Kyrie Irving wants to spread his wings and show he can run a team, but the organizations he gave Cleveland say otherwise.
Last Friday, Kyrie Irving rattled the NBA world when reports surfaced of him asking the Cleveland Cavaliers for a trade. He gave the team four preferred destinations: San Antonio, Minnesota, Miami and New York. The thesis was simple — he no longer wants to be Robin to LeBron James’ Batman. Irving and LeBron have had a scintillating three-year run as teammates. Since the return in 2015, Cleveland has gone to three-straight Finals and brought home the title in 2016, partly thanks to Irving’s heroics in Game 7.
Kyrie’s had his fair share of moments despite playing in James’ shadow. He’s averaged 22.4 points and 5.3 assists in 200 regular season games with a true shooting percentage of 57.2 and a PER of 21.7. Irving puts up incredible scoring numbers because he’s the NBA’s most gifted ball handler and can make shots that make professional H.O.R.S.E players jealous. He’s also a killer. Irving’s the guy who James can give the ball to if they need a clutch bucket down the stretch. Kyrie is a much better shot creator than James. It’s just how it is.
Sometimes, the Cavaliers put the ball in Irving’s hands and let him work. That’s an invaluable skill. Once he gets hot, it’s all over. He’s his own worst enemy at that point.
If it weren’t for the Golden State Warriors, we’d be talking about James and Irving as one of the greatest duos ever. I firmly believe that. During LeBron’s first stint with the Cavaliers, he didn’t have anyone half as good Irving was this past season. Uncle Drew poured in 25.2 points a night while shooting 47.3 percent overall and 40.1 from three. Mo Williams posted 17.8 and shot a scorching 43.6 percent from three in 2009. It was a superb season, but we’re all picking 2017 Kyrie over Mo.
Things changed once James went to the Miami Heat. Unfortunately, Dwyane Wade wasn’t the same player, and LeBron still had to foster a heavy load because of Wade’s battles with injuries. Flash put up 25.5 points a night during their first season, and the averages decreased every year afterward — 22.1, 21.2, 19.0. It was different in the postseason, but Irving’s tantalizing offensive displays were far more lethal than Wade’s, but that in and of itself created issues.
When James was shouldering the load on offense, Wade could impact the game in other ways. If Kyrie isn’t scoring, he’s useless. And this is where becoming his version of Batman could create problems if the situation isn’t right. The first — and most glaring — red flag is Irving’s laughable defense. He had the 10th-lowest defensive box plus/minus among players with at least 2,000 minutes played. As for the team aspect, Cleveland was 3.2 points better per 100 possessions when he sat compared to when he didn’t, 108.6 to 111.8.
Why is this? Well, with most high usage players, they focus so much of their energy on offense that defense gets bumped to second place. That’s not a bad thing necessarily because we tend to give guys like Irving or Stephen Curry or Isaiah Thomas a pass because they’re jaw-dropping scorers. It’s also easier to hide when the team defense is good. The Cavaliers didn’t have that. Any team who trades for Kyrie is going to need a ton of help behind him, but smart people work in NBA front offices, and I’m sure they know that.
In short, Irving got lucky with LeBron’s return because he didn’t need to run the show anymore, even though it’s what he supposedly wants to do. In his first three years, Cleveland won 21, 24 and 33 games. Irving was the guy for those campaigns, and it’s wrong to blame all of their struggles on him. The first reason is that he was younger and not close to the star he is now. It takes generational-type talents to alter franchises right out of college. He was still a player to build around, though. Secondly, the dysfunction and roster composition weren’t advantageous to a score-first point guard.
Also Read: Knicks, Wolves Willing To Make Moves For Kyrie
Dion Waiters was their second-best player in 2014. After him, it was Tristan Thompson as the only other consistent producer. The next year is when LeBron came back, and Irving was better suited to play toward his strengths.
Basketball-Reference uses win shares as a metric to measure a player’s contribution. I wouldn’t base an entire argument on it — or any statistic — but it’s a nice way to tell how much of an impact someone made. In 2014 Irving’s win shares were 6.7 before jumping to 10.4 in 2015. That’s a testament to LeBron, but it’s because he knew how to play with Irving. He kept his protege happy by continuing to feed him, and Kyrie benefitted because not all of the attention was focused on him. This season, Irving actually attempted more shots per game than James — 19.7 to 18.2.
LeBron made Irving’s life easier by making him worry less, and vice versa. Great players alleviate duties from each other, and that’s something you’ll see throughout history — Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen; Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal (and then Pau Gasol); Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
I don’t fault Kyrie for wanting to spread his wings. He’s entering the prime of his career, and it’s okay that he wants to be selfish. However, moving to the wrong spot may leave him unhappier than he is now.
I’ll start with San Antonio because everyone would love to play for Gregg Popovich. Irving wouldn’t be “the guy” on that roster. There’s no way. San Antonio spent four years preparing Kawhi Leonard to take the torch from Duncan, and they’re too smart of an organization to undo that in one summer. Not only has Leonard earned his spot as the first-option, but he’s a better player than Kyrie Irving. One’s an MVP candidate, and one isn’t. One’s a more well-rounded player and one isn’t. It would be similar to playing with LeBron except Kawhi isn’t the same level playmaker.
Nothing I said in the paragraph above means Kyrie wouldn’t succeed. In fact, it’d be absorbing to watch Popovich work him into that system. Irving buried 47.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, per Synergy. (Technically, it was third-best, but Jordan Farmar and Josh Huestis only played two games this past season.) On top of that, Irving is malleable by coming off screens or cutting, where he finished in the 85th and 96th percentile, respectively. We know Irving’s going to get buckets, and the Spurs are a strong enough defense to hide him. However, my apprehension about him feeling how he feels in Cleveland won’t go away.
Irving’s alleged superiority complex would also follow him to Minnesota. It’d be worse, actually. Instead of being the second-option full-time, he’d likely get dropped down to third. Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler are both better players. Andrew Wiggins might also make a leap, and who knows if he reaches his ceiling. If he does, the Wolves would be scary, but Kyrie could become more disgruntled as his touches keep decreasing.
Also Read: Minnesota Wants To Go All In On Wiggins
He doesn’t like being a sidekick to LeBron even though he’s getting nearly 20 shots a night with the NBA’s ninth-highest usage rate, so imagine how he’d feel getting maybe 15 looks with a usage rate potentially five points lower. Oh, what also might hurt is Minnesota’s lack of success.
With Cleveland or San Antonio, Irving is a key piece of a contender. We don’t know how good the Wolves are going to be, and losing makes everything worse.
Now is where it gets interesting. Irving wouldn’t mind going to New York or Miami, both of which are big markets in a weak conference. The Knicks are hopefully going to start their rebuild sooner or later, whereas Miami is on the cusp of being a middle-seed playoff team. I can’t imagine Irving wanting to waste the prime of his career on a bottom-feeder, no matter how big the role is. I also don’t think the Knicks would take him over Kristaps Porzingis as their franchise player. There’s also the mentorship role he’d have to play to Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks rookie point guard. New York will have to ask themselves if Irving’s the guy they’d want as the “veteran” guard.
One thing is for sure, though — Kyrie would re-energize New York City basketball. The flair and entertainment value is there, and he’d undoubtedly sell tickets, which, over winning, appears to be the owner’s agenda.
The last place Irving said he’d go was Miami. The Heat need his kind of talent desperately. Last season, Erik Spoelstra did an incredible job taking Miami from 11-30 to 41-41, where they fell just short of making the postseason. They did it with defense. The Heat finished fifth in points per game allowed (102.1) and defensive rating (106.7), and guys like Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson and Tyler Johnson were vital on that end; if Justise Winslow were healthy, the Heat would’ve had the chance to be the NBA’s best defensive team.
On the other end, though, they struggled. At 103.2 points, Miami landed at 21st in scoring. Kyrie would give their offense a dramatic facelift. It’d be similar to how it is now with Cleveland, except Irving would continue to get any shot he wanted, and he wouldn’t have to worry about sharing with a handful of guys. Furthermore, he’d be hidden on defense and could just focus on scoring.
This deal, however, doesn’t seem likely. Zach Lowe wrote in a piece the other day that the Cavaliers are looking for a “blue-chip young player,” something the Heat do not have.
Whether or not a trade is coming, the Cavaliers and LeBron James are bracing for it. Depending on what the return is, parting with Kyrie could be detrimental to Cleveland’s championship aspirations. They’d still be the favorites to come out of the East, thanks to number 23, but getting past Golden State, Houston or San Antonio in a seven-game series with any less than three stars is unlikely.
The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion described Irving’s situation as a “reverse Kevin Durant.” There’s no better phrasing. Kyrie wants to show everyone that he can do it by himself, whereas Durant joined with the greatest regular season team of all time. It’s still a weird thing to want, though. In Cleveland, Irving plays in the shadow of LeBron but doesn’t like being his sidekick. James — the best player of this generation — is the leader, but Kyrie is more of a 1B to a 1A, not a “sidekick” necessarily.
Type “sidekick definition” into Google. The answer you get is “a person’s assistant or close associate, especially one who has less authority than that person.” On the surface, that sounds like Irving. James is the more domineering player when it comes to off-court dealings and consultation, but, on the court, the disparity isn’t that grand, and that’s why Irving’s a 1B.
Not only did Kyrie get more shots during the regular season, but his usage was also higher than James’, 30.8 to 30.0. Irving also held the ball longer (4.85 seconds to 4.12) and averaged 79 touches to LeBron’s 89 (88.7), according to Synergy.
If he no longer wants to play alongside LeBron James, that’s fine. I applaud the overconfidence that Kyrie has by thinking he can lead a team. The results won’t be the same on either side, and I believe that there’s the chance Irving gets upset if his new franchise doesn’t succeed.
Playing alongside the second-greatest player of all-time (that’s my opinion, by the way) is an honor and not something to be taken lightly. Kyrie doesn’t want that anymore and, although it’s silly, he’s looking out for his legacy. He doesn’t want to retire and have people remember him as LeBron’s sidekick. Frankly, I don’t think that’d happen. Yes, we’d mention James, but Shaq and Kobe, Michael and Scottie, Kareem and Magic all get talked about as duos because they were instrumental in each other’s success.
This entire fiasco might blow over. It also might not. The Cavaliers don’t have to do anything because they have Irving under contract for two more seasons. If they do, I’m sure they’re going to ask LeBron first because moving a player of Irving’s caliber is not something to take lightly. Another possibility is that James and Kyrie sit down and have a grown man talk where LeBron reiterates how important Irving is to the Cavaliers and also how he does things that James can’t.
Irving needs the right pieces around him to lead any team, and LeBron extracts the most out of him. Leaving in this fashion isn’t the greatest idea, but that’s Kyrie’s prerogative. We’ll see what happens during the regular season; maybe, just maybe Irving gets so fed-up he plays with an untucked jersey every game. That’d boost his trade value exponentially, and Cleveland would be able to start fresh with young players because James would book his ticket to Los Angeles the day they traded Kyrie.
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