Kyrie Irving Just Can't Wait to Be King

Pippen without Jordan? Kareem without Magic? Kyrie Irving is “uncomfortable” in LeBron’s shadow, but can he really lead a team?
photo of Howard BeckHoward BeckNBA Senior WriterJuly 24, 2017

Do you remember J.R. Smith?

Not J.R. Smith, the loveable scamp who rode shirtless through Cleveland after the Cavaliers won the 2016 championship.

No, the other J.R. Smith. The wayward soul who defied coaches, partied too much, racked up suspensions and fines and landed in Cleveland as an afterthought, a throw-in.

No one talks about that J.R. anymore. He evolved, matured, became a better player and person. But there was someone else nudging him along, setting the bar ever higher.

And when the greatest player of your generation speaks, you listen.

LeBron James (left) was influential in J.R. Smith's (right) evolution as a player and as an individual.
LeBron James (left) was influential in J.R. Smith's (right) evolution as a player and as an individual.(Getty Images)

"From the time I met him, it's been nothing but encouragement," Smith said of LeBron James earlier this year, in an interview with The Undefeated. "That's an amazing quality to have."

Indeed, amazing things happen when you join Team LeBron. Images are rehabilitated. Resumes are enhanced. Legends are made.

Chris Bosh becomes a Hall of Famer. Chris Andersen and Matthew Dellavedova become folk heroes. Richard Jefferson and Rashard Lewis become champions. Mo Williams becomes an All-Star. Boobie Gibson becomes a household name.

How many careers have been made by James over the last decade? A dozen? Two dozen? Fifty?

It's good to be in the king's court.

And yet Kyrie Irving wants to leave it.

That revelation came Friday, from ESPN, and it makes no more sense today than it did then.

As ESPN reported, and others (including B/R) have confirmed, the 25-year-old Irving has asked the Cavaliers to trade him. He wants a new team—his own team. He's weary of playing the sidekick. He wants a bigger share of the spotlight.

In an uncommonly crazy offseason—blockbuster trades, front-office meltdowns, LaVar Ball rants, the Knicks doing Knicks things—Irving's trade demand ranks as the craziest turn yet.

Reports of Kyrie Irving's demand to be traded made waves Friday across the NBA in what has already been a turbulent offseason.
Reports of Kyrie Irving's demand to be traded made waves Friday across the NBA in what has already been a turbulent offseason.(Getty Images)

Who demands to leave a three-time NBA Finals team? Who screams "I'm out!" a year after a championship parade? Irving has four preferred destinations, including the Knicks. (The Knicks!) Who leaves a perennial contender for the Knicks? (The Knicks!)

And the core question: Who willingly leaves LeBron James? Indeed, demands it?

Kyrie Irving seems to be the first. It doesn't reflect well on him.

In three seasons before James' prodigal return, Irving was the centerpiece of a forgettable team that averaged 26 wins and zero playoff appearances.

In three seasons with James, Irving has become a decorated star and a certified winner. James didn't just guide Irving to three straight Finals—he gave his young co-star the room to sink that title-clinching jumper in 2016. James didn't just join Irving—he embraced him, mentored him, challenged him to be better.

It's not always easy to play alongside the all-time greats. Michael Jordan was brutally demanding, even bullying. Same for Kobe Bryant, who had little tolerance for mistakes. Shaquille O'Neal was notoriously moody, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar notoriously aloof.

"James didn’t just guide Irving to three straight Finals—he gave his young co-star the room to sink that title-clinching jumper in 2016. James didn’t just join Irving—he embraced him, mentored him, challenged him to be better."
"James didn’t just guide Irving to three straight Finals—he gave his young co-star the room to sink that title-clinching jumper in 2016. James didn’t just join Irving—he embraced him, mentored him, challenged him to be better."(Getty Images)

But James is none of those things. Set aside his basketball attributes, and the most common description from his peers is "great teammate." It's the first thing they all say.

In 2015, a majority of NBA players voted James as "the player you secretly wish was on your team." He earned the honor again in 2016.

It's not just the winning that playing with James guarantees. It's the selflessness in his game, the camaraderie he inspires and the joy he brings to the court. James is a galvanizing force, one of the greatest passers of all time, a star dedicated to elevating everyone around him.

This past season, James threw 1,169 passes to Irving—26.7 percent of his total (despite Irving missing 10 games). Irving set career highs in points per game (25.2), shots per game (19.7) and effective field-goal percentage (.535).

There is no stat to suggest Irving's development has been stunted by sharing the stage.

To the contrary, every advanced stat in the world shows Irving is better when James is on the court. Every stat—including the win-loss column—shows the Cavaliers have been worse when Irving plays without James.

Irving set career highs in points per game (25.2), shots per game (19.7) and effective field-goal percentage (.535) this past season.
Irving set career highs in points per game (25.2), shots per game (19.7) and effective field-goal percentage (.535) this past season.(Getty Images)

In 635 minutes with Irving on the court and James off last season, the Cavaliers were a minus-120, per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh. In eight games with Irving and no James, they were 0-8.

And now Irving wants to leave James?

Can you imagine Scottie Pippen demanding a trade to leave Jordan? Kareem asking for a separation from Magic? Kevin McHale deciding to bail on Larry Bird?

"Kyrie has always been uncomfortable with this not being about him, and his team," one person close to the Cavaliers says. "He's always had to sort of swallow his pride."

Shaq and Kobe divorced—after three championships—but theirs was a uniquely fractious partnership. They feuded in both good times and bad, and their differences went way beyond shot distribution or control of the offense. At times, they wanted to kill each other. They also stayed together for eight seasons.

Despite the tension in their relationship, Shaquille O'Neal (left) and Kobe Bryant (right) won three championships for the Lakers together.
Despite the tension in their relationship, Shaquille O'Neal (left) and Kobe Bryant (right) won three championships for the Lakers together.(Getty Images)

There are no such tensions between Irving and James, who at every turn has promoted and empowered his co-star. They are not close friends, but they are friendly. James was said to be devastated to learn of Irving's trade demand.

What Irving is doing has no precedent in the modern era. The closest analogy is Stephon Marbury's envy-fueled decision to leave Kevin Garnett in 1999. And that's not a model anyone should follow. The Marbury-KG pairing was special. But contract jealousies drove Marbury to force a trade to New Jersey, and his career spiraled downward from there.

You might posit that Irving is worried about James' longevity—except LeBron just had one of his best seasons at age 32 and finished fourth in the MVP voting.

You might speculate that Irving is worried about James leaving Cleveland himself next summer—except James has given no indication he plans to do so.

And if James were to leave, wouldn't that give Irving exactly what he's seeking—the full spotlight? His own team? There is no apparent logic to any of this.

It makes no financial sense, either. Irving is currently eligible for a so-called supermax contract, worth $219 million over five years with Cleveland. But he loses that right if he's traded. The most any other team could offer is $188 million over five years.

Even Irving's wish list is puzzling. He asked for Minnesota, but the Timberwolves just acquired All-NBA forward Jimmy Butler and have a rising superstar in Karl-Anthony Towns. He asked for San Antonio, but the Spurs are built around MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. Would Irving be the centerpiece in either place?

Should Irving be a franchise centerpiece at all? He's known to be moody and difficult to reach. He has a tendency to dominate the ball. He doesn't elevate teammates. He plays no defense. Nothing about him screams "leader."

Irving has reportedly expressed interest in playing for the Knicks, Timberwolves and Spurs.
Irving has reportedly expressed interest in playing for the Knicks, Timberwolves and Spurs.(Getty Images)

In this era of superstar empowerment, the greatest players are wielding their power to create All-Star clusters: James joining forces with Bosh and Dwyane Wade, and later with Irving and Kevin Love; Chris Paul joining James Harden in Houston; Gordon Hayward joining Isaiah Thomas in Boston.

Kevin Durant ditched one star in Oklahoma to join three in Oakland, then led the Warriors on the most dominant title run in history. The Warriors were a model of selflessness and sacrifice, and they reaped the benefits.

Now Irving is turning the trend on its head—placing ego gratification above team success. It's his right to do so, as much as it was Durant's or James' or Hayward's to choose their own paths. Whether Irving is making a wise move is another matter.

The Cavaliers, who have Irving under contract for two more seasons, are under no obligation to grant his request. Nor are they under any obligation to send Irving to one of his preferred teams (he doesn't have a no-trade clause). Maybe he ends up in New York or Miami. Or maybe he lands in Sacramento or Charlotte.

Kyrie Irving might get his chance to leave James' shadow and lead some new team to championship glory. Or he might never sniff the Finals again and play the rest of his career in relative obscurity and frustration, wondering where it all went wrong.


Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also co-hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the new B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.