The Cavs aren't giving up on the possibility of re-signing James next summer, but they are no longer investing blind faith in the hope he will stay. For James, a reluctance to commit comes with an emerging set of complications. Beyond Irving's decision to ask for a trade, Cleveland has determined that it's unwilling to simply be reactive to James' possible departure.
Of course, Cavaliers officials prefer to re-sign James to a long-term deal and chase titles together into his twilight, but the Cavs are treating his unwillingness to commit as a call to protect themselves long term in the Irving trade, league sources said.
Owner Dan Gilbert and general manager Koby Altman want James to commit before building around him, and James largely wants to see the Cavaliers execute a plan before committing to them.
Cleveland's case for commitment is this: We've had the highest payroll in the NBA, run luxury-tax bills north of $75 million since James' return. Trust our commitment to winning.
James' case for hesitancy is this: Accomplished GM David Griffin is gone, replaced with Altman, a young, unproven executive.
James sees a summer in which the franchise failed to make a deal for Paul George and failed to close the gap on Golden State. Ultimately, liberation born of that 2016 Cleveland championship allows James and the organization to take these disparate paths.
James can leave again, because the Cavaliers won a title. Gilbert can threaten to embark on a soft rebuild in James' final season, because the Cavaliers won a title.
The process of building out the franchise's roster long term has accelerated with Irving's trade request. The Cavaliers have witnessed James' exit strategy twice -- once to leave Cleveland and once to return -- and the Irving trade request has left them unwilling to squander the opportunity to replenish young assets on a roster that could be crippled in a post-James Cavaliers era that is stocked with high-priced veterans.
The Cavaliers find themselves far more fixated on a young star, including New York's Kristaps Porzingis, Boston's Jayson Tatum, Phoenix's Josh Jackson and Denver's Jamal Murray, league sources told ESPN.
The Golden State Warriors have affected the way the NBA and its stars do business, and no one -- not even a franchise that possesses the generation's greatest player -- wants to be left compromised long term for what's a fleeting chance to beat Golden State in the short term.
Cleveland is determined to get an elite young player for Irving, which means this: The trade plan that the Cavaliers would have prioritized, with James committed for the long term -- veterans to surround James and draft picks -- isn't in motion. If the Cavaliers knew they had James committed, for example, San Antonio could emerge as a more intriguing trade partner. The Spurs have interest in Irving, league sources say, and Irving's willingness to commit to an extension with the Spurs makes for legitimate win-now deal possibilities for Cleveland. Without James beyond next season, though, the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Danny Green hold no appeal.
Boston has expressed interest in Irving and could offer the best combination of short-term (Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder) and long-term (Jaylen Brown, Tatum, picks) assets. The Celtics have made no formal offer, and it is against Boston's front-office DNA to push out front with the most generous offer. Boston knows that Cleveland is mostly intrigued with Tatum, but the sides have not formally discussed that deal, league sources said.
This Irving trade process has been deliberate, and teams believe that the Cavaliers expect more aggressive conversations in September, closer to the start of training camps. Porzingis has emerged as a primary Cleveland target, but that's a conversation that can occur only with Cleveland's willingness to unburden the Knicks of the three years and $55 million left on Joakim Noah's contract. For now, the conversation is a nonstarter for the Knicks, league sources said.
For the right All-Star player, though -- Irving or otherwise -- multiple NBA teams are seriously questioning how emphatic of a "no" that will stay for New York. There continues to be distance between Porzingis and the organization, and how the Knicks truly value Porzingis' future could become clearer once they're together to begin the season.
Milwaukee has shown interest in Irving, too, league sources said, but there isn't that one young star -- of course, Giannis Antetokounmpo is untouchable -- who makes sense for Cleveland.
When Irving's trade request became public in mid-July, there was internal hope that the news would stir the market to furnish Cleveland with a return that could deliver impact to the 2017-18 season with James, as well as the possibility of a future without him. That hasn't happened, and it's become clear that Irving isn't commanding that kind of robust return on the market.
Between now and the inevitable Irving trade, Cleveland officials will make a choice on what the franchise values most -- its today or its tomorrow. Without a commitment to stay, without the presumption of a future together, LeBron James could be left in a most unfamiliar position: out of championship contention in Cleveland, counting the days until goodbye.