On Friday night, Kyrie Irving put the finishing touches on a 43-point performance to pace the Boston Celtics to a home win over the Toronto Raptors. LeBron James, probably enjoying a nice glass of red wine, tweeted out his approval of the performance.
For Cavs fans, LeBron’s public praise of his former running mate struck a sentimental chord. As the Cavs slog through a necessary but nonetheless depressing rebuilding year in the wake of LeBron’s departure for the west coast, there are constant reminders of what was, and what could have been. If it’s not LeBron bringing up his hometown of Akron after passing Wilt Chamberlain on the all-time scoring list, it’s listening to one of Irving’s hundreds of interviews on why he felt the need to leave Cleveland.
It’s all a stark reminder that just two short seasons ago, LeBron and Irving were playing in their third straight NBA Finals together. And, despite Irving’s looming trade request that summer, the organization reportedly assured LeBron there would be many more Finals appearances for the two to come.
In a piece that was published Monday morning for The Athletic, Joe Vardon reports that Cavs general manager Koby Altman, who assumed the mantle after team owner Dan Gilbert was unable to come to an agreement to bring then-GM David Griffin back following the 2016-2017 season, told LeBron over the phone that he would not trade Irving despite his trade request.
James was adamant on the call — do not trade Irving, especially to the Celtics. By the end of the call, according to four separate accounts of people present for the conversation, Altman told James the trade would not occur.
Minutes later, on Aug. 22, 2017, word broke that the Cavs agreed in principle to send Irving to Boston for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic and Brooklyn’s 2018 first-round pick.
That trade, as we now know, was a disaster for the Cavs. Only one player from that haul, Ante Zizic, remains on the roster, as the Cavs shipped out Thomas and Crowder at the trade deadline when they failed to gel with the rest of the roster, with Thomas creating waves in the locker room as he rehabbed back from his hip injury. That first round pick fell to no. 8 in the 2018 NBA Draft after the Brooklyn Nets put together a better-than-expected season, where the Cavs selected point guard Collin Sexton instead of having a high enough pick to grab a Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic or even Trae Young.
The trade of Irving, as LeBron put it in the article, was “the beginning of the end for everything” for the Cavs, and played a large part in LeBron’s departure the following season. Though the team denies ever giving LeBron assurances they would call Irving’s bluff, LeBron maintains the feeling that Gilbert stepped in and overruled Altman, per Vardon. That could have only furthered was was already a complicated and strained relationship between the best player in Cavs franchise history and its owner.
Irving was asked about Vardon’s story this morning at Celtics shootaround, and didn’t have much to say.
Irving is in Boston, LeBron is in Los Angeles, and the Cavs remains left to wonder what could’ve been had things turned out differently.