Kyrie Irving's desire to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers came out of nowhere, as far as the public is concerned. After all, what could he really have to be that upset over? Since LeBron James returned to his old stomping grounds, the Cavs transformed from a lottery stalwart into an instant contender, and all the concerns about Irving's ability to be a winning basketball player melted away.
But the situation is a little more complicated than that. Despite the wild success of the last few seasons, the Cavs have experienced violent ups and downs on their way to three straight NBA Finals appearances, not always looking like they had their act together. Though a lot of that can be written off as a good team coasting until they know they need to hit an extra gear, there was no shortage of media drama, which eventually takes it toll on anyone.
With Cleveland scrambling to put together a coherent plan to move forward on, we've learned a lot about the turmoil within the organization over the last few days. Here's what we know so far about what drove Irving to make this demand and what Cleveland has been up to this offseason.
Irving has grown tired of LeBron's influence on the franchise
In the initial report disclosing Irving's trade request, we learned the heart of that matter was Irving being sick of standing in LeBron's shadow. For a star ball-handler, the limitations of playing next to LeBron are obvious; Irving went from the guy in Cleveland a few years ago to the sidekick, and James returned as the prodigal son shortly after Irving had just inked a max deal to be the face of the franchise.
But this problem goes beyond sharing touches on the court and billboard space. According to reporting from ESPN's Brian Windhorst, Dave McMenamin, and Ramona Shelburne, Irving is upset about the overarching influence of his teammate, which extends to positions on Cleveland's staff.
There were ancillary issues that bothered Irving, too, such as how James' good friend Randy Mims had a position on the Cavs' staff and traveled on the team plane while none of Irving's close friends were afforded the same opportunity. Irving chafed about how peers such as Damian Lillard and John Wall were the center of their franchises and catered to accordingly.
While there are debates to be had about whether Irving deserves that level of power, it seems pretty apparent it's something he desires, and he won't get it playing with LeBron in Cleveland.
The Cavs failed to have exit meetings with their players
Exit meetings are not necessarily the most critical part of an offseason, at least when things are trending positively for a team. Getting a read on everyone's mood is an important step, but with the Cavs only real obstacle being the Golden State Warriors, it didn't look like they'd need to talk about a whole lot with their guys.
But because of disarray in their front office—former Cavs GM David Griffin parted ways with the team following a contract dispute—exit meetings were reportedly skipped completely following the team's loss in the NBA Finals.
After the season, there was a desire to arrange a meeting to clear the air from all sides, sources said, but it didn't take place. Unlike most teams, the Cavs did not have postseason exit meetings with their players. Had a meeting with Irving taken place, the Cavs might have learned of the severity of his concerns earlier.
It's a lot easier to say this with hindsight, but closer attention should have been paid to what the core stars were going through.
There's a strong belief LeBron James is leaving for Los Angeles next summer
Even if there was a guarantee LeBron was sticking around after next season, no one knows if Irving would still be happy to play second-fiddle. But according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the not-so-secret plans of James are a factor in Irving's desire to control his own destiny, because there's a strong belief LeBron will flee Cleveland next summer.
With James refusing to commit to Cleveland beyond the coming season, and with the growing verdict that James is intrigued with pursuing a Los Angeles Lakers exit plan, Irving has become proactive in controlling his own career arc. The Cavaliers are constructed to play a slow, half-court game around James, personnel ill-suited to transition into an up-tempo style with Irving as the centerpiece.
If the belief there is strong enough, it makes a little more sense that Irving would want to force a move now and get out ahead of things.
The Cavs had a deal done for Paul George that fell apart at the last minute
It was no secret that Cleveland was in pursuit of another star that might help the Cavs in their quest to topple the Warriors next season. They were connected to both of the big names on the trade market this summer, Jimmy Butler and Paul George, but ended up mostly standing pat by extending their own players.
Though a deal for the former was reportedly never close, a three-team move for the latter was all but finished when Indiana backed out. The Cavs, Nuggets, and Pacers tentatively agreed to a trade that would have sent Kevin Love to Denver, Paul George to Cleveland, and a number of smaller pieces back to Indiana, but Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard backed out, shortly before agreeing on a deal that sent George to Oklahoma City.
Though it's not immediately clear what the reasoning behind backing out was, it does show the Cavs have been active in trying to improve the team this offseason, despite chaos in the front office.
Irving was upset about being included in various trade talks
Having hit the shot that clinched the 2016 NBA Finals for Cleveland, Irving rightfully feels he's an integral part of everything the Cavs do. That apparently didn't stop the Cavs from including him in trade discussions this summer.
As part of their effort to bring one of Butler or George to Cleveland, the Cavs ended up dangling Irving as part of their talks with other teams. Though nothing ever came to fruition, Irving was apparently upset he had been kept in the dark regarding possible moves, having previously felt like he was in the loop with Cavs GM David Griffin.
Other teams entered into discussions with the Cavs at different points in the offseason, including the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz, the former of whom reportedly engaged in serious discussion with the Cavs over a package that would have included the No. 4 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and guard Eric Bledsoe.
Bledsoe's inclusion is important for a couple reasons—a guard returning in a potential deal would suggest Irving would be the guy being shipped out, and perhaps more critically, he's a client of Rich Paul, the agent and close personal friend of LeBron James. Given Irving's displeasure over LeBron's influence in Cleveland, Bledsoe's name popping up would only seem to pour salt into a gaping wound, validating his established grievances.
Irving has a list of four teams he prefers to play for
The list of reported teams Irving wants to play for is short. The Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, and San Antonio Spurs were named by Brian Windhorst as the teams he prefers to join if the Cavs satisfy his trade demand.
Some of those teams are more logical destinations than others. Irving would be close to where he grew up playing for the Knicks, and he would be stepping into a power vacuum should he join up with Kristaps Porzingis there. As opposed to the San Antonio Spurs, who have an alpha dog in Kawhi Leonard and an organizational philosophy of sharing the wealth, New York would appear to fit Irving's goal of becoming a leading man.
Minnesota is the most interesting name on the list, and not just because they're an up-and-coming team. The Timberwolves already picked up Jimmy Butler in a blockbuster trade during the draft, who the Cavaliers had tried to bring in themselves. Butler and Irving and pretty good friends as far as NBA players go; during an interview earlier this year, Butler confessed Irving is the opponent he would most like to play with in the future.
At first, that doesn't appear to match up with his reported request to avoid being shipped to Cleveland.
Per source, Jimmy Butler has informed Cavs that he wants to stay in Chicago rather than be traded to Cleveland.— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) June 21, 2017
Follow-up reports have mentioned Butler spoke with both Irving and James about the possibility of joining the Cavs. This is merely speculation, but if Butler and Irving are as close as it seems from a distance, it's possible that instead of hearing a recruitment pitch, he was warned by Irving in advance that things were about to get ugly.
If that's the case, it says a lot about the depth of Kyrie Irving's displeasure with the state of affairs in Cleveland, and perhaps about how sure everyone is that LeBron is taking his talents elsewhere after this year.