Just about every reviewer of the defunct Cleveland consortium James & Irving—i.e., current Cavalier LeBron and former Cavalier Kyrie—expressed shock it only lasted three seasons, seeing as it produced three consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals and one championship.
An examination of enduring dynamic NBA duos—including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, John Stockton and Karl Malone—indicates that LeBron and Kyrie had none of the binding elements that those other pairings enjoyed other than their success on the court. And if they had followed the game plan their star pairing predecessors had, they might still be together. It's difficult to know where things went wrong unless you consider the reasons it has gone right for others.
The Top Dog Can Defer, but No. 2 Can't Command
While the words of 1950s UCLA football coach Red Sanders—"Winning isn't everything. Men, it's the only thing!"—can be found on locker room walls around the country, the truth is it takes more than success to keep the nucleus of a team from coming apart. Respective personalities, backgrounds, circle of friends, stages of life—all of it matters. They don't have to share the same playlist or an aversion to shellfish, but they do have to recognize and respect whatever differences they might have.
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"I learned this lesson very quickly when I came into the NBA," says B.J. Armstrong, who won three championships alongside the Chicago Bulls' iconic combination of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and has since served as both a front-office executive and player agent. "Almost all the media and accolades go to the No. 1 guy. But if you're building a team, the most important player is the No. 2 guy. Because if the No. 2 guy wants to be the No. 1 guy, you have a major problem. If you see a team where the No. 2 guy wants to be the No. 1 guy, you can cross that team off the list. I don't think Scottie would mind me saying this: There was no question who the No. 1 guy and No. 2 guy was with the Bulls."
Irving's desire to be "the No. 1 guy," as in the team's biggest star, has been the most oft-cited reason for the breakup, inspired by an anonymous quote that many league executives and media members believe came from someone in LeBron's camp. But that hypothesis is hard to reconcile with the fact that Irving A) averaged a team- and career-high 19.7 shots last season; B) agreed to go to a Boston Celtics team where he is not guaranteed to be its biggest star; and, C) if Armstrong is correct, James and Irving never could've reached three Finals in a row had they not understood and embraced their respective roles while together on the floor.
One NBA GM scoffed at the idea that Irving's unhappiness in Cleveland had anything to do with the game. "This was about [LeBron's] people are on the [team] plane and his people run the organization," he said. "It had nothing to do with LeBron and Kyrie not co-existing and who has the ball and who doesn't have the ball."
Byron Scott enjoyed a similar firsthand view of the Los Angeles Lakers' championship-winning duo, Magic and Cap—short for Captain, Kareem's nickname—as Armstrong had of Jordan and Pippen. Scott joined the Lakers duo after they already had won two titles, with Magic voted Finals MVP both times.
"When I first got there, it was obvious who the leader of the team was," Scott says. "It was Earvin. But he would never say that. He'd always defer to Kareem. I think Magic knew he was the real leader, but he'd never rock the boat. The way he played it, the Captain was the captain."
Respect Your Elders—And Your Younger Teammates, Too
Magic's deference was understandable. Kareem was 12 years older, had won a ring already with the Milwaukee Bucks and had been the Lakers' star attraction for three seasons when Magic arrived. Publicly, Kareem was as dour and stoic as Magic was boisterous and personable.
"Kareem was an only child and so much taller at a very early age that he got a lot of attention, and he didn't like it," Scott says. "Magic was outgoing and always smiling, but behind closed doors he and Kareem had a lot of similarities. Kareem was known as a jokester and prankster with guys who he knew had his back.
"He had a favorite pair of jeans that he wore to almost every game, and one day we took some scissors to those jeans. He figured out who did it and eventually got every one of us back. He was very patient. Michael Cooper probably got it the worst—he put Nair on Coop's head while he was asleep on the plane."
The way James and Irving came together was more complicated. Irving was the resident All-Star when James elected to come home from Miami with a couple of championship rings in tow. Irving said he was eager to learn all he could from James, but while their personalities or ages weren't as disparate as Kareem and Magic's, there was never an indication they grew close. LeBron, while inclusive in some ways, has expressed his exasperation with teammates both via social media and demonstrably on the court, Kyrie included. And while they showered each other with compliments at times, LeBron referred to Kyrie as a "kid" right up until he was dealt to the Celtics. Cavaliers sources say Irving ached to be treated as more of a peer than an understudy.
Magic and Kareem not only treated each other as equals, but they also viewed their teammates the same way. "The thing I loved about them is that if you yelled at [Kareem], he'd take it in stride, and the same with Magic," Scott says.
Stockton and Malone were similar, says former Utah Jazz forward Adam Keefe, who played with the two for six of their 18 seasons together."They both had very high EQs—emotional quotients," Keefe says. "That's the ability to relate to others. Talk to anyone who played with them and they will tell you they were great teammates. They'd be the first to laugh at themselves if a play didn't go their way. They could have a disagreement, but what they could agree on is, 'We have to keep moving forward and get past it.'"
Working Together Is Easier Than Working Apart
While Stockton and Malone were first-ballot Hall of Famers, neither arrived with anywhere near the fanfare that greeted No. 1 picks James and Irving. Stockton was drafted 16th in 1984, and Malone arrived as the 13th pick a year later. By geography and appearance—the 6'2" skinny white point guard from Gonzaga and the chiseled black power forward from Louisiana Tech, both born and raised not far from where they went to college—it was hard to imagine what they might have in common, even when it came to how they played basketball.
"A black kid from Louisiana and a white kid from Washington?" asks Keefe. "The over/under on them getting along and being great teammates is 12 months. But they had so many things in common that would initially not jump out. Both grew up in working-class families. No son of a CEO or pro player. No one was breaking down tape of their dad with them growing up. Neither one was widely recruited out of high school. Both of them appreciated that underdog mentality. They didn't need to be in a ton of commercials or interviews. They'd do them, but they didn't need them."
Both also became stars in tandem. In much the same way the Warriors' backcourt, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, rose to prominence together by complementing each other, Stockton and Malone saw the other as synonymous with their unpredicted success.
"Scottie and Michael were a great combo, but they were great when the other was off the court, too," Keefe says. "For Karl and John, it was, 'The two of us can make a basketball play that we couldn't make independently.' Their style of play was an advantage for both of them."
Even now, members of the Cavaliers will admit, albeit privately, that Irving was an ideal counterpart for James from a basketball perspective. Irving's strengths—air-tight handles and knock-down shooting from any distance with a razor-sharp appetite for attacking with a game on the line—filled the few less-than-superlative parts of LeBron's repertoire. James, meanwhile, had playmaking and defensive ability for the both of them, thereby compensating for the most glaring omissions in Irving's game.
Having established their stardom separately, however, neither seems to believe that the other is indispensable to their success, as Stockton and Malone did. LeBron has already proved that, and Kyrie is eager to do the same.
Also unlike Stockton and Malone, their backgrounds appeared to mirror each other when in reality there were acute distinctions. Both James and Irving grew up in single-parent homes, but the circumstances couldn't have been more different. Irving was born in Australia and raised by a widowed father who made it both as a basketball star at Boston University and a financial broker in New York. James was born in Akron, Ohio, to a teenage mother who turned him over to an adoptive family for various stretches of his childhood. Irving went to Duke, albeit for a year; James entered the NBA straight from high school.
Embrace a Different Point of View
None of this is to say stars with different personalities and backgrounds can't co-exist and thrive. The Seattle SuperSonics' All-Star duo, point guard Gary Payton and power forward Shawn Kemp, had almost nothing in common and only reached one NBA Finals, yet they played seven remarkably harmonious seasons together. Kemp, an Indiana native, came to the NBA after splitting a year on the campuses of both the University of Kentucky and a small community college in Texas without playing a minute of basketball for either one. Payton, who grew up in Oakland, California, played four years at Oregon State before the Sonics made him the No. 2 pick in 1990 behind Derrick Coleman.
Payton was as brash and confrontational as Kemp was quiet.
Kemp actually arrived in Seattle a year ahead of Payton, but Payton is two years older and incumbency meant nothing. "Shawn didn't get caught up in whose team it was," says Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey, a former Sonics assistant coach. "He allowed Gary to be loud and boisterous. Shawn could care less about commercials or endorsements; Gary did. Shawn didn't get into debates about coverages or practices; Gary did.
"It took a unique personality to make it work with Gary. I don't think Dirk [Nowitzki] or KG [Kevin Garnett] would've co-existed with him. KG is way too much alike, and Dirk is laid-back but he likes things orderly. Gary and [coach] George [Karl] couldn't function without chaos.
"But what did make it work is both of them came in young and grew up together. Gary would challenge everybody else but not Shawn. I've never seen those two have words."
Keep the Competition on the Court
Irving and James started their careers with the same team, just at different times, an unusual rub in itself. Irving served as the consolation prize when the Cavs plummeted after LeBron left for Miami. The Cavs didn't win much in their three Irving-led seasons, but he managed to make the All-Star team in the last two. Anderson Varejao was the second-best player one year; Tristan Thompson held that distinction the next. Irving was actively recruiting his new running mate with the Celtics, Gordon Hayward, to come to Cleveland when LeBron announced he was coming back and "squashed that whole thing," as Hayward revealed at his introductory press conference with the Celtics.
As for off-the-court interests, Irving and James have long had a few competing ones. While they both have signature shoes with Nike, a Forbes magazine report last spring indicated they're vying against each other for top-seller rights. Irving is also a Pepsi spokesman, while James has Sprite, a subsidiary of Pepsi's primary competition, Coca Cola. Irving is hoping to break into the movie business with his Pepsi commercial character Uncle Drew; James is already steeped in the business with an entertainment production company. Never has there been any indication that they might work together on a project.
Irving and Hayward, meanwhile, had the giddy manner of reunited childhood friends when they shared a podium in Boston for the first time. Asked how they knew each other prior to becoming Celtics teammates, the two smiled at each other and then whispered conspiratorially before Hayward answered. "It's like destiny," Hayward said. "We both have March 23 birthdays, so it was bound to happen at some point in time. … We've always had a good relationship. I haven't spent too much time with him. Looking forward to doing that and learning from him."
Don't underestimate the value of that last remark. Hayward is 27; Irving is 25. Being viewed as someone to look up to, or at the very least confer with, as opposed to educate, is exactly the kind of partnership league sources say Irving hoped to have with James and never did.
Will that be enough for them to build an enduring relationship? To win a championship? The circumstances in which they've joined forces at least gives them a chance at the former. In light of how transient star alliances in the league have become—Kevin Durant leaving the Thunder and both Chris Paul and Paul George being dealt by their respective teams before they could do the same—that might just be a greater feat than the latter.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.