Kyrie Irving and LeBron James were always an arranged marriage. So if there is ever any confusion over why Irving demanded a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and no longer wants to play with James anymore, just understand: Irving never asked for this. James did all of the arranging.
Irving never would’ve been in position to clinch a title in Game 7 with that swinging, one-legged 3-pointer, never would’ve been able to hug the Larry O’Brien trophy or ride around shirtless along East 9th Street for a championship parade before his 25th birthday if James hadn’t decided that the best place to spend the post-Miami portion of his career was back home in Cleveland with an electrifying point guard whose ridiculous handles brought him almost everything except wins.
But James chose Irving. It wasn’t the other way around. And that’s something Irving always had to grapple with over the past three seasons as a reluctant sidekick. While James’ presence elevated him to stages where Irving always felt he belonged and where he might still be hustling to reach, it came at tremendous cost in other areas that mattered to Irving. James’ homecoming in 2014 was celebrated nationally – and especially in Northeast Ohio – but it forced Irving to surrender a franchise to which he committed by signing a five-year extension two weeks before “The Decision II” and that, for as lousy as it was at the time, belonged to him.
Irving made headlines All-Star weekend in New Orleans last February, revealing a quirky side he often conceals, when he shared his ridiculous belief that the world is flat (an argument from which he still has yet to back away). During that weekend, Irving also spoke about what it meant to have James join the Cavaliers at a time when he was still trying to understand the responsibilities of a leader and potential franchise player.
“I was trying to figure it out all at once, so it took a while. It didn’t look perfect. A lot of the arrogance that I had, and aura I had, I had to let go of completely,” Irving said. “And let go of that complete ego, the selfishness that we all want to have and being that player every single night. The truth is, you can still be that player with other great players, you’ve just got to think about how to do that.”
In his mind, Irving is a leading man. But he would never get the starring role in a show that James is writing and directing. He’d always be eclipsed. The Mamba Mentality that pushed Irving to challenge Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one before he made his NBA debut and to later hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers franchise history is the same one that made him anxious for the moment when he would finally stop having to defer.
The wins were fun but they weren’t enough, because they came with so much extra James sauce – an angry glare for looking him off, an eye roll for a missed defensive assignment and a sometimes joyless atmosphere, especially in the early, dramatic days of this union. James and Irving butted heads at times on the floor. And, other times off the court, James struggled to get Irving on board with his other teammates. Though he accepted it, Irving resented being the little brother.
After Cleveland upset the Golden State Warriors with that thrilling comeback from a 3-1 deficit in 2016, James and Irving were on such good terms that coach Tyronn Lue could crack jokes about the two of them fighting without igniting the next controversy or having anyone take it seriously. But after the Cavaliers lost in five games to the Warriors in a three-match that feels a lot longer ago than last month given this wild NBA offseason, that relationship seems to be more transactional than transformative. If they can’t help each other win, then why do they need each other anymore?
The Cavaliers are the best team in the Eastern Conference with James and Irving on the same side. But James, at age 32 and chasing Michael Jordan’s ghost, is in a championship-or-bust portion of his career when second place isn’t good enough. And Irving, at age 25 and still trying to establish himself amongst the current NBA hierarchy, is in the I’ve-already-won portion of his career when being second fiddle is no longer the ideal scenario.
James’ decision to return to the Cavaliers caught Irving off guard but now this is his chance to return the favor with a stunning power move of his own. Irving, for once, got out ahead of James, who has strategically been setting the stage for his second Cleveland exit – the Decision Part III – next summer. This month, James has done little to quell rumors that he’ll take his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers. He attended a summer league game in Las Vegas – in purple, no less – to watch Lonzo Ball share the ball in a way that Irving rarely did. He also allowed his frustrations to leak out in USA Today and gave departed general manager David Griffin props after Dan Gilbert declined to reward him with a suitable contract. Now, all that the Cavaliers had built over the greatest three years in franchise history stands to crumble.
Irving described this offseason as “peculiar,” and what’s bound to follow from his trade demand is almost too difficult to bear for Cavaliers fans. Because even if James had chosen to leave, Irving represented the promise of the future. But that’s no more, if Irving gets his way. San Antonio (where he could play for the next U.S. Olympic coach and a five-time champion in Gregg Popovich), Minnesota (where his good friend and business partner Jimmy Butler resides), Miami (where he has spent several summers and James found championship salvation after leaving the Cavaliers the first time) and New York (where he’d play close to where he grew up in New Jersey), all appeal to Irving. Cleveland, unfortunately, does not. Irving has his ring and has now decided it’s his turn to determine his fate, his turn to do the arranging. And his other comments from All-Star weekend ring louder than ever.
“Young players are becoming a lot better. The change of hand is happening. You see it,” Irving said. “The veterans that were leading this thing for a while, that everyone was talking about, well now it’s young players and ‘This is going to be his team over the next four or five years.’ It’s interesting to see how that is transpiring and things just get better.”
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