The Kyrie Conundrum
The NBA truly is the league that never sleeps. After the “offseason” flurry of the draft, free agency, and summer league, a quiet period in the months leading up to the NBA season usually follows. Instead, news of Kyrie Irving’s trade demand sent shockwaves throughout the NBA world.
With three years left on his contract (including a player option after the second), a championship to his name, and a partnership with the world’s best player in LeBron James, NBA fans and media alike have been left to wonder why Irving would want out.
After hearing ESPN’s Brian Windhorst report that, among other reasons, Irving wanted a bigger focal role on a team, many pointed out the negative stats about Irving, like that the Cavaliers were outscored by 90 points in 574 minutes when Irving was on the floor without James, and that Cleveland went 78-152 in Kyrie’s first three seasons before James’ return. However, it’s important to note the conditions under which Kyrie has played in not only those three seasons, but throughout his time in Cleveland. The Cavaliers organization has been anything but stable. Don’t take it from me, take it from Irving’s teammate Richard Jefferson.
“He was a No. 1 pick right after LeBron, then he has three different coaches, then LeBron comes back, now there’s trade rumors, now it’s ‘LeBron’s leaving,’” Jefferson said on his “Road Trippin” podcast. “At some point in time, anybody would want some sort of stability, even if it’s the unknown.
“I don’t know if he asked to be traded. I don’t know this, but I will say that he’s had a tougher time, if you look at his start to where we are right now, of the ups and downs of a franchise, more than most. Even though we’ve been successful and even though we’ve won a championship and he’s been an All-Star, there’s still so much of a wave, and to be like, ‘Yo, we’re going to sit here for a whole year on whether or not LeBron’s coming back,’ that’s got to be tough on anybody — everybody.”
Jefferson doesn’t even cover all the instability here. Irving’s current coach, Tyronn Lue, is his fourth coach in six years in the league. Cleveland also just hired Koby Altman as general manager, the third of Irving’s tenure, after firing David Griffin, with whom Irving was close, four days before this year’s NBA draft.
A deeper look into the teams on Irving’s preferred list of destinations: the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, and New York Knicks, shows that being the number one option might not be all Kyrie Irving’s looking for.
Although Irving might still take a backseat to Kawhi Leonard in San Antonio, the Spurs have what could be described as the NBA’s most stable organization of the 21st century. In Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, Miami has had one of the league’s most stable organizations for the past decade-plus. Karl Anthony-Towns and Irving’s Team USA running mate Jimmy Butler would likely be ahead of him in the pecking order in Minnesota but head coach and president of basketball operations Tom Thibodeau has previously reached high-level success in the league and is under contract for four more years. Irving would almost certainly be the number one option over Kristaps Porzingis in New York but they offer him a chance to play close to home.
The Knicks aside, these organizations offer far greater stability than Irving has seen to this point in his NBA career and that could be just what he seeks as he attempts to move on from Cleveland.
While Irving’s detractors emphasize his inability to make those around him better and the lack of success the point guard had before James returned and without James on the court since his return, the situations he’s been placed in and his desires should also be taken into account.
Due to injury, Irving came into the league with only eleven collegiate games under his belt. Furthermore, he came into the league at just 19, didn’t turn 22 until March of his third year in the league (his last before James’ return to Cleveland), and only played 181 of a possible 230 games in that span. While injuries are a legitimate concern for Irving going forward, there’s no denying those missed games further limited his opportunities to develop as a point guard and floor general, the league’s most difficult position to adapt to.
Back in 2014, Irving inked his five-year extension, expecting to be the face of the Cavaliers franchise going forward. This changed just two weeks later, however, as James decided to return to Cleveland. Perhaps it’s the role Irving was forced into and the lack of development he’s been allowed as an all-around player that has him longing to leave James.
Think about it: due to his transcendent passing ability, James is Cleveland’s de-facto point guard, which in turn takes away more developmental playmaking opportunities from Irving. Instead of being able to learn from his mistakes and develop into an elite playmaker and floor leader, Irving’s role has been to hunt for buckets because James takes care of the rest for him. Many will cite how Irving’s usage rate and scoring numbers increase even further with James off the floor without the Cavaliers seeing any team success but it’s possible that Irving simply feels more pressure to score and make up for the scoring void that James leaves when he goes to the bench.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Cavaliers as currently constructed were built for James and around his strengths, not Irving’s. Outside of James and Tristan Thompson, the Cavaliers don’t have many strong defensive players that can both cover for Irving and push him to improve on that end of the floor. If James leaves after next season, why would Irving want to stick around with what’s left of a team that doesn’t fit his skill-set and needs?
It’s important to remember that Irving is only 25 years-old. There’s still plenty of room for his game to grow and another step that he could take. Maybe the coaching staffs and environments of San Antonio or Minnesota would force Irving to improve his defense and playmaking abilities, the two biggest criticisms of his game. Maybe going to New York or Miami and struggling to make the playoffs or get out of the first or second round would teach Irving that he has to improve other aspects of his game in order to take his team to further heights.
Irving clearly has one of the highest ceilings in the NBA. Whether he wants to leave to be the man, find more stability, or is simply sick of LeBron James, a change of scenery could provide Irving with the chance to elevate himself into the conversation of the top 5-15 players in the league. He already has the elusive ring that so many players strive their whole careers for, so why not try and find out just how good he can be?