Irving wants to be the main star
In seeking trade, Cavs guard is willing to leave behind enviable role supporting James
Every player in the NBA would do just about anything to play alongside LeBron James and experience the accompanying trips deep into the playoffs.
Every player, that is, except for Kyrie Irving.
News broke Friday — first reported by ESPN.com and later confirmed by The Washington Post and others — that Irving has demanded a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and, in doing so, is willing to step away from that coveted role of playing next to James.
So what gives? First, it should be noted that this isn’t exactly a surprise. There has been tension among the Cavaliers since James returned to Cleveland — a move that came less than two weeks after Irving committed to a five-year maximum contract extension on the opening night of free agency in 2014. When Irving signed that deal, he and the Cavaliers envisioned him being the face of the franchise.
Then James decided to go back to Northeast Ohio, and the plans to feature Irving understandably were set aside. It has worked out beautifully — Irving has thrived playing next to James, winning a championship, becoming a shoe-selling star and being the face of the upcoming version of the NBA 2K video game.
But what’s clear is that Irving’s desire to be the face of a franchise has never gone away, and after three years biding his time, he doesn’t want to wait any longer.
The problem is the timing. There has been speculation for weeks that James is considering leaving Cleveland next summer, when both Irving and Cavaliers forward Kevin Love will be a year away from free agency. If James decides to go to Los Angeles or elsewhere, no one would question the two remaining stars if they went to ownership and asked to be moved as well. Such a move would make sense for both the players and the team, allowing the Cavaliers to begin a full rebuild by presumably recouping a decent collection of assets.
Irving’s decision to do this now, though, raises all kinds of questions. Most notably, what does it say about him if he doesn’t want to play alongside James? Sure, whenever someone is on the same team as the world’s best player — and one of the greatest figures in league history — he will be at least slightly obscured. Yet doing so also represents an almost-guaranteed path to the NBA Finals year after year, which Irving wasn’t exactly doing in winning 21, 24 and 33 games in his first three professional seasons before James arrived.
And it’s not as if Irving has seen his stardom diminished by James’s arrival. If anything, it has been enhanced. He hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history in 2016 with his three-pointer in the final minute of Game 7 of the Finals, delivering Cleveland its first major pro sports title in more than 50 years.
Irving could point to Cleveland’s messy summer as a reason for leaving. While owner Dan Gilbert reportedly is promoting Koby Altman to the general manager’s job, he has left Altman, who has served as the interim GM, hanging for the past month. This comes after Gilbert failed to extend predecessor David Griffin and let both Griffin and assistant GM Trent Redden walk after three straight Finals trips. Still, the Cavaliers will remain massive favorites to make it back to the Finals next June, barring an injury to James.
In many ways, this decision by Irving feels analogous to the one Irving’s idol, Kobe Bryant, made when he asked to be traded rather than play alongside Shaquille O’Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers. This is the kind of situation players are constantly trying to angle their way into, not the other way around.
Regardless of Irving’s motive, the focus will shift to how the Cavaliers respond. The most logical solution? Do what the Lakers did both times Bryant asked to be traded: nothing.
As things stand, will the Cavaliers win a championship again next season? Probably not. But remember, there was a 20-minute window in Washington this year when the Golden State Warriors thought Kevin Durant would be lost for the season. If he had been, who is to say Cleveland couldn’t have won a second straight title? In fact, the Cavaliers might have been the favorites.
That’s why Cleveland is firmly in control of this situation. If a deal presents itself that allows the Cavaliers to move Irving for the kind of two-way perimeter players necessary to take on the Warriors, then they can do it. And, if not, Cleveland can simply run it back with a team virtually guaranteed to return to the NBA Finals from the East.
Which brings us back to Irving and both his timing and thought process, neither of which makes much sense.
As every star-level player in the NBA searches for clearer ways to compete for titles, Irving has chosen another path, seeking to step away from the best job in basketball to go his own way. It is a bold decision, one that is just the latest shocking moment in an offseason full of them, and it could lead to him becoming the sixth all-star from last season — along with Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, Paul George, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap — to change teams this summer.
All of those players joined teams with better chances to win next season and beyond — just like Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dwight Howard, James and others before them.
Irving, on the other hand, would be guaranteed to wind up in a worse situation elsewhere. He would, however, get what he wants: his own team and all of the spotlight — and scrutiny — that comes with it.
Kyrie Irving, above, has been LeBron James’s Cleveland running mate since 2014, but now the guard has asked to be dealt.