Looking back at the biggest "What If" trade in recent Cleveland Cavaliers history

2017 NBA Finals - Game Three
2017 NBA Finals - Game Three / Jason Miller/GettyImages
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What if Paul George came to Cleveland?

Before Irving was eventually dealt for Thomas, the Cavaliers had lined up a deal to add Indiana All-Star forward Paul George and more instead. George had been a thorn in Cleveland's side in LeBron's second stint, proving himself as a two-way superstar with dynamic athleticism and lockdown defense.

Both the Cavs and Pacers were traversing a stormy offseason leading up to the failed trade. Both squads were facing imminent free agency for the number one players. For the Pacers, they were too far away from a contender to make a big swing and convince George to re-sign. The Cavaliers, though, were still the best team in the conference. Irving had been unhappy for a while and wanted to lead his own team, making the swap seemingly perfect.

The full details would have included the Phoenix Suns, which ultimately became a pivotal part in the discussion's downfall. As the trade neared completion, the Suns were unwilling to give up their fourth overall pick in that year's draft, pulling out from the trade. Phoenix would have received Irving and Channing Frye, and Cleveland would have landed George from Indiana and Eric Bledsoe from the Suns.

At the same time, then-Cavaliers general manager David Griffin could not come to terms on a contract extension with owner Dan Gilbert, furthering Irving's discontent. What could have been became a perfect storm of mistakes, missed opportunities and failure for the Cavs. Paul George confirmed the trade was near completion in his podcast Podcast P with Paul George years later.

What could have been a new big three in Cleveland never came to be. In the previous season, George averaged 23.7 points and 6.6 rebounds en route to his fourth All-Star selection in seven seasons. After the Cleveland deal fell through, George eventually joined Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder for two seasons before finally landing with his hometown Los Angeles Clippers.

The prospect of George in Cleveland could had drastically shifted the Cavaliers' success that year. While Cleveland returned to the NBA Finals by way of a historic playoff run by LeBron James, the Cavs were ultimately swept in four games to the Warriors who had added Kevin Durant in the 2016 offseason.

In the end, adding Paul George would not have guaranteed anything for Cleveland. The Cavaliers could have won the Finals again with George at LeBron's side, and both players could have re-signed for the long-term aftewards. Equally, anything can happen in the postseason, and both George and LeBron could have left the Cavaliers that following summer, pushing the Cavs into the same rebuild that they started in 2018 anyway.

The Irving trade resulted in the eighth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft - a pick that turned into Collin Sexton. Sexton became the next glimpse of hope for the Cavaliers and spurred what became a quick rebuild. After drafting Darius Garland one year later and Evan Mobley in 2021, the Cavs found themselves with one of the most promising young cores in the Association.

Sexton spent four years with Cleveland before a being a foundation in the 2022 blockbuster trade that brought the next All-Star to the Cavaliers, Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell led the Cavaliers to their first 50-win season since 2018 and became the first Cav to earn All-NBA honors since LeBron James in 2018.

As different as the Cavaliers could have looked in the 2018 playoffs with Paul George, Cleveland expertly navigated their rebuild under general manager Koby Altman. As it stands now, the Cleveland Cavaliers have re-emerged as a powerhouse in the East, currently holding a 32-16 record with the second best record in the conference. Mitchell will play in his second All-Star game as a Cavalier, the fifth of his career.

Cleveland's recent past could have gone any number of directions, but the future looks just as bright as ever six seasons later as the newest era of Cavaliers basketball continues to make shockwaves.

Next. Cleveland Cavaliers’ 10 biggest draft busts since 2000. Cleveland Cavaliers’ 10 biggest draft busts since 2000. dark