I get why an elite point guard might have a problem being LeBron James’ long-term sidekick.
However, I wonder if Kyrie Irving will also have a problem realizing his potential in a post-LeBron career.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics completed a huge trade Tuesday night. Four-time All-Star Irving heads to Boston. The Cavaliers will get point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and what appears to be the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected 2018 first-round pick.
Irving, who played a single, injury-limited college season at Duke, requested a trade off the Cavs’ roster, despite that franchise advancing to the NBA Finals each of the past three post-seasons.
The Celtics will be very good next season, with Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and another Duke one-and-done player, rookie big man Jayson Tatum.
But no Eastern Conference team has reached the NBA Finals in seven seasons without James on the roster. I compare James to the queen piece on a chessboard; no one more controls the action at either end of the court. If a player is willing to defer to James’ greatness, that teammate will play basketball each season well into June.
Apparently, Irving was tired of going along for the ride. He wants to be more the focal point of a team. A point guard playing with James isn’t fully a point guard, in that James is always going to be the dominant ball-handler and decision-maker. A mark of James’ greatness is he is simultaneously the Cavs’ best power forward defensively and their best point guard offensively.
It’s hard to argue that Irving was deprived of opportunity playing with James; he averaged 25.2 points and 5.8 assists last season, shooting 47 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point line.
Irving can’t be oblivious to all the open looks James created for him. The end results were undeniable: The Cavs won three Eastern Conference championships and the franchise’s first NBA championship in the spring of 2016.
Irving was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. The Cavs never qualified for the playoffs during Irving’s first three seasons.
When all this came to fruition Tuesday night, I thought of something Ernie Johnson, host of TNT’s Inside the NBA, said to me a couple of weeks ago. I was interviewing Johnson because he also hosted TNT’s coverage of the PGA Championships, held at Charlotte’s Quail Hollow Club. We also chatted some NBA off-season.
Johnson noted numerous NBA greats played a decade or more without experiencing a season of the success Irving did partnering with James. Irving is having a “done that” moment, and wants something new.
That’s Irving’s business. Maybe he didn’t want to be left behind – he has at least two seasons remaining on his contract – if James decides to move on from the Cavs, as he did in 2010 by signing with the Miami Heat.
Irving is going to a good, young team. Now, the Celtics are HIS team.
The Celtics finished the 2016-17 regular season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, only to get rolled 4-1 by the Cavs in the Eastern Conference final. Boston lost two of those games by a combined margin of 77 points.
That’s the LeBron effect, and it’s sure to be amplified by the hard feelings between ex-teammates.
Irving will get a whole new perspective on James’ game. He might not enjoy that view at all.