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In the summer of 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers were celebrating their first NBA championship in franchise history, thanks in large part to heroic NBA Finals efforts from LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Now, three summers later, Kyrie’s preparing for his second year in Boston, LeBron’s getting ready for his first year in purple-and-gold, and the Cavs are preparing for some rough seas ahead after four straight seasons of competing for titles.
Things can change quickly in the NBA … especially when the relationship between a team’s star players is a lot more complicated and fraught than fans on the outside might think.
Things between Kyrie and LeBron were never all that great
Three reporters who worked the Cavs beat throughout the LeBron-Kyrie era — Jason Lloyd of The Athletic (formerly of the Akron Beacon-Journal), Joe Vardon of cleveland.com, and Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com — recently joined the Bull & Fox radio show on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland for an expansive chat on the experience of covering the team over the past four years, an era packed with both organizational success and internecine strife.
One of the main topics of conversation in the first hour of the program: the LeBron-Kyrie dynamic, which eventually devolved to the point that Irving last summer pushed his way out of Northeast Ohio in a blockbuster trade that landed him with the Celtics.
LLOYD: “I will freely admit [the relationship between James and Irving] was worse than I thought. The LeBron-Kyrie relationship was worse than I thought it was. I told LeBron that on opening night. I said, ‘You guys did a great job of fooling me. I had no idea.’ And I won’t tell you exactly what he said in response, but he more or less agreed that it was not a good relationship between the two of them. […] The ‘little brother’ thing did annoy the crap out of Kyrie.”
VARDON: “LeBron did all kinds of stuff to Kyrie, almost like a hazing. Like, just kind of the way he would treat him or the things he would say to him or the things he would say about him. I think that’s certainly part of it. You know, Kyrie resented how much attention and how much power and how much sway LeBron had within the organization on a number of levels. Again, we’ve kind of allowed LeBron to say, ‘We shouldn’t have traded Kyrie,’ but he did absolutely nothing to keep him here until it was too late. […] When [the ESPN report about Kyrie’s trade request] came out, there was a month, a whole month, before anybody had any idea that the trade was going to be to Boston. LeBron didn’t do anything. There was no love lost between them.”
You’d imagine James certainly would have rather headed into the season with a healthy Irving in the lineup than with replacement Isaiah Thomas still several months away from returning from his hip injury, and with late-offseason signing Derrick Rose starting at the point. And one would suspect that James might’ve liked his chances of taking at least a game off the Golden State Warriors a bit more with Kyrie in the fold than with George Hill and Jordan Clarkson on the ball. Alas, things went off the rails the previous summer … if, in fact, they ever really got on the rails to begin with.
‘Kyrie never really wanted LeBron to come back in the first place’
At the time, the messaging coming out of Cleveland was that the Cavs sold Irving on his 2014 rookie maximum contract extension by pitching a partnership with James and Kevin Love. According to Lloyd, though, Irving — Cleveland’s No. 1 overall pick in 2011, the year the Cavaliers plummeted to the bottom of the NBA following LeBron’s departure to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat — was never really on-board for the idea of James returning to the team that drafted him first overall in 2003 after his four-year stint in South Florida:
LLOYD: “I’ve been with the Cavs for eight years, every day. So I go back many, many regimes, because [owner] Dan [Gilbert] likes to fire people. So I go back a long ways with this team. Kyrie — it has been made clear to me, by multiple people — Kyrie never really wanted LeBron to come back in the first place. That he didn’t think, like, that it was necessary.
“LeBron said something to Kyrie on the court following a game when he was in Miami, something to the effect of, ‘Keep going, keep doing what you’re doing, you never know, I could be back here one day,’ something like that. And Kyrie went in the locker room and basically said, ‘We don’t need that. What’s he talking about? We don’t need that guy.’ So, Kyrie never really wanted him here.”
McMENAMIN: “And much like, you know, Jason spoke to someone after the  championship where LeBron, maybe that was the moment where, OK, he was going to be leaving? Kyrie and his camp considered asking for a trade after the championship.”
McMENAMIN: “They decided to keep it in-house and not go forward with it, but it was something they discussed.”
Why Kyrie might not have loved LeBron coming back
It sounds kind of insane on its face. Entering his fourth NBA season, Irving had compiled individual accolades — the 2011 Rookie of the Year trophy, two All-Star selections, the 2014 All-Star Game MVP award — but had yet to experience any real NBA success, as his Cavs had rolled up a combined 78-152 record through his first three pro campaigns. James, meanwhile, was returning to Cleveland after four straight Finals appearances, including two NBA championships, and his presence would make the Cavs an instant championship contender. What young player looking to burnish his resume wouldn’t want to ride that sort of rising tide?
Well, maybe one who’d just been told he was going to be the singular face of the franchise for the next five years … only to be re-cast as Robin mere days later and set up for a tough-love re-education that he didn’t necessarily feel he needed:
VARDON (asked whether the relationship got worse over time): “Well, it couldn’t be any worse than how they started. You know, the games run together now, but if you go back to the first week of the first year, and … I think we were in Utah, and Kyrie didn’t have any assists, and LeBron and he got into it in the locker room, and then afterwards, LeBron basically ripped him and [then-Cavs guard] Dion [Waiters] to us without using any names, and it just kind of carried on that way.”
LLOYD: “Portland. Got to get the ‘bad habits’ out.'”
VARDON: “Utah and Portland, it was those two days. The Portland game was where LeBron chose to stand in the corner for the entire second half and not play, and just let Kyrie and Dion jack up shot after shot. They lost by a million, and then LeBron comes into the locker room — they had kind of had it out — and then he talks to us about ‘bad habits.’ And then the next night, in Utah, Kyrie had no assists. And LeBron talked to him again, and said, ‘You know, you at least have to have one.’ You couldn’t have started off worse than they did.”
That said: yeah, it sounds like things did get worse from there.
VARDON: “But even in the 2015 playoff year, everybody was hurt — and if you remember, this was before Kyrie blew out his knee, he was having, like, leg problems and then limping through series and taking games off, and this annoyed LeBron and LeBron’s people to no end. They were calling him soft, and questioning his toughness, and LeBron was doing it in comments to the media. So, you know, it took a while for there to be real respect between those two guys at all.”
Eventually, they found enough of an equilibrium to be able to rely on one another in the biggest moments the sport can offer. James and the Cavaliers needed every ounce of individual shot-creating brilliance Irving could muster to help bring Cleveland all the way back from 3-1 down in the 2016 NBA Finals, and needed Irving to dot Stephen Curry’s eye from the right wing with 53 seconds to go to push the Cavs over the finish line and break Cleveland’s 52-year championship drought.
LeBron can do almost anything on a basketball court, and makes almost anything possible for his team. But without Kyrie’s remarkable offensive play late in that series, he doesn’t deliver the title he promised when he came back from Miami.
Why Kyrie might not have made things much better
Whatever balance they struck on the court in pursuit of glory, though, it was apparently only ever a tentative detente. And while the all-encompassing nature of James’ presence within the organization contributed greatly to the dysfunction, according to the men who covered the team most closely over the past four years, both sides bore some responsibility for the frosty conditions:
LLOYD: “To this day, I don’t understand why Kyrie would walk away when he did. I just don’t understand that. I just don’t. You know, you’re 25 years old and you just hit the biggest shot in the franchise’s history to win a championship, and you can compete for championships … no one is blameless. I think we can all agree with that. Nobody is blameless.”
(The hosts ask if it’s fair to criticize the way Kyrie thinks, if he’s “more about himself” than he is about his team and his teammates.)
LLOYD: “He uses the term ‘happiness,’ which is such a vague, total umbrella. Who can tell someone else what their happiness should be based on?”
VARDON: “I mean, I think, yeah. And, first of all, Kyrie is just an incredible, immense talent. One of the finest offensive players that we have in this league. But we do have to keep in mind that, when he asked for a trade, that he did not have a no-trade clause. He lucked out to the Nth degree to end up at a place where he could maybe win one again someday. They could have traded him to Sacramento. They could have traded him to Phoenix. They could have traded him anywhere. So, yeah. He had won his title, he wanted to get out from under the shadow of LeBron and get to a place where he could be more himself. So, can you say that Kyrie puts a premium on winning? I don’t think you can.”
Irving did land with a strong organization on the upswing, though, thanks in large part to the Celtics dangling an unprotected 2018 first-round pick from the Brooklyn Nets as the enticement for Cleveland to send its All-Star point guard to an in-conference rival. In Boston, he’d get the chance to act as the No. 1 offensive star, the straw that stirs the drink, on a team with legitimate championship aspirations for years to come.
Of course, had everything else played out the way it did, with LeBron leaving for the Lakers in the summer of 2018, Irving might have had the exact same thing where he already lived had he just stayed put. This, according to the beat writers, vexed some within the Cavs organization:
LLOYD: “Well, that was part — and I talked to some people last summer, after this all became public, who were frustrated by this, who were saying, ‘Hey, if [LeBron] leaves in a year, it’s going to be your team anyway. You can have everything that you said you want. You’re going to have it in a year. Everything will be structured around you. Which goes back to the point I think Dave made earlier, that he saw this coming with LeBron and wanted to get out first. But the Cavs were frustrated because they felt like, if LeBron does leave, you are still going to be the focal point, and they would be in a far better situation with Kyrie and Kevin [Love] than they are currently, I think.”
VARDON: “And, you know, Kyrie’s relationship with [head coach] Ty [Lue] was not good. Because everything we’ve all said is right. He could have had virtually everything he wanted here in one more year, not to mention having gone to another Finals, and he chose to leave early. So, I think it’s reasonable to say that maybe Kyrie didn’t want all of those things in Cleveland.”
McMENAMIN: “And to play with a team full of specialists that were brought there for LeBron. Like, he would have to spend at least a year in transition in his quote-unquote prime with a team that was not built for him.”
LLOYD: “Well, it goes back to what I said: he never wanted him here in the first place. He didn’t want him here in the first place. He didn’t think the Cavs needed LeBron. He didn’t want him here in the first place. That’s been told to me by many, many, many people throughout the organization.”
In retrospect, it’s a testament to just how talented James and Irving are that, amid this kind of roiling discontent, they still managed to absolutely decimate their Eastern Conference competition and win at the highest level of the sport, delivering an absolutely unforgettable accomplishment that will go down in history as one of the greatest NBA Finals achievements of all time.
Maybe, with the benefit of some distance, both LeBron and Kyrie will be able to look back at what they were able to accomplish fondly, rue the fact that they couldn’t raise more banners in those four years (thanks, Warriors), and maybe reflect on their own roles in how things curdled in Cleveland. From the sound of things, though … it might take a few years to get to that point.
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