During the offseason, the second-best player on a championship contender went to management and requested a trade. Despite being on one of the league's best teams and playing alongside one of the league's best players, he said he wasn't enjoying himself. He wasn't happy with his role in the offense. The team knew he was unhappy but was stunned he was this unhappy.
Their cases and circumstances were different, of course. But the most relevant difference may have been how their franchises reacted. Specifically, how the organizational stability with the San Antonio Spurs allowed them to manage their unpleasant development. The Cleveland Cavaliers, meanwhile, were forced to deal with their curveball during a management shake-up, which likely limited their options.
Before a game in Los Angeles last week, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich offered a surprising revelation when he casually mentioned Aldridge's trade demand last summer. It was known the coach and his star forward had a serious air-clearing session after a disappointing end to last season. But the severity wasn't previously public.
Two things happened after Aldridge's request. The first was Popovich told him he wasn't getting traded unless he could get a player like Kevin Durant for him in return. The Spurs and Cavs had trade talks involving Irving and Aldridge, and Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford likely considered other trade options as well. Still, Aldridge was put on notice immediately that his wish wasn't likely to be granted.
Second, Aldridge and Popovich had several follow-up meetings about their issues over dinner and wine. The Spurs' legendary coach subsequently spent some time in self-reflection and realized he was indeed not leading his player in the best way.
"As discussions went on, it became apparent to me that it really was me," Popovich said. "He's been playing in the league for nine years. I'm not going to turn him into some other player."
This isn't some fairy tale, though. The Spurs weren't thrilled with Aldridge, either, and had they found an acceptable trade, they likely would've moved him. But there was an alternate path, one that is playing out right now. One in which the two sides tried to find a way they could help each other. Crisis management is a vital skill in any high-pressure business, and the Spurs worked all the options trying to manage the situation. Unlike the Cavs.
The comparison to the Cavs' situation is not apples to apples. Aldridge and Irving are different people. There may not be anyone in the NBA with the same worldview as Irving, as his various interviews have revealed over the past six months. The demands of playing next to LeBron James are also quite different than playing next to Kawhi Leonard. But it is revealing how organizational leadership plays such a large role in team building.
The Cavs didn't have their franchise's top basketball decision-maker partaking in dinners and soul-searching conversations with Irving because there wasn't a designated leader at the time. Team general manager David Griffin, who was one of the closest people in the organization to Irving, left after the NBA Finals, and the team didn't have a permanent replacement for weeks. When Irving gathered his thoughts, faced owner Dan Gilbert during the second week of July and asked to be traded, interim general manager Koby Altman wasn't even at the meeting.
Irving and his agent, Jeff Wechsler, had voiced concerns to Cavs management for months about Irving's role and place alongside James. There was discussion of scheduling a sitdown to deal with the growing discontent. Only that meeting never took place. With Griffin's contract ending and Gilbert taking some time to name a replacement, dealing with Irving's unhappiness didn't appear to be a priority.
There weren't exit meetings with coach Tyronn Lue or management after the season, either; the Cavs elected to skip them after a taxing playoff run. They wanted a cooling-off period. But the result was no chance to try to break down walls. As Popovich was looking in the mirror and getting Aldridge to reconsider, Irving was having conversations with friends and advisers on how to execute the breakup.
After the meeting with Irving, Gilbert kept up a brave public face and said in a news conference he expected to see Irving at training camp. However, he told people afterward that he didn't think the situation with Irving was reparable and he knew he had to trade him. He and Altman did so without another face-to-face meeting with Irving. And the rest is history.
No team in the NBA is the Spurs. There isn't another Popovich-Buford tandem out there. The turn of events that hit Cleveland could've slammed any organization. High-level agents in Hollywood like to say a contract is over when the talent says it's over. In many ways, this is true in the NBA as well. Stars can force trades regardless of their contract status.
But it's become clear how the Spurs' foundation enabled them to approach Aldridge's demand with a different set of options than the Cavs had with Irving. With the promise of changes from Popovich and some self-evaluation of his own, Aldridge ended up signing a contract extension with the Spurs and is having an All-Star season.
There was excitement in Cleveland for the pieces the Cavs got in the Irving trade. But as the season has unfolded, second-guessing has been developing. James himself was publicly supportive, but it is no secret within the organization that he was against trading Irving after the demand (and well before the now-famous Arthur tweet). It's fair to wonder what might've happened had the Cavs simply told Irving, who was under contract for two more years, they weren't trading him, as the Spurs held the line with Aldridge.
Over the long haul, there's still uncertainty how it will work out. The Cavs still have some unknowns in the trade they made with the Celtics. Perhaps they will come out as a winner, maybe even a bigger winner than the Spurs with a resurgent Aldridge. Maybe the draft pick the Cavs got will end up being a home run. Maybe Aldridge's contract extension will end up looking suspect.
But how the Spurs handled the Aldridge situation demands not just respect across the league but also study. Teams share best practices across their business, from ticket sales to in-game entertainment to player development. The best teams try to learn from each other.
Many teams can learn from the Spurs' management of the Aldridge issue, among other things. Perhaps the Cavs can, too.