INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert spent more than 30 minutes presenting a positive portrait of his franchise.
The reality is that the Cavs are troubled.
In his first public comments since Kyrie Irving asked to be traded, Gilbert would not confirm whether he’ll honor the All-Star point guard’s request, but he also didn’t rule out the real possibility that Cleveland may deal its second best player — or if he thinks LeBron James will stay around beyond next season.
“These things are fluid,” Gilbert said. “We think that Kyrie Irving is one of the best guards in the NBA. He was part of a championship, three years straight to the Finals and we value his talent — significantly.”
Despite several direct questions about Irving’s status, Gilbert would not provide any specifics about recent conversations with him or his agent. Gilbert said he expected the 25-year-old, whose jumper in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals propelled Cleveland to its first championship since the Browns in 1964, to be at training camp with the team in September.
“Right now Kyrie Irving is under contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers for two or three years, depending on the last year,” Gilbert said. “As of now he’s one of our best players and sure, we expect him to be in camp.”
Gilbert was clearly attempting to avoid making things worse for the Cavs or doing any further damage to the club’s relationship with Irving, who has blossomed into the one of the league’s best backcourt players.
While Irving may want out, the Cavs aren’t obligated to move him and new general manager Koby Altman said Irving remains an important piece for a team that has been to three straight Finals.
“He’s a core piece of what we’ve done,” said Altman, who was promoted to full-time GM after filling in when David Griffin left earlier this summer. “Kyrie is a tremendous player. He has made great contributions to this franchise and we enjoy him as a player. We’re going to keep this stuff in house in terms of what was said in those meetings, but he continues to be a core piece of who we are and what we do.”
It’s been turbulent summer for the Cavs, who didn’t defend their title and were beaten in five games by Golden State in the Finals. The bumpy ride began with Griffin parting ways with the club over philosophical differences with Gilbert, who was then rebuffed in adding former Pistons guard Chauncey Billups to his front office.
And while numerous teams got stronger via free agency and trades, Cleveland was hamstrung financially by salary-cap issues.
Then, the Irving trade demand was a cannonball in Gilbert’s backyard basketball pool.
“Well, how is your guys’ summer going?” Gilbert quipped in a lighthearted moment.
Beyond its implications with the Cavs, Irving’s appeal to be traded appears to have damaged his relationship with James. The stars have taken swipes at each other with posts on social media, and it remains to be seen if they can patch things up.
Altman dismissed any Irving-James rift.
“I think a lot of it has been overblown,” he said. “I think the people who are in this building every day haven’t seen any of that animosity. This is, along with Kevin Love, this is a group that got us to three straight Finals and won an NBA championship together. They play great together on the floor and a lot of that I do think is overblown.”
Gilbert opened the news conference by introducing other members of Cleveland’s front office, which was reconfigured following Griffin’s departure last month. He then had high praise for Altman, who in the past few weeks has done all he could to bolster an aging Cleveland bench that was exposed by the Warriors.
Altman also signed free agent guard Derrick Rose, who could be an option to start if the Cavs can’t work things out with Irving.
“We signed him on my first official day on the job, so that’s not a bad start, right?” Altman said of the 28-year-old Rose, a former league MVP.
Truth is, things may not be as bad for the Cavaliers as has been suggested.
In James, the Cavs still have the game’s best all-around player and Cleveland remains the Eastern Conference’s elite team despite Boston’s acquisition of Gordon Hayward. The Cavs may not have closed the gap on the Warriors, but there isn’t anyone on their heels — yet.
That could change next summer when James can opt out of his contract and hit the free-agent market.
For now, though, Gilbert and Altman said the three-time champion is invested in the Cavaliers.
“LeBron remains deeply committed to this organization,” Altman said. “He remains deeply committed to this team and deeply committed to this city. He has deep roots to this city. And it means a lot to him to be here and compete for championships for years to come. That’s his goal, and so we have shared goals.”
Gilbert paused for a moment before addressing James’ future beyond 2017-18.
“That hunger is as strong as I’ve ever seen,” Gilbert said. “I think beyond this season I don’t know, we’re focused on this season.”