It’s not a great idea to compare an athlete’s relationship with a team and fans to relationships in real life. While some parallels exist, the differences are too glaring to make the analogy work. You get no say in where you’re drafted to and ultimately this is a job for the players. But even with that being said, a bond is formed between a player and a fan base and when that bond is broken, it can bring out feelings comparable to what one might feel in a relationship.
When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers, this hurt was clear for the world to see. With the date and time of the announcement scheduled in advance, people gathered in bars to nervously drink and wait to hear the future of their franchise. When the heartbreak was delivered, they poured out into the streets where cameras were waiting to document their immediate reaction.
While the hurt was real, the separation ended up benefiting both parties. James was able to go to a more stable situation and learned that even a player as talented as he is needs to make sacrifices and adapt to win. The Cavs were forced to look at themselves in the mirror and try to rebuild without the cheat code that is LeBron James.
At the time of the return, both parties were in a better position than they would have been if they stayed together. The Cavs had a boatload of assets and talented young players, while James was more mature and ready to teach the team how to win.
Most departures in the NBA don’t come with these fairy tale endings. LeBron made a difficult decision to leave and hurt a lot of feelings in the process. With nothing being assured in the NBA, the Miami Heat won far fewer titles than most figured when the ‘Big Three’ were assembled. But James found the growth he was looking for both as a person and as a basketball player. Now, Kyrie Irving is looking to do the same.
It’s easy to view Irving’s decision as a selfish one. The ultimate measure of success in the NBA is championships and there are fewer better ways to position yourself to win one than by playing alongside LeBron.
But Irving is not only betting on himself, but that his next team will be able to put the pieces around him required to truly compete for a title.
Just as he never chose to be drafted by the Cavaliers, Irving never chose to play with LeBron. When he signed his five-year extension with the team, he was promised a role as the initiator of a pace and space offense. He was going to be the Steve Nash or Steph Curry that would make decisions on the fly in a free-wheeling offense. That all changed just 11 days after he signed.
The Cavs tried playing with Irving as a lead guard early in LeBron’s first year back. It was clear that he was not yet ready for that role and the growing pains were not going to be tolerated with the team’s newfound win-now mandate.
What followed is what we have seen for the past few years. A slow-paced offense where James initiates most of the Cavs sets in the half-court. With James, Irving plays primarily off-ball and makes his mark on the offense with spot up shooting and isolation attempts off of ball movement. Without James, Irving takes on the role of playmaker, though both the Cavs and Irving have fallen short in making those possessions work.
Throughout his tenure with the team Irving has had his share of doubters. There was clearly an adjustment period as he dealt with bad habits from his first three years. Four head coaches and offensive systems in his first five years probably didn’t help matters either. But while the criticisms ranged in validity, there wasn’t an absence of vocal support from the organization.
LeBron has talked on multiple occasions about his belief that Irving can become an MVP caliber player. In addition to that, David Griffin had been there to support Irving throughout his growth. His critiques of Irving were refreshingly honest. As evidenced in his interview with Fear the Sword:
I think his leadership piece has come a long way. He was a really young kid, even for his age because he only played 11 college games. The onus of winning and the mantle of ‘you must deliver’ was never on him. Everybody adjusts to that differently. He didn’t embrace that much to begin with, and I think he was trying to prove what he was capable of. It was less about making other people better, and I think he’s evolved now. He had a half where he had 10 assists, you know, he can do all of it. It’s just he chooses what he’s going to do or not do. In the Finals he figured out he is capable of playing offense and defense in the same game for 40 minutes. He pushed himself hard enough to do that. Ky is like a lot of young players, they like the path of least resistance.
That honesty was likely a big part of what helped Griffin manage the many personalities on the Cavs team. He didn’t shy away from telling it like it is and was transparent in his decision making. He and James had talked about handing over the reins to Irving in the future and by most reports Griffin was unwilling to include Irving in a trade.
But with this summer came uncertainty. The Cavs failed to make an impact move to narrow the gap between themselves and the Warriors and James has done nothing to quiet the rumors that he is looking to move on from the team in 2018. Plus Griffin is no longer with the team, meaning Irving has been through four coaches and three general managers in six years. Not exactly a shining beacon of stability for the future if James were to leave.
While it seems the new front office still values Irving highly, the unwillingness to move Irving in a deal left with Griffin. According to an ESPN report, Irving was made available in trade talks and left in the dark:
What followed was a whirlwind, with the Cavs putting forth a series of trade packages looking to acquire either Butler or George. Some of these talks included Irving, which upset him even more when he found out about it, sources said. Previously, Griffin had worked to keep lines of communication with Irving open, but now Irving was in the dark.
With the gap between the Warriors and Cavs growing, uncertainty with LeBron’s future in Cleveland, and a new front office that doesn’t view him as untouchable, you start to understand why Irving requested a trade.
From looking at Irving’s preferred destinations it seems as though being the best player on his next team isn’t his top priority. But Irving would have the chance to be the maestro of an offense and shoulder the responsibility of running the team. It’s the same thing that was promised to him when he signed his extension with the Cavaliers. He doesn’t want to be viewed as a byproduct of the greatness of LeBron, rather one of the driving forces of a different team.
It’s hard to compare playing with James to playing with any other star. If you look at Golden State, Curry, Durant, Green, and Thompson are all credited as being essential pieces to the puzzle that lead to their success. While role players excel with James, there’s typically an adjustment for star players.
Kevin Love went from an All-Star and franchise player to people questioning if the Cavs could replicate his impact with Ryan Anderson or Channing Frye. Chris Bosh suffered from this in Miami and a lot of the success of Irving gets credited as being a product of playing with James.
Even after the request, there have been many who question if Irving can be a cornerstone piece. Whether or not he can be a true driving force on a team that wins it all. Or if he’s better off as a sidekick that provides his trademark scoring.
This is a question that would never be answered if he is playing alongside James. Historically he is viewed by most as being part of a tier that belongs to only he and Michael Jordan. While other stars Irving may play with might be better, they don’t carry the same mythos of James. Should James leave, Irving has little reason to believe the Cavs will display the stability needed to build a contender around him.
So Irving has chosen to take a gamble on himself. He’s proven that he can win in the role that’s he’s been in and is looking to prove that he can do more in another situation. The odds that he never finds a better situation than his current one are probably high, but it’s clear that his priority is trying to prove himself.
I’m not here to tell anybody how to feel. As a fan, I’m disappointed that it has come to this point. I think this will be different than “The Decision” in that both the Cavs and Irving will be worse off as a result of parting ways. I think he is capable of much more and will prove that elsewhere. But winning a championship requires a tremendous amount of luck and more than just reaching your potential as a player.
Ultimately I respect Irving’s decision. I suppose there’s a long shot possibility that he and the Cavs are able to work this out. But as someone who’s been along for the ride and seen the growth in Irving, I can respect that he looked inside himself and made a difficult decision to seek fulfillment as a professional.
He will always be an essential piece in the Cavs first ever championship and it’s hard to look at his tenure with anything other than positive feelings. Athletes don’t owe fans anything, but that doesn’t mean fans can’t get something out of the experience.
Irving provided entertainment in some of the darkest years of the Cavs franchise and sacrificed in order to end the drought. Even if it hurts, I can’t help but support his decision as someone that wishes the best for him.