LeBron-Kyrie Partnership Has All the Potential, and Risks, of Shaq-Kobe Alliance

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 18, 2016

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with teammate Kyrie Irving #2 after defeating the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals with a score of 112 to 97 at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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CLEVELAND — The goal was to create a cold-blooded monster.

And now the Cleveland Cavaliers are NBA champions because of it.

Kyrie Irving dared to take and make that winning shot during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, acing the ultimate final exam in his "Mamba Mentality" graduate course. It was a class Tyronn Lue, upon becoming the Cavs head coach, had demanded Irving take.

"I told him, 'You want to have a Kobe mentality?'" Lue recalled to Bleacher Report. "'Kobe didn't give a f--k. He don't care. Whatever the outside is saying, he don't care. Kobe's going to be Kobe.'"

The transformation of Irving, from Kobe fan to Kobe facsimile, led to Irving's shot over Stephen Curry and brought the Cavaliers their first title in franchise history.

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots a three-point basket late in the fourth quarter against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland,
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Now Lue has to deal with the consequences.

This season, Irving has license to shoot whenever and however he wants, Lue acknowledges. It's precisely the sort of independence young Kobe desperately sought after he won his first title.

Lue was there for Bryant's first…and his second the very next season. They were Los Angeles Lakers teammates in Lue's first three NBA seasons as a player, which prompted him to confess feeling a sense of deja vu with this Cleveland team.

Indeed, ghosts will be living with the Cavs this season, either inspiring or haunting them, and their names are Kobe and Shaq.

There's a deep similarity to how Irving is trying to grow his individual game under LeBron James' rule and how Bryant once strained to be more of the alpha dog than Shaquille O'Neal would allow.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 21: Kevin Durant #5 , Kyrie Irving #10, DeMar DeRozan #9, Harrison Barnes #8, Draymond Green #14 and Paul George #13 of the USA celebrate after winning the Men's Gold medal game between Serbia and the USA on Day 16 of the R
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

"It's like it's the same," Lue said. "Shaq was already established and was older than Kobe, and he was the most dominant player in the league. And Kobe was always striving to be better—to be the best player ever. That was his goal.

"After winning the championship last year, Kyrie had the chance to go win the gold medal. Coming back this year, you can tell he's really worked on his game—and he's worked on his body. He wants to take that next step. He's very capable of doing it."

With Irving so empowered by his recent accomplishments, though, the Cavs run the real risk of facing disrupted team chemistry to go with all the usual ego issues of a repeat bid.

The rest of the NBA would love if James and Irving started to hate each other, pulling this team in separate directions. And it's fair to wonder how much an emboldened Irving will rededicate himself to shoring up the defensive lapses opponents have long used against him.

However, unlike in L.A., Irving's rise to stardom has not generated discord between he and James the way it did for O'Neal and Bryant.

"Not at all," Lue said. "They have a great relationship, LeBron and Kyrie. LeBron's been like a big brother, bringing Kyrie along, teaching him how to be a professional and take care of his body, saving energy, eating better. Things like that that Kyrie didn't have before LeBron got here because they had a young team.

"LeBron has showed him the right way—and he has the respect of being a champion before and being the best player in the league for several years, carrying the league. What better mentor could you have?"

James' support of Irving has been notably different than O'Neal's distrust of Bryant back in the day.

One of O'Neal's former coaches from that era referred to him as the kind of leader who would yell at everyone to run through a wall but never would be first in line for that run.

James' team-building techniques are tried and true by now, the latest being him sitting on the floor last Thursday night instead of a comfortable bench seat when not playing in the Cavaliers' exhibition game.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22:  Kyrie Irving #2, LeBron James #23 and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers look on during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 NBA Championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Gett
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

James might be a part-time actor now, but he appeared comfortable playing his end-of-the-roster role while allowing members of the team's supporting cast the privilege of sitting. He even hopped up off the floor at the start of a timeout so that he could be the one to pull Irving and Iman Shumpert up off the bench, then extended his hands to help Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson to their feet. When James later found journeyman DeAndre Liggins in his spot on the floor and enjoying James' seat cushion for comfort, instead of pushing Liggins to move, James went to find another cushion and offered it to the former D-Leaguer.

No, James is not likely to alienate Irving the way O'Neal antagonized Bryant.

But do not put it past Irving to push his limits the way Bryant so forcibly did.

Remember how Irving, newly 20 and after just 11 college games and one NBA season, challenged Bryant to a game of one-on-one?

That 2012 exchange was memorably captured by Duke Blue Planet, with Irving insisting: "You're not going to lock me up!" Bryant responded: "I give him credit for his confidence" among many other not-so-encouraging words, including: "He can play a little bit for a high-school kid."

Late last season, as the Cavaliers tried to find themselves for the playoff run, Bryant had come to respect Irving's chutzpah enough to endorse it. Bryant said James doesn't have the personality to push teammates uncomfortably for more, so "you have to have somebody else that's going to create that tension. Maybe it's Kyrie?"

Cleveland found its chemistry and made history during the playoffs as Irving shot 46.7 percent (7-of-15) in clutch situations—games within five points with five minutes or less left on the clockper NBA.com. The previous playoffs, Irving went 0-of-8 on such clutch shots.

After Irving's Game 7 winner, he put it simply: "Just Mamba mentality. That's all I was thinking."

"He talks to Kobe a lot," Lue said. "Offensively, he has the same mentality as Kobe. Offensively, like Kobe, he doesn't have any weaknesses. He can go left, he can go right. Shoot pull-ups going right and left. Shoot behind the screen on threes. Catch-and-shoot. Post up. He has no offensive weaknesses. It is a comparison."

It's almost uncanny to compare their first tastes of titles.

Bryant and Irving both missed the start of their first championship seasons with injuries, allowing their teams to establish clear identities led by the No. 1 stars. Those No. 1 stars would wind up the NBA Finals MVPs but Bryant's fourth quarter and overtime in Game 4 against Indiana after O'Neal fouled out, and Irving's domination of the final three quarters (34 points on 14-of-20 shooting) of Game 5 at Golden State were the first times those younger stars signed their names to historical moments.

And now that Irving has come of age, he'll follow Bryant's footsteps again, trying to push his team through its title defense with youthful energy and insistence on progress over status quo.

"It really is a lot of the same, because LeBron's been to six straight Finals; his body's been beat up," Lue said. "Shaq was the same way, being beat up through his career, and taking summers to relax and get his body right. LeBron never takes time off, but Shaq was really beat up over those years.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 6:  Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal (R) and Kobe Bryant stand next to each other during the first quarter of NBA Finals, Game 1 against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Staples Center, Los Angeles, 06 June 2001. AFP PHOTO / VINCE
VINCE BUCCI/Getty Images

"The Lakers coming back, bringing Shaq back slow, letting him get in shape in camp, it's kind of the same way with LeBron. Kyrie's already in shape because he played in the summer, and he's ready to go."

Even if Irving at this age is more in tune with the team concept than Bryant was back then, it's unclear what his expansion means for the Cavs' identity and James' kingship.

James is unlikely ever to win another Most Valuable Player award if he and Irving average a similar scoring output. There's a splitting of the vote that happens in such cases, much like how Bryant may have cost O'Neal an MVP in 2000-01. O'Neal barely outscored Bryant (28.7 to 28.5 points per game), paving the way for Allen Iverson to be feted as MVP for his one-man show in Philadelphia.

But Lue has bigger concerns when it comes to coaxing the maximum output from an aging superstar and an oft-injured one. James, 31, is going to rest. And Lue wants Irving to save himself, too.

That's not necessarily what Irving wants. Yet Irving is amenable, saying he's trying to be "smart" and "efficient" and "not kill myself."

"At times I can be my worst enemy, just going extremely hard and doing extra things," he said.

That self-awareness wasn't on Bryant's radar early on—probably because Irving comes at this career springboard moment from a far different perspective: Even more than Irving's appreciation for health after having to sit out for all but one game of the 2015 NBA Finals, he had to lead a team himself at the start of his pro career.

Blessing or burden, three losing seasons in three tries before James' homecoming was excruciating. Irving referred to it as "the grind of being that guy every day." It's a reality for all franchise players, and not easily handled, as Anthony Davis in New Orleans is finding out in trying to bear the leadership burden of a team built around him.

A 78-152 cumulative record over Irving's non-LeBron seasons meant Cleveland won only one out of every three games with him as the lead dog. So where Bryant saw O'Neal as another hotshot salesman and in-house competition for employee of the month, Irving appreciates how James has raised his and the company's standards in every way.

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 17: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talks to head coach Tyronn Lue during the second half of the NBA Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 17, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jason Miller/Getty Images

"One thing about Kyrie: He listens," Lue said. "He's going to do whatever the team asks him to do. That's not a problem."

In the very next breath, though, Lue continued to endorse Irving dominating as much as he can.

"But a guy with his skill … when I took over, my whole thing was just, 'Don't worry about what the media is saying about passing. I need you to score the basketball and be aggressive, because nobody can stop you.'"

Even with their sibling rivalry, Bryant and O'Neal found a way to work well enough to win in 2001 (with Lue defending Iverson in the Finals)—and again in 2002. If the Cavs are going to make history repeat itself with their one-two punch, though, who does Irving need to be?

Dutiful little brother, scoring but still deferring to James in every other way?

Feisty little brother, starting to tell people what to do?

Brazen little brother, believing the team needs every right and wrong he has to offer to overcome the human-nature complacency that sets in after winning?

Exactly what pitch is perfect for Irving as a new defending champion will be determined by him, but also by James and Lue, and even by whether Love's ego is bigger or smaller now.

Irving is not taking anyone's hand-me-downs any more, regardless.

His coach certainly doesn't want him to, and that same coach vividly recalls how his other defending champion team only repeated because the "Mamba mentality" drove everyone forward.


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinDing.


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