Irv­ing wants to be the main star

In seek­ing trade, Cavs guard is will­ing to leave be­hind en­vi­able role sup­port­ing James

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASHINGTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - BY TIM BON­TEMPS tim.bon­temps@wash­post.com

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.

TY­RONE SIU/REUTERS

Kyrie Irv­ing, above, has been LeBron James’s Cleve­land run­ning mate since 2014, but now the guard has asked to be dealt.

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