ immense shadow, and to receive mostly blame in hard times and rarely the same effusive praise in good times.
And so it is that Kyrie Irving has told the Cleveland Cavaliers he wants out.
Again, the logic is arguable, but when it comes to a player’s feelings, who are we to really judge? James disagrees with how he’s been characterized in the ordeal and the Cavaliers say any animosity has been “overblown.” Irving’s camp is putting it out there that Irving wants to be his own star, run his own show, and not be beholden to James reportedly sometimes prickly leadership style. The Cavaliers do not have to honor said request, but at a press conference Wednesday introducing new general manager Koby Altman, if you find your way through the spin, it’s clear Cleveland would prefer to not have to deal with yet another in-season circus, which would probably be the case of Irving remains on the roster when the season opens. Altman called it a “fluid situation,” but a trade is believed to be inevitable.
This obviously stands to have an impact on the Toronto Raptors, who will once again measure themselves using the Cavs as the stick in 2017-18. As currently constructed, the Raptors aren’t any closer to catching the Cavs or threatening them in a playoff series, but they’re one of a handful of Eastern Conference teams that might be able to take a swing at them if they falter. In all likelihood, this news only impacts the Raptors to the degree it signals Cleveland’s instability ahead of a huge summer in 2018, when James can leave and further tilt the balance in the East. But even though the Raptors aren’t likely to be able to top Cleveland even without Irving (the Cavs might make it back to the NBA Finals even before accounting for the return for Irving), any changes at the top of the East are worth monitoring.
If you’ve been engaging in sports betting this offseason, you know that the Raptors are well behind Cleveland and Boston in terms of the title odds for Eastern Conference teams. They’re even behind the 76ers, and tied with the Bucks and Wizards. It’s hard to gauge just how much those lines would swing with any given deal, but there are also have odds on an Irving trade, which can inform how the East might shake out post-megadeal.
Irving remaining in Cleveland still remains the most likely outcome (+150), but it’s not favored versus the field. Minnesota (+200) is the most likely landing spot, followed by New York (+550), Phoenix (+600), Boston and Miami (+1000), and Denver and San Antonio (+1200).
For the Raptors, the hope is probably two-fold: Irving doesn’t land in a situation where he would elevate another East team to the second tier (this seems unlikely given the reported asking price from Cleveland and Irving’s own limitations as a true No. 1, however dynamic and exciting he may be), and Irving doesn’t bring a return that makes it more likely James stays beyond next summer (this is next to impossible to tell from outside James’ circle, but anything that strengthens the Cavaliers’ medium-term would hurt; making Cleveland better for 2017-18 doesn’t move the needle much). As for Toronto themselves, they’re off the board as an Irving landing spot, likely because an Irving-Kyle Lowry swap is a case where all three sides would say no (Toronto would get cheaper but probably a little worse considering the defensive side; Cleveland would see their tax payment balloon even further; Irving wouldn’t be the clear-cut No. 1 alongside DeRozan).
Is there a destination you’d like to see Irving land, from a Toronto perspective? From a general NBA fandom perspective? Anywhere that scares you? We need things to talk about here in late July, so thank shammgod for Uncle Drew.