The flat-earth truther who dribbles the round ball as well as anyone on the planet is the most intriguing player to hit the NBA trade market since Carmelo Anthony left the Nuggets more than six years ago.
That was my thought when I saw the news, as I sat in a cafe while on vacation in Ireland earlier this month, that Kyrie Irving, he of appearances in three straight NBA Finals, requested that the Cleveland Cavaliers trade him elsewhere.
In a remarkable NBA offseason that featured all-stars Paul Millsap, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, Paul George and Gordon Hayward changing teams, leaving the league firmly in the public consciousness long after the Warriors won the title in June, the potential relocation of Irving would be the biggest needle-mover yet.
Here’s a guy who hit one of the biggest shots of the last decade — the Game 7 dagger against the Warriors in 2016 that lifted Cleveland to a long-awaited championship — is only 25 years old and still has his best years ahead of him, asking to leave a team, led by the best player in the world in LeBron James, that is earmarked for another shot at a championship in June. That pedigree, at that position, at that age, with that immense talent — that player doesn’t get traded often.
Yet, a trade of Irving, whose public insistence that the earth is flat has no diminishing effect on his basketball talent, seems entirely likely if not imminent. And the question almost every team in the NBA outside of Golden State has probably asked: How can we get him?
It’s a question, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday, that has been asked directly by at least 20 teams that have reached out to the Cavaliers. Though the Nuggets have remained quiet since a news conference welcoming Millsap to Denver more than two weeks ago, it would be hard to imagine they are not among that group.
The young talent president of basketball operations Tim Connelly and his staff has compiled through the draft in recent years — Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Emmanuel Mudiay — has created one of the league’s more coveted collection of assets.
As a result, the Nuggets likely have enough goods to offer Cleveland what it is seeking, according to Wojnarowski: a package that resembles what the Nuggets fetched from the Knicks when they parted with a disgruntled Anthony.
Even a good pump fake couldn’t help you avoid the irony here. The return for the Nuggets when they shipped Melo was Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov, the Knicks’ 2014 first-round draft pick, the Knicks’ 2012 second-round pick, the Knicks’ 2013 second-round pick and $3 million in cash.
Add that all up and the Nuggets got a return that helped them win a franchise-record 57 wins in 2013. The Knicks got a player who, while remaining among the NBA’s best talents, has led them past the first round of the playoffs only once.
As a result, Denver’s haul in the trade of Melo has been viewed as a standard for what a team should get back if it makes the agonizing decision to ship a superstar. But it also left the Nuggets without something they haven’t had since Melo left: a big box-office attraction.
The attendance figures for the Nuggets — last in the league the past two years — are a problem. There’s no way around that. The Nuggets made a splash when they signed Millsap. But Irving could be the cannonball that could wash fans back into the Pepsi Center. It’s part of the enticing package that would come with adding the four-time all-star.
I asked Nuggets president Josh Kroenke before the NBA draft in June about the balance between building a sustainable program long-term and making moves with the idea of boosting attendance immediately.
“For me, I don’t ever want to put those guys in a position where they’re making a basketball decision simply to try to help our business side,” Kroenke said then, referring to his front office. “Because winning basketball games over the long run is going to help our business side more than any move we might make in the short term will. We have conversations, but it’s good for me to be in the room with those guys to help them weigh those types of equations because, even though they are focused on the basketball side of things, they understand where the metrics are and where our attendance numbers rank. That motivates them as much as anything. They want to show Denver a great basketball team.”
So the question for the Nuggets is whether a move for Irving would meet both criteria. There is no doubt his jersey would fly off the shelves. And fathers and mothers would bring sons and daughters to see Irving’s sweet-handling, acrobatic-finishing style of play at the Pepsi Center.
But does it make them a winner long-term? Irving’s contract lasts two seasons and he could bolt after that. In the meantime, the Nuggets would have to give up plenty. Jokic is as close to off-the-table as you’ll find in a young player. But would Denver be willing to part with Harris and Murray as part of a package that would include several other pieces as well? That’s a lot to ask, particularly if the Nuggets truly believe, as they’ve continually professed, that Murray is a future star in the league.
The view here is the Nuggets need to make a major push for a player who would immediately inject life into the city’s sports scenes. But not if it means moving heaven and flat earth to make it happen.