The sports world has pilloried Kyrie Irving since Friday, when reports surfaced that the four-time All-Star requested a trade at a meeting with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Irving expressed that he no longer wants to play alongside LeBron James.
At first glance (second and third, too), Irving’s desire to quit riding shotgun is baffling. Cleveland has reached three consecutive NBA Finals with James behind the wheel. The Cavs’ offseason has been underwhelming but they are favorites to make another trip next season. Sharing the court with the world’s best player makes Irving’s seat more comfortable.
There isn’t much to debate regarding those sentiments. Irving’s best chance to win another title is as James’ sidekick. We’ve seen “Uncle Drew” in the lead role before and it was exceedingly ugly. Cleveland went a combined 78-152 with Irving running the show in the three seasons preceding James’ triumphant return.
According to Windhorst, Irving wants to play in a situation where he can be more of a focal point. That seems unlikely at San Antonio and Minnesota, two of his reported preferred destinations, where Kawhi Leonard and Karl-Anthony Towns are the entrenched young stars. Irving could headline Madison Square Garden for the Knicks (assuming Carmelo Anthony is gone) or be the man on South Beach with Miami, but he’d take a hit for lack of championship ambition.
Which brings us to the ol’ sliding scale on athletes’ motives. Irving clearly is on the wrong side of public opinion, though many critics make the right side a moving target they’d never hit if given a shot.
For instance (and we all know the proper responses): Would you rather be a star who falls short of a title, or a role player who hoists a trophy? Would you rather have a max contract from an also-ran, or a mid-level exemption from a contender? Would you rather play in a city you love for a team that can’t compete, or toil in a place you hate for a squad with legitimate title hopes?
We’re often caught in a vortex between Vince Lombardi’s quote, “winning is the only thing,” and the opposing view from a childhood adage, “it’s how you play the game.”
From either stance, Irving doesn’t have much defense (no pun intended). Victories with James have been plentiful and so have opportunities to shine. Irving averaged 25 points per game last season and averaged more shots (19.7) than James (18.2).
In the Finals, James’ field goal attempts increased to 23 per game.
Irving’s rose to 25.
You’d like to think the freedom to shoot that much, especially at crunch time, is enough. Irving is recognized as a premier NBA scorer, owner of an unparalleled handle and the league’s most-creative finishes at the rim. He has played that way and reached the Finals as often as not in his six-year career. Plus, he’s only 25.
However, there’s another way to view this development.
Yes, Irving’s ego could be running amuck, like we’ve seen during previous breakups of dynamic duos (Shaq & Kobe, KG & Marbury, Shaq & Penny). But Irving’s business sense could be kicking in, too, leading him to seek a preemptive move before James’ expected departure in 2018. With no assurances otherwise, Irving could be stuck in Cleveland, playing a dismal season for a dysfunctional organization under a dreadful owner.
As much as Irving has been criticized for wanting to part ways, there’s a good chance James will initiate the separation next summer. Or perhaps the summer after that. Or in 2020.
Being held hostage to one-year deals works for Gilbert because he has no choice and makes boatloads of money in multiple ways. But it’s understandable if James’ to-return-or-not-return options have grown tiresome for Irving.
Without James, Cleveland has no appeal as a destination franchise. It would fall behind Boston, Washington and Toronto as Eastern Conference favorites. The front office, already a mess, would inspire little faith. The Cavs would return to NBA irrelevance, a position they’ve endured for the past two decades whenever James hasn’t graced the roster.
The uncertainty alone gives Irving some cover for a trade request. But if being the face of a franchise is his primary motivation, perhaps we shouldn’t be as hard on him for that. Supposedly, there’s something to be said for young men who want to step out on their own, leaving behind a cocoon of safety and expected outcomes.
No one can accuse Irving of seeking a less-challenging path. Yet, he’s absorbing the same level of blistering critiques Kevin Durant received for taking the “easy” route and joining Golden State. We want it both ways, the ability to second-guess athletes whether they’re coming or going.
Whatever the reason – be it good, bad or indifferent – Irving no longer wishes to team with James.
Deciding which player to blame for that development is a matter of choice.
— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.