Kyrie Irving and LeBron James were always an arranged marriage. So if there is ever any confusion over why Irving demanded a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers and no longer wants to play with James anymore, just understand: Irving never asked for this. James did all of the arranging.
Irving never would’ve been in position to clinch a title in Game 7 with that swinging, one-legged 3-pointer, never would’ve been able to hug the Larry O’Brien trophy or ride around shirtless along East 9th Street for a championship parade before his 25th birthday if James hadn’t decided that the best place to spend the post-Miami portion of his career was back home in Cleveland with an electrifying point guard whose ridiculous handles brought him almost everything except wins.
But James chose Irving. It wasn’t the other way around. And that’s something Irving always had to grapple with over the past three seasons as a reluctant sidekick.
While James’ presence elevated him to stages where Irving always felt he belonged and where he might still be hustling to reach, it came at tremendous cost in other areas that mattered to Irving. James’ homecoming in 2014 was celebrated nationally – and especially in Northeast Ohio – but it forced Irving to surrender a franchise to which he committed by signing a five-year extension two weeks before “The Decision II” and that, for as lousy as it was at the time, belonged to him.
Irving made headlines All-Star weekend in New Orleans last February, revealing a quirky side he often conceals, when he shared his ridiculous belief that the world is flat (an argument from which he still has yet to back away). During that weekend, Irving also spoke about what it meant to have James join the Cavaliers at a time when he was still trying to understand the responsibilities of a leader and potential franchise player.
“I was trying to figure it out all at once, so it took a while. It didn’t look perfect. A lot of the arrogance that I had, and aura I had, I had to let go of completely,” Irving said. “And let go of that complete ego, the selfishness that we all want to have and being that player every single night. The truth is, you can still be that player with other great players, you’ve just got to think about how to do that.”
In his mind, Irving is a leading man. But he would never get the starring role in a show that James is writing and directing. He’d always be eclipsed. The Mamba Mentality that pushed Irving to challenge Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one before he made his NBA debut and to later hit the biggest shot in Cavaliers franchise history is the same one that made him anxious for the moment when he would finally stop having to defer.
The wins were fun but they weren’t enough, because they came with so much extra James sauce – an angry glare for looking him off, an eye roll for a missed defensive assignment and a sometimes joyless atmosphere, especially in the early, dramatic days of this union. James and Irving butted heads at times on the floor. And, other times off the court, James struggled to get Irving on board with his other teammates. Though he accepted it, Irving resented being the little brother.
After Cleveland upset the Golden State Warriors with that thrilling comeback from a 3-1 deficit in 2016, James and Irving were on such good terms that coach Tyronn Lue could crack jokes about the two of them fighting without igniting the next controversy or having anyone take it seriously. But after the Cavaliers lost in five games to the Warriors in a three-match that feels a lot longer ago than last month given this wild NBA offseason, that relationship seems to be more transactional than transformative. If they can’t help each other win, then why do they need each other anymore?