CHICAGO – Oh, the uneasiness and irony would’ve been thick had Kyrie Irving been seduced so easily and let LeBron James’(notes) inner circle represent him. From LeBron to Maverick Carter to the industry muscle of the Creative Arts Agency, they relentlessly recruited the Duke star. They wanted to do his contracts, his endorsements, everything. As it turns out, they would’ve marched right back into the life of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, with his next fresh-faced franchise star.
Together, James and his associates had lured Irving’s favorite player, Chris Paul(notes), to the agency, and had James hard on the recruiting trail. No one should underestimate the power of James’ tweets toward a hot, young college and high school star, or a well-timed phone call or text here and there.
For parts of Irving’s freshman season at Duke, rival agents believed LeBron’s camp would sign him. “They came very hard for Kyrie,” says an ex-Duke basketball player who spent time on campus this season. “… All over him.”
Yes, the Cavs won the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery on Tuesday night, and Irving is the clear choice for them. Privately, Cavaliers officials gushed over Irving this season and prayed they’d get a chance to draft him. As much as ever, the NBA’s a point guard league and contenders are born of great playmakers.
Had Irving been swayed to the flashy, aggressive pitch by CAA and LeBron’s marketing company, there could’ve been some salacious showdown. Lucky for Gilbert, the pitch fell flat on the Irving family, and substance over sizzle ruled the day. Irving chose an agent, Jeff Wechsler, who hadn't bothered to recruit Irving at all. Lucky for Gilbert, Irving isn’t entangled in an awkward web of the Cavaliers’ yesterday and tomorrow.
To say there’s nothing but ill-will and downright loathing between Gilbert and LeBron’s associates doesn’t begin to cover the territory. Yet now, Kyrie Irving walks into the Cavaliers with no baggage, no connection to the heartbreak of LeBron James’ departure.
“It’s been a slow, long and painful haul to get through it, and maybe this will be the final straw in getting over the hump and getting to the other side,” Gilbert said.
Irving won’t transform Cleveland overnight, but paired with a frontcourt player with the No. 4 pick and the Cavs can make a rapid ascent to relevance again. There’s no replacing LeBron James, but there is pushing past him and Irving has the talent, the character, to wash away the residue of King James’ departure. This should end Gilbert’s tweeting career on James, and that’ll be beneficial to the city of Cleveland and his organization.
Irving isn’t a savior, but he can be a worthy heir to the generation of Russell Westbrooks and Rajon Rondos. Perhaps Cleveland truly hit the lottery and found itself an MVP, a Derrick Rose(notes), a Chris Paul. For now, Irving’s body of work is too limited to prematurely cast him in those molds, but make no mistake: He’s a godsend in a draft with so few difference makers.
The Cavaliers need to be careful that they don’t overplay him as a savior to sell tickets and create unrealistic expectations. He’s his own man, though. An agent who recruited Irving marveled to his family that they could’ve made a lot of money in the college recruiting and agent processes, but never let it happen. Every big-time college coach and agent you talk to made something clear: Unlike many elite prospects and those surrounding them, the Irvings couldn’t be bought.
A common friend recommended Wechsler, and he sold the Irving family on two themes: Being shrewd with Kyrie’s career earnings, and becoming a beacon of community service and charity. When Wechsler had a chance to make a formal presentation, his pitch wasn’t centered on Irving’s sneaker deals, endorsements and the agent’s role as a 24-7 errand boy. He had Anthony Kennedy Shriver, founder of the globally renowned Best Buddies program, tell Kyrie about the power of charity and giving back.
In the end, the Cavaliers could walk out of the June draft with Irving and an elite power player with the fourth overall pick. GM Chris Grant grabbed the Los Angeles Clippers’ unprotected pick and Baron Davis'(notes) contract for Mo Williams(notes) in February, and the Clippers must be mortified to see it turn into the No. 1 overall. Irving and Blake Griffin(notes) could’ve been a Westbrook-Kevin Durant(notes) partnership, but that’s how it goes with the Clips.
Now, Irving gets the benefit of a coach, Byron Scott, whose inventory of knowledge includes a Showtime Lakers career as Magic Johnson’s running mate and a coaching run that includes Jason Kidd(notes) and Chris Paul under his watch.
Irving will find a city dying to embrace him, and he’ll make it easy. And once they hear that his family took a pass on LeBron and his wooing partners, they’ll be even more impressed. For everyone’s sake, it probably works out that Maverick Carter, Rich Paul and the rest of LeBron’s Akron buddies don't come marching back into Quicken Loans Arena arm and arm with the future of the Cavaliers’ franchise. It would’ve been a wild scene full of acrimony and tension, but Kyrie Irving made it easy for everyone, and yes, that’s what great point guards are supposed to do.
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