Is Kyrie Irving a Coach Killer?

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterMarch 10, 2020

Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving (11) and head coach Kenny Atkinson, left, stand on the court in the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
Brandon Dill/Associated Press

Kyrie Irving has become one of the most polarizing players in the NBA. He already reached the pinnacle of the league at age 24, dropping 40-plus points in the NBA Finals while hitting one of the biggest shots in championship history. From his Uncle Drew character to a vastly popular signature shoe, Irving built himself into one of the most well-liked players in the league.

Since then, he's publicly failed as a leader and No. 1 option after leaving LeBron James' side, flaming out with the Boston Celtics after just two seasons (injuries partially to blame) and already watching a coach leave in his first year with the Brooklyn Nets.

The book on Irving, 27, isn't near completion, so why does it feel like his reputation has already plummeted? 

With Kenny Atkinson and the Nets officially parting ways Saturday and Jacque Vaughn taking over, it will mean Irving's seventh coach in nine seasons.

He's never played for a head coach longer than two seasons, including spending just a single year (or less) with Mike Brown and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013-14 and 62 games under Atkinson now. With Vaughn tabbed as an interim, it likely means Irving will have his eighth head coach when he begins season No. 10 this fall.

Irving's not the sole reason Atkinson is out in Brooklyn, according to Shams Charania and Alex Schiffer of The Athletic: "[Kevin] Durant and Irving never connected with Atkinson, and there was a growing belief that they did not have interest in playing for him when this team is whole again next season."

Atkinson had become one of the league's most respected coaches, lifting a Nets squad from the ashes of the botched Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade in June 2013 and into the playoffs last season. Chemistry was at an all-time high, and player development was among the NBA's best.

Before playing under Atkinson, Irving started with two seasons under Byron Scott, one under Brown and a season-and-a-half with David Blatt. Tyronn Lue then coached Irving for another one-and-a-half years before Irving was traded to the Celtics in 2017.

It was perceived that Irving took a shot at Lue when he stated on the Holding Court with Geno Auriemma podcast he was "unbelievably craving" an intellectual mind like Brad Stevens as a head coach, although that partnership would only last two seasons as well.

Is Irving truly a coach killer, though? Context is needed.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Scott's Cavaliers got worse in his third season, prompting then-general manager Chris Grant to make a change. Hiring Brown back was a mistake, a move based on the relationship between Grant and Brown and the memories of past successes with James.

Blatt was hired to coach a young team led by Irving and Andrew Wiggins. But the return of James and the desperation to win a championship ultimately doomed the first-time NBA head coach's tenure in Cleveland. Again, not Irving's fault.

The next two coaches, Lue and Stevens, still held their jobs when Irving left. Lue helped guide Irving and the Cavaliers to the 2016 championship.

While the breakup of Atkinson and the Nets may have had some influence from Irving, labeling him a coach killer would be unfair.

Unfortunately, we've already seen the last of Irving this season. Shoulder surgery has limited his season to just 20 games. The next time he plays he should have Durant alongside him.

After trying to be the focal point of a team for the past three years, this is what Irving needs. As supremely talented as he is, his ceiling is the second-best player on a championship team. It's a role he's proved to be successful in and one he'll once again return to alongside a healthy Durant.

"LeBron took so much pressure off of him. Kyrie's so damn talented—he's got a great left, a great right. He's got the ball in his hands a lot, but you can play him off the ball. When you have a player like LeBron, it makes it so much easier for Kyrie to do things," one NBA scout told Bleacher Report.

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 7:  Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Three of the 2017 NBA Finals on June 7, 2017 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USE
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

While Durant isn't close to the playmaker James is, Irving's development as a point guard the past three years means he doesn't have to be.

Irving was posting the highest assist percentage of his career this season (37.2 percent), along with the lowest turnover rate (10.1 percent). He did this with a usage rate of 32.7 percent, the biggest workload of his career. In three seasons alongside James, Irving's usage dipped to 28.6 percent, a decent number for someone whose body has suffered from a multitude of injuries in recent years.

Having Durant on the court means shifting the pressure off Irving, allowing him to do what he does best: create off the dribble, shoot open threes and dazzle crowds with his incredible ball-handling.

While he has butted heads with teammates in the past, many still go to bat for him.

"I don't doubt Kyrie one bit, man. He's a good teammate, challenging at times," Channing Frye, Irving's former teammate in Cleveland, told B/R. "The more you talk to him and get to know him, he just wants to win. I'll take him on my team any day of the week."

Developing on- and off-court chemistry with Durant is crucial, and finding the right head coach will be key as well.

A reunion with Lue makes sense, and Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill reported Irving prefers him to be the next head coach. Their time together not only resulted in a championship but also included plenty of tough love that Irving probably didn't want at the time but should be more receptive of now.

It would also help erase the coach killer narrative, with a former head coach willingly signing on to lead him again—something that has yet to happen.

While Irving's reputation and popularity have taken a hit the past few years, he's only one productive season away from reclaiming his former status.