As the NBA unveils new jersey after new jersey during the summer of 2017, imagine if Kyrie Irving and LeBron James were looking at redesigns not for the Cleveland Cavaliers—but the Cleveland Towers.
That’s not what’s driving the talented point guard away from the organization with which he’s spent his entire professional career, but the spirit of the nickname’s history is part of what allows for the possibility of swapping him and the Phoenix Suns‘ Eric Bledsoe.
Back in 1970, the founder of Cleveland’s basketball franchise, Nick Mileti, was attempting to decide between the leading candidates—the Jays, Towers, Presidents, Foresters and Cavaliers—in his name-the-team contest for the NBA’s newest organization. Obviously, the last one won out, and thank goodness.
Jerry Tomko had the foresight to suggest the current moniker, and it stood out among the 11,000 applications. As reported by Bill Lubinger of the Plain Dealer in 2010, Tomko claimed the name “represents a group of daring, fearless men, whose life’s pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds.”
For the first dozen years of its existence, Cleveland’s NBA franchise featured a piratical logo, seemingly inspired by the original Big Three of Athos, Porthos and Aramis. The current iteration still hearkens back to its predecessor with a sword impaling the empty space contained within the featured “C.” But a key part of the identity is now missing.
So long as Irving remains on the roster, hoping for a trade that frees him from his position next to James, allows him to talk to his teammates during playoff appearances and gives him a spot as a franchise’s leading star, the Cavaliers can’t truly be “a group of daring, fearless men.”
The “group” element is missing, and it won’t be regained until a certain ball-handling wizard is playing in a different location.
The Deal That Gets It Done
Though each of the Association’s 29 other franchises likely covets a player with Irving’s skill set, few are in position to actually make a move for the four-time All-Star. Cleveland may need to fix its burgeoning chemistry issues, but that doesn’t mean it’ll simply sell the 25-year-old floor general to the highest bidder. It needs a substantial return, ideally coming in the form of prospects and picks who can lift the future ceiling, as well as a current star to fit in alongside James and Kevin Love.
As Ric Bucher recently reported for Bleacher Report, the Suns may be able to provide exactly that:
“While Irving may take exception to that [being viewed by James as a little brother], Suns guard Eric Bledsoe apparently does not. James took part in his wedding this summer, they share James’ boyhood friend Rich Paul as an agent and Bledsoe picked up the nickname ‘Mini LeBron’ early in his career. One league source predicted that Bledsoe and a future first-round pick will be the deal that inspires Cleveland to move Irving. The Suns have their own first-round picks for the foreseeable future as well as first-round picks from the Miami Heat in 2018 (top-seven protected) and 2021.”
This isn’t the first time the desert-based organization has popped up as a possible landing spot. In late July, an anonymous league source told Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, “If that deal (Bledsoe, Miami first-rounder and [Josh] Jackson) for Irving was there, it’d be done by now.”
That offer was apparently never on the table, and for good reason. Phoenix is operating with leverage here since the Cavs may still feel like they have to move Irving so they don’t run the risk of creating a chemistry disaster. That’s why the trade that appeases both parties is ultimately a compromise:
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: Dragan Bender, Eric Bledsoe, 2018 first-round pick (via Miami Heat, top-seven protected)
Phoenix Suns Receive: Kyrie Irving
The Suns, who have consistently failed to turn their young commodities into legitimate stars throughout the persistent post-Steve Nash rebuild, finally get a celestial contributor and can replace Bender’s work by increasing Marquese Chriss‘ responsibilities.
Cleveland should be even happier.
The Fit in Cleveland
Bledsoe isn’t Irving.
That much needs to be made clear. Few players throughout the league can operate on offense in the same manner, and the latter’s isolation proclivities have made him both an impossible cover and a strong fit next to James. He’s tortured countless defenders with his yo-yo handles, and his shot seems to get more accurate in the situations that matter most.
But in terms of all-around ability, Bledsoe is just about his equal, however blasphemous that may sound to those who have fallen in love with Irving’s offensive acumen while his fellow floor general toils away in relative obscurity. I ranked them only three spots apart at the end of the 2016-17 campaign, as the Duke product (No. 32) barely outpaced his Kentucky counterpart (No. 35).
Irving’s scoring superiority should be indisputable, but it’s not like Bledsoe is a slouch on the point-producing side. NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles should help make it clear that while he’s slightly inferior across the board, he’s also a talent worth celebrating:
Bledsoe isn’t the league’s best isolation threat, as the man he’d be replacing was in 2016-17. But he’s still above-average. He’s also a dominant scorer in the pick-and-roll game, as well as a capable spot-up shooter (37.9 percent on catch-and-shoot triples) and devastating cutter.
His game sounds a lot like something you’d want next to James. Not only can Bledsoe create offense for himself while offering promise of a sterling pick-and-pop game alongside the floor-spacing Love, but he’s quite adept operating without possession of the rock and often willing to defer to talented teammates.
And then there’s defense—the main reason Irving’s placement in the aforementioned rankings may have surprised you. Here’s where turning to ESPN.com’s real plus/minus (RPM) is instructive, because while the current Cleveland 1-guard sat only three slots higher than the Phoenix phloor floor general, the way they arrived at their respective ranks (Nos. 12 and 15 among point guards) is rather telling.
Bledose isn’t a true defensive stalwart. Few point guards are thanks to their physical limitations. But unlike Irving, who’s a legitimate sieve on the less glamorous end, he holds his own without exerting too much energy. He does have the physical tools to play high-quality defense; he’s just been tasked with too many offensive responsibilities to go full-throttle on both ends.
Zach Lowe touched on this for ESPN.com back in February:
“He should be the best point guard defender in the league, but he isn’t. … A Bledsoe who pounds the ball and takes possessions off on defense is of limited interest. A Bledsoe who thrives as the second- or third-best player in a motion-style offense and smothers opposing point guards—that’s the guy people want to see. Great defense and passing is how the eighth-best version of Chris Paul becomes a championship-level player on a better team.”
Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like a role he could fill in Cleveland, maximizing his two-way play by deferring to James and Love, thriving as a spot-up shooter and locking down on defense? Doesn’t that sound important for a team that has offensive players capable of assuming larger burdens but few stopping studs upon whom it can rely?
Even without their current lead guard, the Cavaliers may well be able to maintain last year’s top-three finish in offensive rating by increasing the responsibilities of their incumbent stars. But they also placed No. 22 in defensive rating by allowing a whopping 108 points per 100 possessions, and that mark won’t see substantial strides without a personnel shift.
Irving has been a great fit next to the four-time MVP thanks to his takeover ability. Bledsoe, however, is an ideal running mate for an entirely different reason. It doesn’t hurt that he would seemingly embrace playing alonside James and would likely shepherd a top-tier prospect (Bender) and a first-round pick out of the desert along with him.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference, NBA.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.
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