When the Golden State Warriors took down the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, everyone in the organization knew that Kyrie Irving wasn’t going to be back. Irving lasted just three years of living in LeBron James’ shadow before officially requesting a trade so that he could try and lead a franchise on his own. There were suitors left and right for the former No. 1 overall pick and All-Star as the Boston Celtics were eventually crowned winners of the sweepstakes.
The Celtics traded Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round draft pick for Irving. By the end of the 2027-2018 season, the Cavaliers bested the Celtics and made it back to the NBA Finals, while Irving was run out of town the following year.
As for the Cavaliers, Thomas never played like the All-Star version of himself in Boston. Crowder was a solid starter for the team but moved on. The draft pick used by Cleveland was used on current point guard Collin Sexton, but the team has yet to make the playoffs in his three years of service time. Had the Cavaliers went through with this trade proposal, then the team might have contended for another title and been better off the three following years after LeBron left.
The Trade Details
Cleveland Cavaliers Receive: Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon
Milwaukee Bucks Receive: Kyrie Irving
The Cavaliers would have a 24-year old in Brogdon, who was coming off a rookie season that saw him earn Rookie of the Year. In 75 games his rookie year, Brogdon had averaged 10.2 points, 4.2 assists, 1.1 steals and shot 40.4% from three-point range. This would have been a nice substitution given what Brogdon also brings on the defensive side as well.
As for Middleton, he would have been a perfect complement to LeBron James. Even though Middleton didn’t make his first All-Star appearance until 2019, Middleton finished the 2017-2018 campaign well enough to make it. His stat line of 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.0 assists could have been very helpful in the team’s playoffs run.
For the Bucks, this trade would have brought one of the most elite point guards in the country to pair with Giannis Antetokounmpo. This season was the first year that Giannis started to transform into one of the league’s best players. Giannis finished the season with a stat line of 26.9 points, 10.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.4 blocks. Mind you, this is also the year before he won his first of two consecutive MVPs.
The combination of Irving and Giannis might have had some Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar feeling to it. Irving and the Celtics couldn’t get it done in the 2018 playoffs despite finishing with a higher seed and more wins than the Cavaliers. The Bucks won six fewer games than the Cavs and were the No. 7 seed. If the tables were turned, we might have seen a Cavaliers, Bucks Eastern Conference Finals. Irving might have made the NBA Finals without LeBron, which would have led to the most powerful rivalry storyline since the days of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s breakup.
New Starting Lineups:
PG: Malcolm Brogdon
SG: JR Smith
SF: Khris Middleton
PF: LeBron James
C: Kevin Love
PG: Eric Bledsoe
SG: Kyrie Irving
SF: Tony Snell
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: John Henson
What Could Have Happened
Simply put, the Cavaliers and Milwaukee Bucks would have had rosters good enough to make a bid for the Conference Finals in 2018. Let’s pretend that the combination of Giannis and Irving needed one full year to mold. We can do that because Irving played in Boston for two seasons before leaving to join the Nets. The following year, LeBron left for the Los Angeles Lakers, which completely opened up the door in the East. You would have had the 76ers core of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, etc, as well as the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard.
Regardless, Giannis was the best player in the league in 2018-2019. With Irving as the primary playmaker or shooter, if he were to play shooting guard with Bledsoe on the team, the Showtime Lakers would have been the Showtime Bucks. You would have had two of the best in the game attacking the rim at two different positions. With that said, the offseason that year would have been crucial, but you would think that Irving and Giannis could have brought one more superstar to town.
Let’s look after 2019. Irving left Boston to join the Nets because he was shunned by the fans and team for his antics. In Milwaukee, Irving potentially stays, and who potentially joins the team? Kevin Durant was a free agent in 2019 and the two signed with the Nets together. Durant and Irving are best friends. The trio of Durant, Irving, and Giannis could be better than the combination in Brooklyn with James Harden.
As for Cleveland, the starting lineup would be good enough to make the NBA Finals in 2018, but it would not have been good enough to beat the Golden State Warriors. LeBron would still have left to go to Los Angeles, but the team would have Brogdon, Middleton, and Love, which is a formidable group. The draft pick would not be used on Sexton and instead on a shooting guard or power forward like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, or Michael Porter Jr. The Cavaliers would not be in an utter rebuild, but a relevant franchise competing for playoff spots.