Phoenix Suns should want Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, but don’t need him
Just as Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver and his general manager Ryan McDonough appear to have their sights set on the #TheTimeline, the All-Star in his prime on the trade market McDonough has been searching for since he arrived in 2013 exists.
Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving asked for a trade, according to various reports, and as our own Kevin Zimmerman wrote, the connection of Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe makes it obvious as to why Phoenix will be linked to Irving until he is no longer a Cavalier.
The question now becomes what the Suns should be willing to give up to get Irving.
It’s a loaded answer.
First things first, Irving is worth the price of admission for any NBA fan.
He’s one of the 15-20 best players in the league, a heavy compliment given his extreme deficiencies as a defender.
Most importantly, he’s proven that ranking numerous times at the age of 25 in the playoffs and NBA Finals.
Just last postseason, in fact, when the best player in the world LeBron James picked up four fouls in the first half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, Cleveland had no chance but to rely on Irving.
It was a moment in the league’s landscape, with Boston threatening to tie the series 2-2 and having homecourt for the last three games.
Irving responded with one of his signature explosions, scoring 21 of his 42 points in the third quarter and leading the team to a crucial 112-99 win to take a 3-1 series lead.
His offense and game as a whole isn’t just a shiny stat-stuffer that’s only good for the regular season. He’s a proven commodity on the biggest stage in the sport.
In 52 career playoff games, Irving is averaging 23.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals a game on 46.5 percent shooting, 41.5 percent from three-point range and 87.6 percent at the foul line.
To reference that to the current Suns roster, they have a combined 11 playoff games of experience since Irving’s first postseason in 2015.
As various national basketball reporters have covered, though, his game is difficult to build around and a label of “superstar” and “the guy” comes with loads of hesitation.
As ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh put it, Kyrie is less Kobe Bryant and more Damian Lillard as a ball-dominant, high-volume perimeter scorer.
In the past three seasons, Irving has spent exactly 2,000 minutes on the floor without James, which amounts to basically a full season of action. During that time, Irving has averaged 30.6 points, 6.3 assists and 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas last season put up a nearly identical line: 30.8 points, 6.3 assists and 2.9 turnovers per 36 minutes.
As a player, Thomas and Damian Lillard are probably the best comps for Irving, who has struggled to win as the guy.
When James played without Irving the past three seasons, the Cavs went 25-11 (.694). With Irving off the court and James on the court, the LeBron-led Cavs outscored opponents by 585 points in 3,074 minutes, or plus-9.1 per 48 minutes — a point margin that would have been good for second in the NBA behind the Golden State Warriors last season.
Let’s flip that. With Irving on the court and James off the court, the Irving-led Cavs have been outscored by 94 points in 2,000 minutes, or minus-1.7 per 48 minutes — a point margin roughly on pace with a New Orleans Pelicans team that finished 14 games under .500 last season. Not good.
An addition of Irving won’t lift the Suns to 50 wins, let alone 40 or possibly even 30. There are major questions to how Irving and Devin Booker could work as a backcourt.
Could they even replicate what Lillard and C.J. McCollum have done in Portland, winning 40-45 games with two poor perimeter defenders at guard?
There’s also lining up Bledsoe and Irving side-by-side and asking what the Suns really want out of a trade like this.
Irving feels like he’s much younger than Bledsoe, but it’s only a two-year difference, and with Irving’s player option in the third year, he’s got two years left like Bledsoe. The two have their share of durability questions. Bledsoe has his knee surgeries and Irving has consistently gotten knicked up, playing in less than 60 regular season games in three of his six NBA seasons.
This is not, by the way, to say they are close as overall players. Just because Irving is the ninth best point guard in the NBA and Bledsoe is the 13th doesn’t mean there isn’t a small price to pay to make up the difference. To take a page out of LaVar Ball’s book, Irving is an All-Star point guard in any conference. West, East, North, South. Doesn’t matter.
When analyzing what the Suns should want to give up for Irving, it comes with what the best-case outcome is for Irving in Phoenix.
From the top, Irving would have to enjoy Phoenix, click with Booker quickly and see the possibilities in the future of the young core growing and re-sign with the Suns while staying healthy. The Suns won’t be a playoff team in those two years, so he will need to be in on the visions of the future.
If it gets that far, the growth of Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson defensively — if they are still around — would have to be able to offset the weaknesses of Booker and Irving in that department. The duo itself would have to thrive as an offensive powerhouse, putting up somewhere around a combined 48-plus points per game, both hitting outside shots above league average while accommodating the role players on offense as well.
If that sounds unlikely, that’s because it is! In all likelihood, Irving has a fine time being the No. 1 option, making two All-Star teams in the West while putting up 25-30 points a game and then bolting for Los Angeles or Miami or New York or wherever in the summer of 2019.
Because of that being the most likely scenario, the Suns should have several pieces of their long-term core off the table. That’s Booker, Chriss, Jackson, Bender and their own unprotected first-round picks.
Bledsoe is the guy who keeps the deal alive, and Phoenix has enough supplemental assets to make a deal feasible. Whether it’s T.J. Warren, Tyson Chandler, Jared Dudley, either Miami Heat first-round pick (2018 pick is top-7 protected and 2021 is unprotected) or one of their own first-round picks with protections, there’s something there.
If that sounds ridiculous, look at the return an All-Star who could leave after a maximum of two years has gotten lately.
The Sacramento Kings only have Buddy Hield, an underachieving former No. 6 overall pick, and the No. 10 overall pick they turned into Justin Jackson and Harry Giles to show for dealing DeMarcus Cousins.
Oklahoma City has the pleasure of seeing how Paul George plays with Russell Westbrook for the price of Victor Oladipo, an underachieving former No. 2 overall selection, and Domantas Sabonis, who has a chance to be a fine starting big.
Jimmy Butler is in Minnesota now for Kris Dunn, who is as close to you can get to already being a bust one year after being drafted in the top-5, Zach LaVine, a good sixth man scorer, and moving up nine spots in this year’s draft to select Lauri Markkanen.
Perhaps the middle ground here is Bledsoe, Warren, Miami’s 2018 top-7 first-round pick and Phoenix’s 2019 first-round pick with some protections. Even if it’s not, it’s around the maximum the Suns should allow themselves to give up.
Irving would be incredible to watch in a Suns jersey for two seasons and the experiment of him and Booker might work well enough for Irving to commit long-term to the Valley, but he’s not the sure thing worth significantly damaging the team’s promising timeline.