Kyrie Irving is finally out from under LeBron James’ immense shadow but has been thrust into another situation from which he cannot hide. Irving was always going to be scrutinized for having the audacity to abandon the greatest player of this generation. But the Cleveland Cavaliers granted him the best possible reward for his discontent by placing him on a Boston Celtics franchise that is not only ready to win but has such a history for grooming legends and establishing Hall-of-Fame legacies that nearly every possible cool jersey number is hanging in the rafters.
Based on his past, Irving won’t be intimidated by the latest challenge in a career that has never been free from pressure. Irving wasn’t just drafted first overall in 2011, he went to an organization that was still stumbling from James’ departure and had to deal with non-stop, unfair comparisons to a player who – despite his presence, at the time, in Miami – never really went away. The Cavaliers were awful in those early years but Irving had already shown enough ability that when James decided to come back home a superstar sidekick with a signature shoe and famous alter-ego was already in place.
And though he had little understanding of how to win before James arrived, Irving had to expedite the learning process in order for the Cavaliers to legitimately contend for championships. The duo’s first attempt at a ring was interrupted by Irving’s fractured kneecap in the 2015 NBA Finals. But Irving not only returned a year later to assist James on the greatest comeback in Finals history but he also nailed the clinching – and career-defining – shot, only a few feet away from very spot where he was injured.
A loss to the “light-years ahead” Golden State Warriors and the uncertainty surrounding James’ future beyond this season put Irving in a quandary entering this summer. Does he play out another season with James, possibly reach another Finals and lose to again to Golden State, and then have to be forced to clean up the mess James left behind once again? Or does he take a chance on his own career, on his own belief that he can, indeed, be the front man on a title contender, and make the unpopular decision to ask out of what he helped build?
Irving has taken heat for choosing the latter, with his competitiveness and desire to win questioned by those who cannot comprehend why someone would want to leave James and the Finals runs that come from being his teammate. But for someone who has had a mostly charmed NBA existence and is accustomed to having situations work out in his favor – he went No. 1 out of Duke despite missing most of the season with injury, James chose to spend the remainder of his prime years in Cleveland with him – taking a gamble on his career was hardly a risk.
The Cavaliers, despite minimal leverage, made a favorable deal for their present and future, newly hired general manager Koby Altman handling his first crisis situation with aplomb. Cleveland hauled in a prolific scorer in Isaiah Thomas, a rugged defender in Jae Crowder, a promising young Croatian big man in Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn 2018 first-round pick that Celtics president Danny Ainge had previously been unwilling to sacrifice. But Altman also spared Irving the difficulty of joining a lousy team with no hope like the New York Knicks, or a mediocre team like the Phoenix Suns that would’ve had to gut their talent to acquire him. No, Irving landed in Boston, one of the few teams that has a chance at winning the Eastern Conference and losing to Golden State in the Finals. Irving won’t have to do all of the heavy lifting with Gordon Hayward around. Al Horford is there for the dirty work and the leadership. At 25, Irving is young enough to grow with a young core led by Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. And, by playing under the point-guard-friendly system of Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Irving will have a chance to see his talents exploited like never before.
Irving wanted to join winning situations in either Miami or San Antonio but they wouldn’t have offered the same intrigue as Boston, the team that stands as the stiffest obstacle for James to make an eighth consecutive NBA Finals trip – a feat that hasn’t been touched since, ahem, the Bill Russell-led Celtics ruled the league. James has had so much history with Boston over his career – a Game 7 battle with Paul Pierce in 2008, an upset loss in 2010 and a legacy-launching Game 6 in 2012 – that Irving adds more spice to a career-long nemesis.
Ainge has had quite the summer in revamping a squad that finished with the conference’s best record and reached the conference finals. He’s dispatched all but one regular starter, brought in two All-Stars and has the Celtics poised to be good for long after James has surrendered his control of the East. He also avoided what could’ve been a difficult “back-up-the-Brinks-truck” contract negotiation with Thomas, who blossomed into an All-Star and truly embodied the spirit of the Celtics with his grit and gamesmanship but presented some serious questions with his size and durability after a recent hip injury.
Boston had been rumored to be in pursuit of nearly every All-Star that has been on the trading block in recent years but Ainge didn’t want to exhaust his assets on DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George or Jimmy Butler. His passivity in those situations garnered much criticism along the way. Ainge deemed Irving worthy of a slight overpayment. Of those four, Irving is the only one who has casually dropped 40-plus in the Finals, who sucked the air out of Oracle Arena with one lethal step-back 3-pointer, and who has spent the past three seasons learning from James about the hard work and sacrifice required to be a champion.
The Cavaliers had no championship legacy before Irving and James teamed up to end Cleveland’s long title drought. Boston is measured on a different scale but presents a platform that Irving believes is best for him. Irving won’t have to be some unconscious gun, firing at will and collecting meaningless statistics. He also won’t have to save a franchise headed nowhere. Ten years after he assembled the team that brought Boston its 17th title, Ainge has had an impressive summer in which the long-time executive traded down to get Tatum, the player he would’ve selected No. 1 overall regardless and added another potential lottery pick. He scored Hayward, the biggest free-agent defection of the summer. And, he took advantage of some unexpected dissension on the team the Celtics have been chasing to get Irving, a star who hungers to be a much bigger star. On his own terms.
Related coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Dan Wetzel: What the blockbuster trade means for LeBron
• Kyrie’s trade fuels one of the NBA’s great feuds
• Cleveland sets up for now, eyes future in Irving-Thomas swap
• LeBron’s Twitter farewell to Kyrie: ‘What a ride it was’