Over the years, LeBron James has become something of a social media savant. He uses it to shape narratives, raise eyebrows or even settle issues when the basketball world or his team grows chaotic.
This summer, in the weeks following the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ loss to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, with the foundation of the franchise eroding with each passing news cycle, James’ Instagram account has been a mirthful sea of calm — poking fun at his bald head in a workout video, throwing a glib jab at frenemy Draymond Green, posting a picture of his son’s birthday cake and his longtime trainer’s birthday party and, on July 7, posting a shot of himself frolicking on a beach in Mexico.
You would have never known tumult was building in Cleveland.
There was no whiff of the organizational failures to keep former general manager David Griffin, or to hire Chauncey Billups to replace him. There was not even a hint at the disappointment James felt when potential trades for Paul George and Jimmy Butler fell through before and after the June 22 NBA draft. And there was no remark when a text message from Indiana Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard undid an agreement on a blockbuster deal for George the Cavs were just starting to celebrate, a moment that now lives in infamy within the organization.
Instead, in post after post, James has repeated one hashtag: #striveforgreatness.
The truth is these Cavs might not be striving for greatness together much longer. James has yet to give any assurances of his intention to stay beyond next summer. Yet, even with the sudden stress, there’s a strong belief that if this group stayed together, it could be right back in the Finals next June.
That was James’ message anyway: The highly filtered, expertly constructed group plan James constantly reinforced publicly through social media and privately through a delicate team alchemy found on the way to Cleveland’s first title in 52 years in 2016.
But on July 7, as James was enjoying the end of his vacation in Mexico, Kyrie Irving had another agenda.
Irving was tired of being Robin to James’ Batman. Tired of having another superstar — even one of the best players of all time — in control of his fate. Yes, he had learned from James in the three seasons they’d played together. Yes, he was appreciative. But Irving felt the time had come to take his destiny into his own hands. He wanted to be the centerpiece of a team, as he thought he was going to be three years ago, when he signed a five-year extension 11 days before James decided to come home.
James has signed three contracts with the Cavs since Irving’s long-term commitment, and James can be a free agent again next year. Although he has given no legitimate indication he wants to leave Cleveland, he has also given no ironclad indication he wants to stay for a fourth contract. And it is unlikely he will offer any such assurance about his future in the short term, a reality everyone involved with the Cavs has been aware of.
And so on July 7, the kid who used to spend hours studying YouTube videos and perfecting his 1-on-1 moves in the driveway of his New Jersey home, walked into a planned sit-down with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and asked to be traded. Then he told him he preferred it to be to one of four teams: the Minnesota Timberwolves, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat or New York Knicks.
Irving had been thinking about this day for some time. In preparation, he’d reached out to people he trusted seeking advice on how to go about it.
Over the previous few months, the Cavs had been worried about Irving’s mindset. They knew at times he’d grown unhappy with playing a secondary role on the team. Griffin had several conversations with Irving throughout the year, sources said, trying to find ways to improve the situation. But Irving had become irritated before, the side effects of James’ greatness — and largesse — wearing on him. The Cavs had been able to navigate it, and they hoped to again.
Of all the things an NBA general manager does, managing egos and emotions behind the scenes is perhaps most important. You can get salary-cap experts for the financial wizardry necessary to pilot an NBA franchise. Coaches are tasked with strategy and player development. But everything else — the competing agendas, the massaging of superstar ambitions and frustrations — all that falls on someone else. A behind-the-scenes guy, an assistant coach with a high emotional intelligence or, in Cleveland’s case, the GM.
There is perhaps no front-office role in the NBA with as complicated a set of personalities to manage as the Cavs’ job. From the famously eruptive and impatient Gilbert, to James’ blend of passive-aggressiveness and Irving’s penchant to retreat and pout or beat himself up, the Cavs have been walking on something of an emotional tightrope for the past three years. Griffin always managed it — or them, as it were — as best he could. But by July 7, Griffin was in New York, meeting with the Knicks and deciding whether he wanted to be their general manager. His time in Cleveland ended abruptly, three days before the draft, when Gilbert declined to give him a new contract.
Much of Irving’s disenchantment with James was rooted in game play, sources said. James, as a once-in-a-lifetime talent, controlled the ball more than any other forward perhaps in league history. Which means the ball was out of Irving’s hands more than he preferred. That said, Irving led the Cavs in shots in the 2016-17 season, averaging 1.5 more per game than James, and Irving averaged a career-high 25.9 points. It was the first time in James’ career he didn’t lead his team in shots per game.
But there were ancillary issues that bothered Irving, too, such as how James’ good friend Randy Mims had a position on the Cavs’ staff and traveled on the team plane while none of Irving’s close friends were afforded the same opportunity. Irving chafed about how peers such as Damian Lillard and John Wall were the center of their franchises and catered to accordingly. There’s irony there, as Wall was envious of Irving’s Nike shoe deal and Lillard has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. Irving has been to three Finals and has a championship.
Several times during the Cavs’ playoff run, Irving had long, intense conversations with James as they tried to get the team into a groove following a choppy and inconsistent regular season, sources said.
After a horrible loss to San Antonio on March 27, one in which Irving tied a career-worst plus-minus rating of minus-29, as he scored only eight points on 4-of-13 shooting, Irving was distraught. The Cavs had just lost for the third time in four games to fall out of first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time all season.
Irving put up extra shots on the Spurs’ court, then went into the Cavs’ locker room, buried his feet in a bucket of ice and covered his head with a towel as he had an extended and emotional conversation with James.
“You can’t rely on just thinking that one championship is enough. It’s natural for human beings to just get comfortable,” Irving said a few days later, after he’d had time to process. “But if you a m—–f—–, you want two [championships], you want three, you want four, like you say you do. And I want more. I’m going to go take it. My job as one of the leaders on the team is to bring my guys with me.”
James had come to understand and admire Irving’s insatiable drive. He’d also come to understand that sometimes he needed to give his 25-year-old co-star space to process things on his own.
After the season, there was a desire to arrange a meeting to clear the air from all sides, sources said, but it didn’t take place. Unlike most teams, the Cavs did not have postseason exit meetings with their players. Had a meeting with Irving taken place, the Cavs might have learned of the severity of his concerns earlier. The Cavs, however, were focused on other matters, namely Griffin’s future.
In the week after the end of the Finals, two events took place: George informed the Indiana Pacers he did not plan to re-sign with them, and he entered the trade market full force. And Griffin and Gilbert were unable to come to terms on a contract. Griffin left the franchise, along with assistant GM Trent Redden.
What followed was a whirlwind, with the Cavs putting forth a series of trade packages looking to acquire either Butler or George. Some of these talks included Irving, which upset him even more when he found out about it, sources said. Previously, Griffin had worked to keep lines of communication with Irving open, but now Irving was in the dark.
The Cavs made an offer to the Bulls for Butler, sources said, but Chicago never seriously engaged them, and there was no traction. Butler communicated with Cavs players — including James and Irving, according to sources — but the sides were never close.
In the days leading up to the draft, sources said, the Cavs had talks with the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz as they looked for a way to get George. The most serious of those conversations involved the Suns and a package including the No. 4 overall pick and Eric Bledsoe. The Jazz had expressed interest in Irving for the past few years, but sources said those discussions never got that serious.
On draft night, as the Chicago Bulls were finalizing a deal with the Wolves to move Butler, the Cavs were feverishly trying to assemble a three-team trade with the Pacers. The Denver Nuggets had a strong desire to acquire Kevin Love and became a legitimate trade partner with Indiana. The Nuggets were willing to include wing Gary Harris and the No. 13 pick in that night’s draft to get Love, and the Cavs would reroute the assets to Indy for George, sources said.
But they couldn’t complete the deal. Indiana was working on another option with the Portland Trail Blazers, sources said, as they were offering a package with three first-round picks for George. Eventually, everyone moved on and the Nuggets traded the No. 13 pick to Utah in a package for Trey Lyles.
Over the next week, the Cavs were in a state of uncertainty. Billups had two interviews with Gilbert, one in Detroit and another in Cleveland, but he hadn’t accepted the job. Meanwhile, Koby Altman had moved from No. 3 to acting No. 1, working on trade calls as the interim GM while hearing reports of Billups and whom he might bring in to fill his front office.
The Cavs kept working with the Nuggets, trying to win a deal that would satisfy the Pacers and allow Denver to get Love and the Cavs to get George. Both were concerned about Boston, who could trump their offers for George but might have been waiting to see if it could secure Gordon Hayward in free agency after July 1.
On the afternoon of June 30, the sides thought they had a deal. On a conference call between the teams, everyone tentatively agreed. George to the Cavs, Love to the Nuggets, Harris and other pieces to the Pacers, sources said.
Plans were put in place for a call to be arranged between George and Gilbert, an important step before the trade would become final, sources said. The front office began making other plans to complement George as free agency was about to begin.
But then Pritchard, who had been on the conference call when the deal was tentatively agreed to, sent the message that his team was backing out, sources said. There was no deal.
The teams tried to save it, but shortly thereafter, news broke that George was being traded to Oklahoma City. Pritchard might have had many reasons for changing his mind, including not wanting to trade George to a division rival. In the end, all that mattered was George was no longer an option for the Cavs.
Over the next week, the Cavs signed point guard Jose Calderon and forward Jeff Green and re-signed wing Kyle Korver. They had missed out on Butler, George and Chris Paul, who in a reversal went to the LA Clippers and asked to be traded to the Houston Rockets instead of becoming a free agent.
And they didn’t get Billups. He withdrew from consideration of being Griffin’s replacement on July 3 after several rounds of contract talks with Gilbert failed. Four days later, with the coaching staff and front office in Las Vegas for the start of summer league, Irving’s stunning request came.
After the meeting, Gilbert flew to Nevada to join the team and for the standard summer ownership meetings. He called a meeting in his hotel suite with his front office, including Altman, and informed them of Irving’s request, sources said.
It was a long meeting in which the group began the difficult discussions about how to move forward. They decided they would take their time, study the process and look for a way to maximize the situation. Gilbert gave his young group a jolt of confidence and they left believing they could still emerge from this situation OK. Irving has immense trade value, and they would have the chance to retrofit the roster in a way that might help them against the Warriors.
In the following days, Cavs players, including James, began to hear the news. Some were taken aback.
“Sure, we’ve had our fair share of moments and kind of chaotic times, and that’s obviously been well documented, but at the same time we’ve had a lot of joy,” one Cavs player told ESPN. “I hope Kyrie is with us, that’s all I got to say. At the end of the day, we’re pretty f—ing good.”
The situation remained mostly secret, though rumblings of Irving’s displeasure started to ripple through the summer league rumor mill. Gilbert opened contract talks with Altman to take over as permanent GM, eventually agreeing with him on a three-year contract. Altman decided to make Mike Gansey, who once played for the Cavs’ D-League team in Erie, Pennsylvania, and has slowly risen through the ranks after starting as an intern, his No. 2.
Then, on Friday, it went public with an ESPN report, and the Cavs’ phones started exploding with interest around the league. Internally, the team and players had already gone through stages of shock.
That included James, who changed his social media mood late Saturday, going melancholy. In his classic, multilayered way, he posted a short video on Instagram with a new song from Meek Mill called “Heavy Heart” blasting inside a car, nodding and shaking his head to these lyrics:
Damn, the game left me with a heavy heart.
The streets left me with a heavy heart.
N—– said they with you when they really not.
No hashtags this time.
Chris Haynes and Zach Lowe contributed to this report.