The Cavs Really Should Trade Kyrie Irving (Probably)

April 1st, 2014 by Nate Smith

In the words of Magnum P.I., I know what you’re thinking: “Nate is nuts.” Kyrie Irving is a 21-year-old two time All-Atar who was just the NBA All-Star Game MVP, was the No. 1 pick of the draft and rookie of the year in 2012. In the NBA, players like that are untouchable. But the dirty little secret of this Cleveland playoff push is that the Cavs may play better without Kyrie, and at the very least, they don’t play any worse. I’m actually worried about the Cavs missing the playoffs if Irving comes back. Am I a hoops blasphemer?

The Evidence

In the first 12 games of the current roster configuration (with Spencer Hawes) the Cavs played with Kyrie. They went 4-8 with a point differential of -4.5.  They shot .438 and allowed an opponent field goal percentage of .449.   This admittedly brutal stretch of games came against all playoff teams, save the Knicks.

In the last eight games, sans Kyrie, The Cavs are playing .500 basketball, with their only losses coming to playoff teams.  The point differential is a nominal -0.7 per game. They are shooting .483 with an opponent field goal of .448. This stretch of games has been against all playoff teams save the Knicks and Pistons.

To further investigate the phenomenon let’s look at one of my favorite stats, RAPM.  Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus attempts to estimate, in an unbiased way, a players impact on the game in terms of impact per 100 possessions.

2013-2014 RAPM SWAgR (Wins) Combined RAPM Off.  Def.  Min.
Kyrie Irving  3.00 -1.13  1.53 -2.66 2274
Dion Waiters  3.85  0.04  0.92 -0.89 1595
Jarrett Jack -0.43 -3.02 -1.84 -1.17 1915
Matthew Dellavedova  1.94 -0.35 -0.15 -0.20  991

As can be seen, Waiters and Dellavedova both have a RAPM near zero (0.04, and -0.35, respectively), while Irving’s is -1.13, and Jack’s is -3.02 on the season. This analysis suffers from a couple flaws. The first is Dellavedova’s small minutes sample. The second is that the Cavs improved fortunes have come with Jack and Deng’s improved play, which may be the result of getting healthy after lingering injuries.  Jack is clearly playing better now than he has most of the season. What can’t be argued is that Wailters does not give up nearly as much on defense as Kyrie does. The theory I’ve surmised from this chart and the Cavs records with and without Kyrie Irving: Cleveland would not be any worse if they gave Kyrie’s minutes to Matthew Dellavedova and Dion Waiters (and probably any other “average RAPM” guards in the league).

Finally, while Irving had a Rookie year for the ages, he’s barely improved since. Take a look at his RAPM.

Year SWAgR (Wins) Combined RAPM Off.
2014  3.00 -1.13  1.53 -2.66 2274
2013  3.33 -2.07  0.71 -2.78 2048
2012  1.50 -3.09 -0.21 -2.88 1558

His PER and other advanced stats, courtesy of basketball-reference.

Kyrie Irving Advanced Statistics
Season ▴ Age G MP PER
2011-2012 19 51 1558 21.4
2012-2013 20 59 2048 21.4
2013-2014 21 64 2274 20.0
TS% eFG% FTr 3PAr
2011-2012 0.566 0.517 0.262 0.245
2012-2013 0.553 0.503 0.271 0.261
2013-2014 0.532 0.479 0.27 0.280
2011-2012 3.1 11.2 7 36.5 1.8
2012-2013 1.8 10.8 6.1 32.7 2.3
2013-2014 2.2 9.3 5.6 32.6 2.0
2011-2012 1.0 16.1 28.7 109 110
2012-2013 0.8 13.8 30.2 108 110
2013-2014 0.8 12.1 28.4 109 109
2011-2012 3.4 0.6 4.1 0.125
2012-2013 4.2 1.1 5.3 0.125
2013-2014 4.2 1.7 5.9 0.125

Irving has improved his turnover percentage significantly. In all other areas, he’s regressed slightly, or stayed almost exactly the same since his rookie season. His win shares per 48 minutes have not budged in three years.  There are fair criticisms of his game.  Irving still runs far too many plays in isolation. His assist rate is dropping. He gets trapped in corners. He tries to do too much. He’s easy to scheme against when the game is on the line. He gets lit up by the Danny Greens of the world.

The Argument

Kyrie Irving’s trade value will never be higher than right now. He’s still on his rookie deal for one more season. He is widely regarded as one of the best young point guards in the league, and he just recently turned 22. Irving won’t be in his “prime” for probably five more seasons. He has nowhere to go but “up,” but his sky high reputation greatly outshines his actual production.  Also, aside from the fact that the Cavs don’t seem to be better with him on the floor, they have some other reasons to consider trading him.

First, Kyrie’s comparison to the great players ignores defense.  If you’re going to compare Irving to Chris Paul, you’ll have to note that Paul was a pretty tenacious defensive player when he came in the league (his defensive APM was almost five — unheard of for a rookie). The other greats, Oscar, Jordan, and Magic, were all good defensive players too (or at least in terms of Magic, great rebounders), as opposed to Kyrie. Second, Irving’s injury prone. Irving has missed 22-percent of his games in a Cleveland uniform. That is just over one in five games — a startlingly high number for a 21 year old player.  Third, Kyrie Irving will probably receive a contract that outweighs his value.

Kyrie Irving will be eligible for a five year contract extension that pays him 25% of the salary cap in years one and two, and 30% of the salary cap in years 3-5. If Irving is voted to start another all-star game, he’ll be eligible for 30% of the salary cap in all five years of the extension. (Further explanations, here). Is Kyrie Irving a player worth tying up 30% of the Cavs salary cap for five years? $17+ million per year? Will he improve to the point that he’ll make his teammates better, and not is not a complete liability on defense? The answer, unfortunately, is that Kyrie Irving is not worth the risk.

Why? For one thing, there isn’t enough scarcity when it comes to quality point guard play to justify paying Irving that much.  In a perfect world, with no salary cap, that might make sense. But to pay Irving that much means the Cavs will not be paying as much to other positions. The recent NBA seems to favor the dominating larger players that can get their shot off against anyone in the playoffs, rather than shorter players who distribute and hit open shots. Wins are about crunch time and defense. Crunch time and defense are about size, skill, and athletic ability. Highly skilled, Irving doesn’t possess enough size and athletic ability to  generate enough wins to warrant that investment. If Cleveland can get the same production out of Delly and pay him half that, they should seriously consider it.

My argument is borderline in many ways. It assumes that Kyrie will not improve and become the transcendent player that his rookie year hinted he would. Irving’s rookie season was top 20 all time, but his improvement since his rookie year has been negligible at best. He’s made small strides on defense, but still gets lost off the ball, and seems to still not know how to make his teammates better. He’s being outplayed badly by Dellavedova in terms of setting up the offense and playing defense, and Kyrie hasn’t shown any progression towards improving those traits. There’s no guarantee Irving does.

If the Cavs were to shop Irving from a position of strength, they would certainly get a lot of intriguing offers, and might be able to build a more balanced team instead of a team built around a taller, less athletic, Allen Iverson, with a better jump shot, who plays defense like Steve Nash.

The Counterargument


No one has done what Kyrie has done at point guard at such a young age, at least not anyone as short as Kyrie. As Conrad Kaczmarek noted on FTS a couple years ago, only Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, and Magic Johnson joined Kyrie in averaging 18 points and five assists with a TS% over 55.  Furthermore…

When we compared Kyrie’s rookie PER to other rookies in NBA history, he matches up pretty well. Once again, he ranks 22nd. The only active players to have had better rookie PERs were Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin, Kenneth Faried, and Chris Paul. That’s a solid list to be on.

If we only look at the PER of rookie guards, Kyrie is fifth all time. Only Chris Paul, Walter Davis, Michael Jordan, and Oscar Robertson were better. Believe it or not, Kyrie even narrowly topped Magic Johnson’s rookie campaign, 21.4 to 20.6.

Irving is still only 22 years old.  He has time to learn to become a great point guard, or he can be a shooting guard and be paired with a great point guard who has the size to cover other teams’ taller guards.  Smart teams don’t throw away that kind of prodigious talent.

The final counterargument is most convincing: Cleveland probably can’t trade Kyrie and get the kind of value they’d need to make a trade worthwhile.

If the Cavs Were to Trade Kyrie, What Could They Get?

Could Cleveland get enough? The goal of trading Kyrie should be to improve some of the Cavs most glaring needs: shot blocking/interior defense, efficient interior scoring, and two way talent at the wings. A Kyrie Irving trade has two other caveats.  The salaries have to match, which could be difficult because Kyrie is still on his rookie deal, and the Cavs will be under the cap this offseason after Hawes and Deng are free agents. Additionally, no team will trade for Kyrie unless he is willing to sign an extension with them.

Kevin has broached this subject before. In his most recent exploration, “Blowing Up the Cavaliers,” Kevin got this offer out of the box for Irving.

Michael Schwartz of Valley of the Suns offered Goran Dragic or Eric Bledsoe, either Morris twin, and two first round draft picks. Honestly, I didn’t hate it.

Not a bad haul, but aside from improving on Tristan Thompson, offensively, it doesn’t move the needle much for Cleveland.

The Cavs have two routes to go for getting all-star level talent in return for Kyrie. The first is to acquire high draft picks and hope those players turn into all-stars, the second is to trade for established players at that level. The first is riskier, the second will eat up a lot of cap room. In response to the cap room dilemma, Cleveland just made this creative deal to give them more non-guaranteed contracts: Scotty Hopson got a two year, $2.8 million dollar deal with $1.5 million non-guaranteed for next year.  Contracts like Hopson’s are great for trading, because the other side can waive the salary.

If the Cavs do move Irving for a draft pick, it should be to get Andrew Wiggins. He’s the only elite player who fits a need in this draft and isn’t a tweener. Since his stock has dropped this season, it’s probably doable. Cleveland would need to get into the top one or two spots to do it. Utah, the Bucks, and the Sixers have the talent and the top level pick it will probably take to make this work. The Bucks could send Larry Sanders and the top pick(s). Utah could sign and trade Gordon Heyward and their pick(s). The Sixers could send Thaddeus Young and their pick(s).  The problem is that Irving and agent, Jeffrey Wechsler, may be reluctant to sign an extension in any of those losing situations. Philly, maybe… It’s a bigger market with a lot of draft picks, cap room, and an ability to rebuild quickly. MCW is tall enough and passes enough to play with Kyrie, and that could form an effective back-court.

The Philly trade I would ask for? The Cavs trade Kyrie and Tristan Thompson for Nerlens Noel, Thad Young, and swap picks with Philly for their high lottery pick. It gets the Cavs better in a big way. Would Philly go for it? Does Irving want to sit through more years of rebuilding?

A place Kyrie would definitely sign an extension is L.A. but to get a top three pick, the Lakers would have to have some lottery magic. (But we all know that David Stern only retired to go work at Ernst & Young to make sure the Lakers get the number one pick). I proposed this trade to Tom: Cleveland gets a sign and traded Jordan Farmar, a sign and traded Jordan Hill, the Lakers’ No. 1 pick (I believe L.A. has to actually draft him before they , and a future No. 1 or two.  Tom’s response? “It’s not enough.” He’s probably right.

Another interesting destination? Boston. Boston has two first rounders in the top 15, right now. Would two first rounders, Jeff Green, and Jarred Sullinger work for Kyrie? I’d hate to see Kyrie under Brad Stevens. Stevens would figure out how to maximize Irving’s effectiveness, and a Rondo/Kyrie back-court would destroy teams in transition. Also, Jeff Green is a model of inefficiency. Cleveland would really have to love those draft picks.

Would Orlando Trade? As devastating as an Irving/Oladipo Backcourt could be. The Magic don’t have enough talent to add to the #1 pick to make it work.  Well, maybe if they gave Cleveland Vucevik…

What about Sacramento? It would probably take a three way deal with them moving Isaiah Thomas, giving Cleveland the lottery pick , and Thomas’ new team giving Cleveland something. But does KI extend in Sactown?

On the other end of the spectrum, Cleveland could try to shop Kyrie for established stars. I’d love to see them go after Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, but Hollinger is too big of a believer in advanced stats to move the greatest PER/Dollar player in the NBA, Conley. And a Conley/Irving Backcourt makes no sense.

What about Houston? Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons, and draft pick(s)? Now that’s intriguing. I would love to watch an Irving/Harden back-court score 50 a game, and give up 48.

Toronto?  Amir Johnson and DeMarr DeRozan? They probably say no. They can just re-sign Lowry.

New Orleans has no one I want outside of Davis, San Antonio’s not breaking up their team. OKC isn’t trading Westbrook and Ibaka. Dallas doesn’t have the ammo. Portland already has Lillard. Denver? Kenneth Faried and who else? Minnesota? To see Love walk in a year? Or to get Rubio?

There’s just no perfect trade for Kyrie Irving.

And maybe Irving knows this. Maybe that’s why he called trade talk, “blasphemy,” in a USA Today interview, yesterday. A Sam Amico piece expounds.

“I’m on my rookie deal,” he said. “The team that can extend me is the Cleveland Cavaliers, and, you know, for me to even think about getting traded is blasphemy. It’s ridiculous…”

Most people close to the organization, however, believe Irving will sign a maximum extension. His recent comments seem to support that theory.

Of course, if Irving seems determined to sign an extension, maybe the Cavs should talk to Utah, Milwaukee, and Philly (my three favorite hypothetical trade candidates)… Or maybe, now that he’s been cleared to return, Kyrie should play better defense when he comes back, help the Cavs get that last playoff spot, and lock down the point guard spot for years to come as a two-way player who makes his teammates better. That’s not blasphemy, is it?