In this Age of Superteams, Kyrie Irving’s decision to walk away from LeBron James and the Cavaliers is out of tune with the rest of the NBA. Everyone else is mad when they don’t have a superstar teammate, and then they wind up working the levers to land one or to land where one or two are already in place.
Irving already has the best player in the world in LeBron and a very good power forward in Kevin Love. Together, they’ve been to three straight NBA Finals and won a championship. Kyrie was integral in winning that championship — and he earned plenty of recognition along the way and in the aftermath.
Irving won an NBA All-Star starting nod via fan vote this year despite Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, and Kyle Lowry having superior cases. Irving was in the top five in jersey sales in 2017, as well, above every point guard peer except Stephen Curry. He has the second best-selling signature shoe in the NBA, behind only LeBron. In other words, he isn’t exactly toiling in obscurity.
Irving reportedly wants to be a centerpiece like Wall and Damian Lillard are for their teams and he might want to be careful about that desire. Lillard has been wrecked by the Warriors in the past two postseasons and is a perennial all-star snub. Wall is just coming into his true fame, and has never been beyond the second round of the NBA playoffs. Maybe Dame and Wall are featured on more posters around their teams’ arenas, but they are both underexposed nationally.
(They don’t even take many more shots per game than Kyrie! Lillard beat Irving in that category by 0.1 field goal attempts per game; Wall was 1.3 FGAs behind Kyrie this season.)
Despite all of this — despite the fact that more kids wear Kyrie’s jersey than all but four other guys, despite the fact that more people wear Kyrie’s shoes than anyone else’s except those of LeBron, despite the fact that he’s a four-time All-Star, one-time All-NBA player with a championship and max contract -- he still wants out from under LeBron’s shadow.
All that really helps define Kyrie and who he is. But it also says something about LeBron.
For so long there existed a cold war between those who believed LeBron was the unimpeachable model for how modern superstars should conduct their business and those who didn’t.
James was a wonderful and willing passer, and a chameleon willing to play roles as needed. Maybe he didn’t like banging with bigs in small lineups, but he’d do it if it needed to be done. In crunch time situations, he was just as likely to kick out to a teammate — a Donyell Marshall, a Chris Bosh, a Kyrie Irving — as he was to try to score himself.
This was presented as an alternative vision to the stars he followed, mainly personified by Kobe Bryant. Kobe rarely passed up a big shot. Kobe was not known for boosting his teammates — he was, in fact, infamous for burying them. Ask Shaq circa 2004, or Andrew Bynum three years later.
This comparison became an integral part of each star’s narrative: no star would sign with the Lakers in Kobe’s later years because no one wanted to play with Kobe. Meanwhile, LeBron could form a superteam at will because he was such a benevolent captain. LeBron was the antidote to an era of hero ball.
Yet, Kyrie is a product of the era of hero ball. He is a son of Iverson, a student of the Black Mamba. Many current stars were. You find far more current NBA players touting the legend of Kobe than you will reminiscing about watching LeBron play.
That’s primarily a factor of age. For players who are in their mid-20s, their formative basketball years coincided with Kobe’s reign, Iverson’s heyday, as well as Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter’s brilliant runs. In a few years, we’ll have more sons of LeBron in the league. But not yet.
There are more Kyries out there. There are other stars who would bristle at living in LeBron’s massive shadow, who would feel as though no matter the accolades they receive, or the money they earn, they were being shortchanged. There are more players who want exclusive glory, even if the glory comes less frequently. Kyrie isn’t alone.
But he’s the first true star to say no to LeBron, and he did it after living at the right hand of the King for three wildly successful years. For so long, many of us presumed that LeBron’s basketball nature made life inside his court easy. Perhaps that wasn’t an accurate assessment. Perhaps for a star who considers himself an equal to LeBron, living in the shadow is more tortuous than losing 50 games a year.
Kyrie may soon get the chance to remember what the latter feels like.