The Kyrie Affair

The drama in Cleveland has dominated the summer downtime in the NBA.  Kyrie Irving is apparently unhappy playing with LeBron James and wants to be traded.  The situation is serious enough that Irving is reportedly refusing to speak with anyone associated with the Cavs.  The Kyrie situation has been well covered but we would be remiss if we didn’t throw in our two cents.

Should Kyrie want to be traded?

This is obviously a subjective judgment but, let’s assess the facts.  At first blush, it seems weird that Irving wants to be traded from a great team.  They go to the Finals every year, Irving gets a lot of television exposure, and he gets plenty of shots.  The only thing that could possibly bother him about the Cavs could be a personal issue with LeBron and/or he wants to be the recognized primary star of his own team.

To that end, Stephen A. Smith wrote piece yesterday for The Undefeated that basically stated that Kyrie very much wants to run his own team and feels like LBJ hogs all credit.  The piece had this anonymous quote from someone in Irving’s camp: “Kyrie isn’t saying he’s better than LeBron and should be seen that way.  He’s saying he’s not about to let LeBron ‘SON’ him … treating him like he’s the child and LeBron’s the father or big brother he’s supposed to look up to.  Kyrie knows he’s a franchise-caliber talent. He wants to be treated like it. And he’s tired of hearing about what LeBron needs, and he’s damn sure tired of hearing LeBron sound like he always needs more. As if the crew they have isn’t enough.”

Hearing Irving’s issues directly from one of his friends does not help his case.  If this source really is telling the truth, Kyrie sounds like a 25-year old who really wants to show the world he is all grown up and can do it on his own.  This is a natural reaction.  The problem is the extent of Irving’s dismay.  Every number two player on an NBA team has a degree of belief that he is better than the featured star.  Kyrie should not be quite this angry, particularly when there is a good chance that James may be gone soon and Irving would be the top guy afterwards anyway.  Irving’s only leverage to get traded is to throw a hissy fit that will hurt his public standing.  It is not worth the cost.  Playing with James is not the worst fate in the world in the short term.  So, of course, Irving should not want to be traded at this point.  Alas, this is his call and the Cavs should assess what his value is and make a decision accordingly.

How good is Kyrie?

The knee jerk reaction is to believe that Irving is an incredible asset, an elite point guard who is only 25 years old.  How good is he really though?  Let’s see what the numbers say…

In fact, the advanced stats are good but not great.  Last season, he had a career high in points (25.2) and PER (23.0, which was about tenth among points).  DBPM, however, really doesn’t like Kyrie’s defense (a career low -2.3).   The bad defense kills his BPM (2.5), which is only fifteenth among point guards last season.  Win Shares are bit less harsh and put Irving ninth among point guards.  VORP splits the difference and puts Irving at 13.  Putting it all together, Irving is an elite offensive player and a very good point guard, if not quite up to the snuff of the really great point guards of the NBA.

But don’t let the fact that there are other really good point guards make you think that Irving isn’t a valuable player.  He is young and locked in for two seasons at way below market (about $19 million per year).  He probably won’t get much better than he is now but that is still pretty good player.

In sum, the numbers show that there is a case for trading Irving to improve the team, even if he was happy in Cleveland.  Unless he jumps up another level as a player, Kyrie’s perceived value probably exceeds his actual ability.  Irving reportedly has a short list of teams that he wants to go to but no way to actually force his way to such destinations.  ESPN explored some trade options and none of them seemed to be returns that are great (players like Eric Bledsoe, Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Teague, or Andrew Wiggins).

The Cavs have no incentive to trade Irving unless they can get a really good return and/or the situation day-to-day becomes so divisive that Irving can’t be around the team.   If a trade must happen, the Cavs should focus on improving the odds of winning a title in 2017-18.  There will be plenty of time to rebuild in the future but next season may be Cleveland’s last chance to get a title for years.

It’s not clear what that possible trade is best at the moment (Paul George was a perfect fit but that ship has sailed).  For now, the Cavs need to hang tight and not take the bait when Irving tries to make things too awkward to allow Cleveland to bring him back.  Otherwise, they will have to take the best deal available at that moment.

What past NBA divorce is most similar to the Kyrie Affair?

Star crossed breakups in the NBA are pretty common but the Irving/LBJ split is unique.  Most players don’t want to leave a title contender or a good situation and I was racking my brain for the most analogous situations to compare this with.  There are two that stick out as comparable.  Let’s look back at them and see how they compare to what’s going on now:

Shaq/Kobe Lakers 2004:  This is the most obvious example.  We all remember that Kobe Bryant wanted his own team and clashed with Shaquille O’Neal, even though the Lakers had won three titles and narrowly missed a fourth in 2003-04.  Jerry Buss sided with Kobe for two distinct reasons: Kobe was much younger and Shaq wanted a huge extension (this was sort of an issue because he had age, injury, and weight issues and his next contract was likely to be an overpay).   Buss would have probably tried to mediate the dispute and keep them both if he felt comfortable paying Shaq.  In fact, Buss wasn’t wrong about Shaq.  O’Neal only had one really star year left in his career after 2003-04 and slowed down quickly.

It’s hard to believe that the Shaq trade went down 13 years ago already.  I do remember wondering why either side would want to split up and give up a chance at title.  Ultimately, Kobe was young (he was the exact same age as Kyrie is now) and his burning desire to be the featured star of his own team drove him (as it seems to do for Kyrie).  It worked out as Kobe did get a couple of rings, though this was partially thanks to the Grizzlies gifting Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown (yes and Marc Gasol but no one reasonably knew he was any good at that time and the trade was objectively silly at the time).

-How does this compare to Kyrie/LBJ?  Kyrie is sort of in Kobe’s shoes.  Both were second bananas who would give up the chance at a title for a chance to be a star.  There are some significant differences though.   First, Kobe in 2003-04 was a lot better player than Kyrie is now (or ever will be).  In fact, Kobe’s BPM, VOR, and WARP did not dip to Irving’s current levels until Kobe was 33 and in decline (Kobe’s average PER from ages 20-32 was 24.1 and he averaged a 4.8 BPM).  Second, while LeBron may “son” Irving, Shaq’s problem was that he was aging and couldn’t stay healthy and could be overtly hostile to Kobe.  James is going strong and has had none of Shaq’s issues.  Irving doesn’t have the juice as a player that Kobe did and splitting from Shaq had more of a rational basis than splitting from LeBron would.

KG/Marbury 1999:  The Timberwolves weren’t a title team in 1998-99 but they had some serious young talent, led by Kevin Garnett and Stephon Marbury.  Marbury was only 21 at the time and was due for a max extension.  The problem was KG had a huge extension that was a vestige of the prior collective bargaining agreement in 1997-98 for six years and $126 million.  A new CBA kicked for 1998-99 that limited extensions (thanks to Garnett’s giant extension) for Marbury to six years and about $71 million.

This did not sit well with Marbury, who did not love being in Minnesota or being paid a lot less than Garnett.   Kevin McHale, who was Wolves GM in 1998, told the New York Times in 2007 that Marbury “said the kind of money KG makes is really bothersome for him and that the town was not big enough for both of them.  He unequivocally said he would not come back.”  Instead, Marbury, like Kyrie, wanted to come back to the New York area and lead his own team.  Unlike Irving, Marbury was not aware that the other star in town was the better player.  In any event, Marbury’s impulse to be the lead star of his own was still the same one that Irving is having now.

Just for frame of reference, here were Marbury’s stats with Garnett’s from 1997-98, the year before the trade came:

-Garnett (age 21): 39.3 mpg, .491 FG%, 18.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 4.2 apg, 20.4 PER, 9.6 WS, 4.8 BPM, 5.5 VORP

-Marbury (age 20): 38.0 mpg, .415 FG%, 17.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 8.6 apg, 16.3 PER, 5.3 WS, -0.6 BPM, 1.1 VORP

Like Irving, Marbury rated as a bad defender by DBPM, which hurt his value (in fact his average DPM was -2.4 for his career). Also, the numbers shows that Garnett was a clearly a much more valuable player.  Marbury had the leverage of refusing to sign an extension, which forced a trade to the Nets.  The Nets had some young talent (Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles) but not nearly as strong a core as Garnett and Tom Gugliotta.

Marbury would improve quite a bit offensively as a lead guard in New Jersey but the team stank and his defense was very weak.  In his last season in New Jersey, Marbury put up 23 ppg and 22.7 PER but his value was weighed down again by defense (he put up an impressive 7.0 OBPM but had a terrible -3.4 DPM).  This defensive problem was highlighted when the Nets became a very tough defensive team the instant that Marbury was traded for Jason Kidd in 2001.

Marbury continued his very good offensive career until 2005-06, when his offense collapsed and his defense stayed its usual bad self.  Injuries, Marbury’s own personal idiosyncrasies, and feuds with Larry Brown and MGS accelerated that decline on offense and he was never the same NBA player again.

When old coach Flip Saunders died in 2015, Marbury posted a long statement on Instragram implying that he regretted leaving Minnesota.   In a 2015 Sporting News article, Gugliotta summed up the trade thusly: “What do you say to a guy who’s 22 and doesn’t accept the fact that he’s playing with a guy who’s 10 times better than he’ll ever be? What’s the old expression? ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ How true. That’s what we had with Stephon.”

Incidentally, the trade was pretty good for the Wolves.  They were able to nab Terrell Brandon in a three-way deal (Sam Cassell went from the Nets to the Bucks).  Take a look at Brandon’s stats versus Marbury’s from 1999-00 through 2001-02 (Brandon’s career ended in mid-2001-02 with a bad knee injury):

Brandon: 181 games, 35.2 mpg, .453 FG%, 15.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 8.2 apg, 2.1 topg, 20.5 PER, 20.8 WS, 2.6 BPM, 7.4 VORP

Marbury:  223 games, 38.7 mpg, .438 FG% 22.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 8.0 aph. 3.4 topg, 20.3 PER, 22.3 WS, 2.0 BPM, 8.7 VORP

Though Marbury was pretty good, Brandon was actually a better player on a per-minute basis.  On top of that, the Wolves were able to nab Cassell in 2003-04 and he was, also, Marbury’s equal.  The Wolves were only great one year with Garnett (2003-04) because of a failure to surround him with depth but that problem would not have been solved by keeping Marbury.  In other words, the wistful whatifs about Marbury in Minnesota are really a pipe dream and not supported by the facts.  Marbury probably would have been better off in Minnesota but the Wolves were mostly better off for trading him.

-How does this compare to Kyrie/LBJ?  Marbury was a lot younger than Irving is now.  In that sense you can cut Marbury some slack for being stubborn about his ego.  Irving is older and should know better.  Based upon Marbury’s situation, he should view forcing a trade to a bad team for a featured role with some wariness.  On the Cavs side, the Marbury trade is a nice reminder that they could very well trade their offense-only guard and maintain the same talent level or even improve.

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