How Kyrie Irving Could’ve Been A Clipper

January 16, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) moves the ball against the defense of Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
January 16, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) moves the ball against the defense of Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

Less than five years ago, the Los Angeles Clippers traded away the pick that allowed the Cleveland Cavaliers to draft Kyrie Irving, changing the landscape of the NBA.

When the Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers tip off Thursday night in front of a national television audience, it will feature more than just two of the league’s top teams.

It will feature a matchup between Kyrie Irving and the team that traded away the draft pick that would eventually be used to take the All-Star point guard.

In case you’ve forgotten, let’s take a trip in Doc Brown’s DeLorean time machine and remember the deal that brought Irving to Cleveland instead of Los Angeles.

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The 2011 NBA trade deadline was one of the busiest ones in NBA history.

During that week, a few blockbuster deals took place that changed the future of a few NBA franchises. Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups were sent from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks for a collection of young talent.

On the day of the deadline, the Utah Jazz sent Deron Williams to the New Jersey Nets for rookie Derrick Favors, Devin Harris, and a couple of first-round picks.

While those deals rightfully received the majority of the public’s attention, the argument could be made that the trade deadline deal with the biggest impact would ultimately be a deal between two struggling franchises.

The 21-37 Los Angeles Clippers had their first glimpses of a bright future behind the highlight reel dunks of rookie Blake Griffin, who was brushing off any doubts of a Clippers curse after missing what should’ve been his rookie season with a torn ACL.

The Clippers had reason for optimism with a solid group of young players such as Eric Gordon, Chris KamanEric Bledsoe, and DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers also had Baron Davis, who had mostly disappointed since signing a hefty five-year, $65 million deal in 2008.

The Cleveland Cavaliers were suffering in their first season after LeBron’s fateful decision to leave Cleveland. The Cavaliers roster wasn’t deep outside of James, and it showed in the 2010-11 season that would feature a 26-game losing streak (a streak that ended against the Clippers, of course) on their way to a 19-63 record.

The Clippers and Cavaliers agreed to a trade.

The Clippers wanted to shed Baron Davis and his contract that he had failed to live up to due to injuries and clashes with management. In return, they got an upgrade at point guard in Mo Williams and an expiring contract with Jamario Moon.

The equalizer for the Cavs in their rebuild in the aftermath of The Decision would be through the draft, and they received the Clippers’ unprotected first round pick in the upcoming draft.

When speaking on trading the pick, then-Clippers general manager (and current Portland Trail Blazers GM) Neil Olshey explained that the Clippers valued having a 28-year old All-Star point guard and a bit more cap flexibility “as opposed to speculating on another kid that’s 19-years old with one year of college experience.”

Olshey also added that he was “not that high on the draft to begin with this year.”

The Clippers finished the season with the eighth-worst record in the league, giving the Cavaliers only a 10 percent chance at jumping into the top three draft picks and a 2.8 percent chance at landing the top pick with the choice they acquired from the Clippers. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers had a 19.9 percent chance of getting the top pick with their own pick.

The Cavaliers earned only the fourth overall pick in the draft with their own pick and were jumped by the pick that was owed to them from the Clippers. Nick Gilbert, son of Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, proved to be the good luck charm the franchise needed as they won the lottery and the right to pick Duke guard Irving.

The Cavs also ended up with the fourth overall pick, which they used to draft another key cog of their current team, Tristan Thompson.

Olshey would go on to defend the trade with some valid and not-so-valid comments about the deal.

"Protecting the pick was never an option. There is no way to Monday morning quarterback this as our draft position would not have been the same had we not made the deal as I’m sure we would not have finished 11-11 post-trade without Mo Williams."

The logic was foolish then and became only more foolish as time passed. Olshey has had a pretty successful run with the Trail Blazers and the cost-cutting move may have had something to do with the team’s notoriously cheap owner Donald Sterling.

The Clippers already had cap room at the time of the trade, so parting ways with an unprotected first-round pick to save about $5.5 million over the next two seasons would be a little foolish.

While he’s correct by stating that the Clippers wouldn’t have had the same amount of ping-pong balls and theoretically not ending up with the first overall pick, the logic is extremely flawed.

The Clippers went 11-13 after the trade (Williams missed the Clippers’ first two games after being traded there). The Clippers were the sixth-worst team in the NBA at the time of the trade so the pick was more valuable at the time of the trade than it was before the lottery balls were picked.

Additionally, the issue of protecting the pick not being an option raises some eyebrows. If it wasn’t an option because the Cavaliers wouldn’t go through with the trade with some sort of protection on the pick, then simply don’t do the trade.

The alternative to not protecting the pick is running the risk of letting history make you look foolish, which is exactly what happened.

To make matters even worse, the NBA would bring back the amnesty clause during the lockout that stalled the beginning of the 2011-12 season. The amnesty clause allowed teams to waive one player, paying the player the remainder of their contract without it counting towards the team’s cap figure.

The Cavaliers wisely used the amnesty clause on Davis, ridding themselves of the two years and $28.7 million remaining on Davis’ deal.

Meanwhile, the Clippers used the additional cap space to sign Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye. Foye would prove to be a solid bench contributor for the Clippers while Gomes played a couple disappointing seasons before becoming a victim of the amnesty clause.

If you’re counting at home, the Clippers move motivated by cutting salary resulted in the Clippers paying Williams almost double what it would’ve cost to draft Irving. Of course, the Clippers still would’ve been obligated to pay Davis off of the books but the Clippers used the extra space to sign Gomes and Foye.


The domino effect of the trade raises some huge questions for how the NBA might look different if the Clippers keep the pick that would’ve allowed them to draft Irving.

Do the Clippers draft Kyrie Irving?

Almost definitely. Their was minor chatter that Arizona forward Derrick Williams could be taken first overall, but Irving was an overwhelmingly favorite to be the first player taken. After the Cavs won the lottery, Dan Gilbert was asked who the Cavs would take and while he declined to give a name, he seemed to know who he wanted.

Irving was present and interviewed by ESPN, evidence that the winner of the lottery would be winning the opportunity to get Irving. Olshey wanted a point guard and that’s why he traded for Williams in the first place. Also, the Clippers already had a young, athletic forward with Griffin, making Derrick Williams a repetitive fit for the Clippers.

Do the Clippers trade for Chris Paul?

No, which represents a gift and a curse for the Clippers. The Clippers atoned their mistake of trading away the pick that would’ve netted them Irving by dealing Gordon, Kaman, and Al-Farouq Aminu for Paul. If the Clippers don’t trade for Paul, maybe they’re the ones stuck with Gordon’s massive contract while he has been a shell of the once-promising shooting guard.

Maybe Jordan never gets his shot while playing behind 2010 All-Star Kaman. Paul would almost definitely have went elsewhere, changing the career course of one of the game’s greatest point guards.

Does LeBron James make his return to Cleveland?

Cleveland Cavaliers
Feb 24, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (left) looks over at Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (right) as Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott (center) looks on during the second half at the American Airlines Arena. MIami won 109-105. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

This one’s a tricky one and the answer that we’ll never know depends on how genuine you think his love for Cleveland truly is. Sure, maybe it was always his plan to return to Cleveland and be an icon that northeast Ohio could be proud to call their own.

That Irving, one of the game’s brightest young stars, now played in Cleveland to help give James a supporting star similar to the aging one he had in Miami certainly helped speed up the process of bringing James back to Cleveland.

The questions revolve around career-changing situations for two of the game’s greatest players, one who could join them among history’s great players, and who knows how many circumstances that would’ve changed the fortunes for other franchises based on what happened to James and Paul.

The Clippers trading away the pick that would be used to select Irving is one of the greatest “What ifs?” of the modern NBA and one that changed the course of a few franchises.

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When watching the Cavaliers and Clippers play on Thursday night, it will be hard not to think about what these teams would look like if not for that trade.