On Wednesday, LeBron James will return to Cleveland as a player for the first time since signing a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. In an interview with Joe Vardon of The Athletic, James reflected on the situation that paved the way for him to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, he called it “the beginning of the end of everything”: the Kyrie Irving trade.
The last couple years of James’ second stint with the Cavaliers were fraught with leadership struggles and personnel issues. And they all converged when Irving was traded from the Cavs to the Boston Celtics on August 22, 2017. On that day, Vardon said James was signing jerseys in Santa Monica, California when then-coach Tyronn Lue came to see him. Lue had found out that the Cavs were about to trade Irving, and so he drove to see James with the intent of putting him and new GM Koby Altman on the phone.
James was adamant on the call — do not trade Irving, especially to the Celtics. By the end of the call, according to four separate accounts of people present for the conversation, Altman told James the trade would not occur.
But just a few minutes later, news of the Irving trade broke. The Cavs had gone through with it despite James’ strong desire for Irving to stay in Cleveland.
James’ close friend, Randy Mims, and bodyguard Rob Brown came to him with their phones to show him the news. James, who was still signing jerseys, dropped the pen and slumped in his chair.
“Everyone knows that when Kyrie got traded it was the beginning of the end for everything. It’s not a secret,” James said in an interview with The Athletic.
As he told Vardon, James wasn’t angry and he didn’t feel like he was lied to. It seems like he mostly felt defeated. He believed Irving was necessary for the Cavs to compete at the highest level, but the team traded him away.
Of course, the main issue was the relationship between Irving and James — or the lack thereof. Irving was disgruntled and didn’t want to play with James anymore, so he requested a trade in August 2017.
Irving, in fact, told the Cavs he wanted out so badly he’d go ahead with knee surgery and miss a large portion of the year if he wasn’t traded. James, who did little to try to bridge the divide with Irving, told the Cavs to keep Irving in spite of his threats.
If Irving hadn’t wanted to stop playing with James so badly, things could have been entirely different. In the end, Irving wanted out of Cleveland, and not even LeBron James himself could keep him there.
Vardon reached out to the Cavs’ front office, and got a little of their perspective on James’ involvement in the Irving trade.
Cavs front-office officials declined to be quoted for this story but disputed that Altman gave James any indication the trade would not occur. They also said Altman asked James whether he would commit to the Cavs long-term if Irving were not traded, and James said no.
There are plenty of other issues tied up with the trade of Irving. James was close with former Cavs GM David Griffin, who parted ways with the team in June 2017, a month before his contract was set to expire. James wasn’t consulted about that decision, which was made by team owner Dan Gilbert. In fact, James suspects that Gilbert simply overruled Altman on the Irving trade, and the ability to overrule the GM and run the team his way is why Gilbert replaced Griffin and hired Altman — someone who wasn’t close to James.
The Cavs team James will play on Wednesday is dramatically different than the one he left in July. Coach Tyronn Lue was fired. Kevin Love is out for at least six weeks after toe surgery. J.R. Smith practically begged the Cavs to trade him. The team is 2-12 and has the worst record in the NBA.
It’s tough to know if James’ departure set off that cascade of events, or if some of it would have happened even with James there. Regardless, he’s at peace with the decisions he’s made, and with returning to a place that’s so vitally important to the person and player he is.
“I’m returning to a place where I’ve spent 11 years of my career,” James said. “I had some great moments, had some not so great moments, but, all in all, when you give everything to whatever, the franchise, a teammate, a coaching staff, anything, that’s all that matters.”
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