Kyrie Irving's ascent to superstardom—the good, bad and ugly of it—began in earnest at All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, circa 2014.
Amid a dazzling showcase of the league's rising talent, Irving stood above the rest and raised the All-Star MVP trophy at half court. LeBron James, then a member of the Miami Heat, gushed about Irving's ability, intellect and artistry. It seemed only a matter of time before James and Irving would join forces and expand their relationship into the championship realm.
Sure enough, that's what happened.
"Kyrie's special," James said that night in New Orleans. "It's just that simple—very special basketball player, very smart basketball player. His ability to shoot the ball, get into the lane, make shots around the rim; he has the total package. I've always known that, always witnessed that ever since he was in high school."
That summer, James returned home to Cleveland. Despite all the touchy-feely reasons he gave in his famous Sports Illustrated essay, joining forces with Irving was one of the most significant factors. They ventured thrice to the NBA Finals and won a championship together in 2016 before Irving was sent to Boston in a blockbuster trade.
The exact details of Irving's role in how that transaction went down have not yet been revealed. Whether it was Irving who wanted out or someone else who wanted him out, we may never know.
Which brings us to the current version of Irving, whose intentions and desires as a basketball superstar are as mysterious as ever.
After two disappointing seasons in Boston—one that ended with an injured Irving watching as James and the Cavs ousted the Celtics in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, and one that ended with Irving seeming to be thoroughly over being a Celtic—we pose the following question:
What does Irving want?
To go with his immense talent and often curious statements ("The Earth is flat," and "I'm an actual genius when it comes to this game"), he also carries with him a most impenetrable facade. Of all the superstars hitting the free-agent market in mere hours, he joins Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant as the most difficult ones to figure out.
"In Cleveland, he decided, 'I don't want to be in LeBron's shadow,'" a person in the league who knows Irving told B/R. "Then a year-and-a-half later, he realized what comes with that in terms of media attention and decided that's not what he wants, either."
At 27 and on the cusp of a massive free-agent payday, what does Irving want that he doesn't already have?
Money? If that were it, he would stay in Boston and collect an extra $49 million with a five-year, $189.7 million deal (as opposed to the four years and $140.6 million that other teams can offer him).
At a preseason tipoff event at TD Garden in October, Irving told fans, "I plan on re-signing here." But that was before the Celtics' ill-fitting roster and mismatched egos endured a tumultuous season that culminated in a second-round playoff loss. As ESPN's Jackie MacMullan pointed out, Irving's time as a Celtic seems to have run its course, as he frequently voiced his frustrations with his young teammates' lack of championship work ethic and know-how.
If another championship is what Irving wants, he should go to the Lakers, where he would form a Big Three with James and Anthony Davis. But in doing so, he would have to be willing to fade into the background and cede the spotlight to two other superstars—not to mention patch things up with LeBron.
"I just don't think he really knows what he wants to do," another person in the league who knows Irving told B/R. "He's kind of an aloof guy, does things on his terms and is a brilliant kid. He's got a little [Rajon] Rondo in him if that makes sense. Kyrie is a similar type of guy. He's kind of in his own little world."
Which brings us to the last thing that Irving could potentially want: his own little world.
"I think going to Brooklyn and making it his own team at the end of the day is what he wants," a Western Conference exec said. "Going to Brooklyn for him is the next step in his career. He's already got a ring, and he can write his own legacy there. And if he can get KD to go there, even better."
As was speculated throughout this past season, Irving has continued to lobby Durant to join him in New York—though not on the team that plays in the borough of Manhattan, a person familiar with Irving's overtures told B/R. Either way, it's a win-win for Irving in Brooklyn. If Durant joins him, he will get credit for recruiting the best free agent the franchise has ever signed. If Durant doesn't, he will be the best free agent the franchise has ever signed.
With that kind of status will come star treatment—the type of treatment that James enjoyed in Cleveland but Irving was never afforded.
"When LeBron was there, he had full run of the arena," a person familiar with the team dynamics at the time said. "LeBron and his crew did what they wanted. When LeBron left and Kyrie came in as a No. 1 pick, Kyrie was pissed because they put a stop to all that. Going to Brooklyn, he's going to have that first-class treatment and get a taste of what LeBron had."
If that happens, will the real Kyrie Irving finally reveal himself to the basketball universe? It's hard to say, as the notion of who he is and what will make him content is the biggest mystery of free agency.