Opportunities to trade for a star-level player not yet in their physical prime are exceedingly rare in the NBA. Outside of special circumstances, like the financial factors that coerced Oklahoma City to move on from James Harden, most teams will cling to young talent as long as they can.
The Cleveland Cavaliers don’t appear to have a choice in the situation that is unfolding with Kyrie Irving. Sure, they could call his bluff and force him to play out this season—and potentially more—in a Cavs uniform, alongside a player who he apparently is no longer interested in playing with. But just as there’s a risk to give up a young talent like Irving, there’s an enormous risk involved to keep a disgruntled Irving around during what could be LeBron James’ final season in Cleveland.
Irving is trying to force his way out the door, and though the Sixers did not make the short list of teams he had in mind, most teams around the league will have to at least weigh the possibility of bringing a four-time All Star into the fold, nearly a year before he’ll turn 26 years old.
Stylistically, Irving is a great fit on offense
For all the flaws in his game, Irving’s offensive package would work just fine alongside Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
The Sixers are in desperate need of elite shooting around those two players, and Irving brings exactly that to the Sixers. Among players who attempted at least 150 three-point shots of the catch-and-shoot variety last season, Irving was the league’s best marksman, knocking down a staggering 47.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks from downtown last year.
Though he’s near the bottom of that threshold (167) compared to some of the league’s other top marksman—Steph Curry took 359 attempts, while JJ Redick took 332—there’s little to suggest he won’t be able to replicate that production. Irving struggled from deep during a 53-game campaign in 2015-16, but he was in the league’s top-five on catch-and-shoot looks during the 2014-15 season as well, sandwiched right between Curry and Klay Thompson.
In fact, if not for the blip in 2015-16, Irving would demand greater respect as one of the best shooters in the game. Whatever shooting woes he has had during his career have mostly been connected to shot selection, rather than an inability to hit shots consistently.
Though his shot selection is a definite red flag, Irving has some justification for attempting shots with a high degree of difficulty. His shot-making ability is among the league’s best, with Irving using his elite handle and subtle head fakes to create the separation he needs to get a shot off. Give him an inch, and you’re doomed.
Even if you’re not a fan of the “hero ball” side of his game, he doesn’t get as much credit as he probably deserves for creating openings without the ball in his hands. The below play, for example, shows Irving rubbing off his man through a tangle of bodies and screens, then adjusting his route within the play in order to find the path of least resistance to an open three.
Add onto that Irving’s creative finishing ability at the rim—among the best in the league—and his top-notch handle, and you have a player that fits offensively on any team, let alone the Sixers. His lack of playmaking would be a concern, but even that is best hidden alongside a player like Simmons.
The defensive lapses are glaring
Put it this way: Irving is never going to find himself on an All-Defense team. And though you could say that about a lot of high-level point guards around the NBA, Irving combines a lot of the worst traits of a bad defender into one small package.
The maddening thing about Irving’s defensive mistakes are how different they are from one play to the next. Sometimes, he simply can’t keep in front of quicker, stronger guards. Other times, he’s plagued by mental lapses, with a breakdown on his end leading to mad dash by his teammates, eventually ending with an open three for the opponent.
Were his mistakes all to come from a common place, or even if you could coax consistent effort out of him on that end, it would be a little easier to hide him or scheme around his flaws. Instead, you watch sequences like this, where he flashes poor instincts, over commits to try to compensate for the initial flaw in positioning, and the mistakes eventually lead to a high-percentage look at the basket for Indiana.
Cleveland’s transition defense has been a particularly sore spot, and Irving is at the heart of that issue. Watch this sequence from the Finals, where he runs around like a chicken with his head cut off, cutting off not a single threat in the process.
For as skilled as he is as an offensive player, Irving is equally bad on the defensive end. Lineups with Irving on the court have tended to be the worst the Cavs have to offer the last few seasons, despite a lot of his minutes coming alongside Tristan Thompson, an excellent defender in pick-and-rolls, and LeBron James, who when engaged is still capable of blowing plays up and causing havoc for opposing offenses.
The Sixers have players who could make life easier for Irving—take a bow, Joel Embiid and Robert Covington—but the question is to what degree they’d be able to do so, since Irving’s flaws on that end tend to have a ripple effect that can’t necessarily be tracked by numbers. In high stakes games, you can’t afford to have guys on the court who will ball watch like this.
This is just my take on it, but considering the full scope of his issues, I don’t think is the sort of thing you can hide, even if you have a transformative defensive player anchoring things on the backline. Pressure bursts pipes, and Irving creates an undue amount of stress on any defensive system.
A question of ego
I think Irving’s desire to step out of the shadow of LeBron is understandable on some level. The bulk of what he has heard since James returned to Cleveland has focused on what the return did to change his career arc, assigning any progress he made these last few years solely to LeBron’s presence. There’s a middle ground to be found there that’s often just ignored.
Still, bringing in a player who isn’t happy playing second fiddle to the best player in the league would be a huge challenge and change for the young Sixers. Up until this point, Brett Brown has mostly managed developing young guys and replaceable veteran role players, all of whom ultimately know where they fit into the team’s hierarchy.
If the Sixers were bringing in a transformative, no-doubt-about-it player who had proven his ability to impact the game on both ends of the court, it’d be a lot easier to dismiss questions about ego and his ability to assimilate. Irving, however, is not that, and would have to win over the approval of his teammates solely by being an offensive supernova, and at least somewhat of a leader to a group of guys who are only a few years his junior.
Irving would also be walking onto a team whose current best player actively cares about and professes his attention to the defensive end of the floor. Not only that, health permitting Embiid is a better, overall more impactful player than Irving could ever hope to be, and is better equipped to lead his teammates because of his unwavering commitment to both ends of the floor.
To draw a cross-sport example, teammates on a football team are a little happier to bust their ass for their quarterback if they see him selling out for every last yard they can get. It’s why, despite his obvious limitations on the field, most teammates Michael Vick ever played with loved that dude, because he was willing to throw his body into harm’s way, even though the style of play often backfired on him.
Whereas Embiid might trend closer to that Vick mold, Irving would be the equivalent of a QB who leans toward preserving his body, piling up stats while perhaps drawing the occasional question about his ultimate commitment to helping a team win. If a player is going to crow about his desire to show up somewhere new and be the man, his peers are going to want to see that translates to more than just hoisting lots of shots.
Irving is not unpopular amongst his peers, and I don’t think that’s going to change because he wants to star in his own show. But if the Sixers are going to pay a premium to bring in a star who supplements the pieces they have in place, it should be for someone who is going to continue building on and assimilate within the hard-nosed culture they’ve already been fostering for years.
The cost would be prohibitive
Speaking of paying a premium, all of this comes attached to a fairly safe assumption—if the Sixers were to make a move for Irving, it would likely mean the departure of Markelle Fultz, who was brought in to be the team’s lead guard of the future.
Before grappling with the other pieces that would need to be attached to bring Irving to Philly, the Sixers would need to think long and hard about sacrificing multiple years worth of team control, and an elite talent—not to mention an elite fit—on a rookie-scale contract. Yes, Irving is in many ways what the team hope Fultz will eventually be, but the present-day upgrade would not come without both present and future costs.
Fultz projects to be a better playmaker than Irving, and he’s equipped with defensive tools Irving could only dream of. He has at least flashed moments of defensive engagement and the ability to recover on misreads, which is something Irving still isn’t capable of six seasons in.
While you would get a couple years worth of Irving before he likely opts out of his deal in the 2019 offseason, Fultz won’t hit restricted free agency until 2021. With big decisions looming on potential extensions for Embiid, Covington, Simmons, and additional free agency opportunities down the line, pot committing on Irving would be a dangerous play for Bryan Colangelo, whereas Fultz’s relatively cheap deal will hopefully keep the team flexible for as long as possible. If things go south these next couple years, Irving could easily bolt, leaving the Sixers in a rough spot moving forward.
Had the Sixers stayed at No. 3 and picked up a player whose fit was questionable with Embiid and Simmons, perhaps we’d be having a different conversation. But with the core as it stands, I’m don’t think the upside of Irving in a Sixers uniform is high enough to justify dealing with the obvious pitfalls that come with him.