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Kyrie Irving Is Pulling a Reverse Kevin Durant

We roasted KD for teaming up with a historically good Warriors team, so shouldn’t we celebrate the Cavs point guard for betting on himself?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Reporter: What kind of parental role has [LeBron] played for you and your teammates?

Kyrie Irving: Parental role? I don’t know how to really answer that question. He’s been a great leader for us. I have one father. That’s my dad, Drederick Irving.

Kyrie Irving has demanded to be traded from the Cavaliers and LeBron James to a team where he can be The Man. He’s taking a risk. The league is more divided than ever; there are superteams, teams trying to be superteams, and teams that should tank. The best players in the NBA are trying to join forces, not separate. By publicly rebuking LeBron, Kyrie is gambling with his legacy. What will we say about Irving if, without a teammate as prodigiously talented as the King, he fails to reach the playoffs? Or gets bounced from the first round?

We’ll call him a one-dimensional gunner. We’ll note that he doesn’t make his teammates better. We’ll mention that his omission from the 2015–16 and 2016–17 All-NBA rolls was correct. We’ll disparage any take that calls him a top-15 player. And we’ll opine, loudly, on every platform available to us, that as a team’s best player he will never inhale the rarefied champagne-mingled-with-wet-carpet-and-sweat air of champions.

And that, my friends, is dope. That is what we want. It’s exactly what we’ve spent the past year complaining that players don’t do. Kyrie is courting failure on a scale that should command our respect.

Kevin Durant’s July 2016 move to an already historically dominant 73-win Warriors team was the NBA story of the past 12 months. The propriety of the move, its impact on the league, and the sour feelings it engendered in Oklahoma City have been debated endlessly. From Reddit to cable sports shows, from social media to the comments sections of blogs. Anywhere NBA fans gather, KD-to-the-Bay was discussed. And the criticism most commonly lobbed at Durant was some variation of, "He took the easy way out."

Kyrie’s trade demand is taking the hard way out. Yes, like KD last summer, Irving is demonstrating his agency and leveraging himself to create the outcome of his own choosing. But unlike Durant, Irving wants to make it harder on himself. He wants to succeed or fail on his terms. It’s probably foolish. But I love it.

Irving is one of the most mesmerizing scorers in the game. His style is an example of real-time problem-solving. Kyrie is 6-foot-3, more slippery than quick, and in possession of a negligible vertical leap. Many of the players Irving matches up against are bigger than him. Certainly, the vast majority of players he encounters on his snaking forays to the paint will be taller and stronger than him. But the heart wants what the heart wants. And beating like a double-pedal death-metal kick drum within Irving’s relatively unimposing point guard’s frame is the remorseless ticker of a scorer.

How does one get buckets in prodigious numbers at 6-foot-3 without the benefit of afterburner speed or rocket hops? By developing ankle-melting handles and a dancer’s footwork. It also helps to have an innate and, honestly, spooky understanding of the physics of the game. To know how spin and angle and touch can imbue a basketball with a life of its own.

Kyrie regularly makes shots of such high difficulty that they can be accurately described as "sorcery." Feast on this madness:

Professional sports careers are over in the blink of an eye. The average NBA career lasts less than five years. Kyrie is 25. He has been in the league six years and never played over 75 games, and three of those seasons were significantly curtailed by injuries — a broken finger and a facial fracture in 2012; a left shoulder sprain in 2013; a strained tendon in his left biceps in 2014; a right-foot strain in 2015; and various aches and pains blaring like warning lights from his surgically repaired left knee. In his one season at Duke, an injury to his toe after eight games kept him off the court until March. That’s a medical history worthy of concern.

Think about Irving’s three seasons before LeBron. He won only 78 games total and had two head coaches — one of whom, Byron Scott, led the Cavs to an unprecedented three consecutive bottom-five finishes in defensive efficiency. Kyrie had a feud over shots, touches, and all things related to the singular nature of the ball with Dion Waiters, of all people. Then, James arrived in 2014 and Irving got the requisite henpecking from one of the greatest to ever play: James aired him out to the press while Irving was sitting right there. He endured trade rumors and (along with Kevin Love) the lion’s share of the blame for losses. But of course the Cavaliers won. Three straight Finals appearances and the historic, 52-year-drought-ending chip in 2016.

On the face of it, Kyrie Irving has the best of all worlds. As a teammate of LeBron James, he’s virtually guaranteed a ride to the NBA Finals for as long as the King rules. (A guarantee that almost certainly wouldn’t exist on any of teams Irving has expressed interest in; his joining Minnesota might create a superteam, but it’d be a young one in a brutal Western Conference.) And he gets shots. This season, Irving took 19.7 attempts per game to James’s 18.2. It was the first time in LeBron’s career that he did not lead his team in attempts. Instead of pumping up shots, James, in his lion-in-autumn role, is merely the conductor, the hub of the team, controlling where the ball goes and when.

For Kyrie, who thrives with the rock magnetically attached to his hands, this is a sacrifice. Now the Cavaliers are a listing ship in a summer gale. David Griffin, architect of the greatest period in the team’s history, is gone after getting shamelessly lowballed by owner Dan Gilbert. Since 2005, when he took over the team, Gilbert has never given a general manager a second contract. LeBron has one year left on his contract and every sign indicates he’s eyeing an exit, perhaps to Los Angeles. With two years left on the contract extension he signed in 2014, Irving has to countenance another season of getting bitched at by LeBron, followed by a season holding the bag for an organization that’s in the midst of executing one of the most amazing self-owns in league history. From the Finals to Derrick Rose on a minimum in only two months. So Kyrie struck first.

Irving already has a championship, the one, argument-ending detail without which an NBA career is incomplete. And the time to find out how good he could be is right now. In a sense, his career has become a metaphor for his game. He’s a score-first point guard. No one thought he’d develop into the league’s most terrifying crunch-time iso threat — the type of player whose selfishness and egomaniacal confidence could win games at the highest level. To take the next step, he’ll need to become the facilitator no one thinks he can be and turn his defense up from disastrous to at least passable. The modern history of 6-foot-3-and-under point guards taking over 19 shots a game, outside of Steph Curry, does not inspire confidence. I do not think that Irving can be the best player on a contending team. Then again, back when I was watching him lose 50 games a season and grousing at Dion Waiters and dropping 40 on the Knicks, I never thought he’d be a player who could a win a title for his team. I don’t think Kyrie Irving can be the man. But I really want to watch him try.