“I had to call ’Bron, and tell him I apologize for being that young player that wanted everything at his fingertips.”
Last Wednesday, in a rare glimpse of the off-court interpersonal relationships between NBA players, Kyrie Irving told reporters that he was sorry, and that he called his former teammate LeBron James to say so. “I wanted to be the guy that led us to a championship. I wanted to be the leader. I wanted to be all that.”
Irving shared his private conversation with the media to publicly extinguish what he’d ignited with the Celtics days before. Following a loss the week before, Irving said, “The young guys don’t know what it takes to be a championship-level team.” He was heated, but almost immediately remorseful. Interestingly, Irving did damage control by righting a former wrong.
“He’s been in this situation,” Irving said of James on Wednesday, “been there with me, where I’ve been the young guy, been the 22-year-old kid, wanting everything, wanting everything right now.
“The responsibility of being the best player in the world and leading a team is something that’s not meant for many people. And ’Bron was one of those guys that came to Cleveland and tried to really show us what it’s like to win a championship. And it was hard for him. Sometimes getting the most out of the group is not the easiest thing in the world. Fewer are meant for it or chosen for it. And I felt like the best person to call was him.”
While Irving may be well intentioned in making that conversation public, his logic is a little backward. (It wouldn’t be the first time for Irving.) It’s counterproductive to apologize for putting Boston teammates on blast one day and share his call with James—a talk about how difficult it can be to work with young kids—the next. He’s basically saying I made things hard on James, and I see that now because these young guys are making it hard on me.
But regardless of Irving’s lack of finesse, he’s been quietly examining the dynamic between veterans and young players all season. “Right now,” Irving said in November, “I think it would be nice if we had someone that was a 15-year vet, a 14-year vet that could kind of help us race along the regular season and understand it’s a long marathon rather than just a full-on sprint.” (James had just begun his 16th season.) Irving is, as evidenced by the call itself, constantly evolving how he thinks. He’s 26, living out the ups and downs of a challenge he asked for.
Irving’s separation from the Cavs in 2017 was an unambiguous result of Irving’s wish to separate himself from James. The duo had been together for three seasons, since James had returned from Miami in 2014 to rejoin a franchise Irving assumed as his. They went to three NBA Finals and won a championship along the way. James needed Irving—the 3-point shot splashed ’round the world is the perfect encapsulation of that. Yet Irving was never on equal footing with James. On one occasion, he was asked what kind of “parental role” James played in his life; James repeatedly perpetuated the distance between them by referring to Irving as “the kid.”
Irving’s stunning trade request changed narratives and created new ones. James’s immediate future took a turn; the Cavs’ long-term goals nosedived. It also birthed the notion that star players don’t want to play with James. This snowballed when James signed with Los Angeles and the franchise failed to bring on another star. Last summer Paul George opted to re-sign with Oklahoma City instead of L.A. and passed up on the glory of a big market and the historic acclaim of the Lakers. Then Jimmy Butler put the Clippers, not the Lakers, on his list of preferred trade destinations. Kawhi Leonard is rumored to have the same preference this summer. Kevin Durant called the attention around James “toxic” and said it wouldn’t make sense to pair “a younger player like a Kawhi” with James, because the former “enjoys having the ball in his hands, controlling the offense, dictating the tempo.”
“A lot of young players are developing that skill,” Durant said. “They don’t need another guy.” James is the most overpowering and dominant superstar any player could be paired with simply because he can do things on a basketball court that no one else can. It’s in everyone’s best interest to mold around him. James isn’t a first fiddle, he’s a cello. Somehow, when all the dust settled this offseason, the best player in basketball went to the NBA’s most storied franchise and failed to bring a single other star with him.
Irving, George, Butler, Leonard, and Durant are all precursors to Anthony Davis, who could opt out of his deal in 2020 and is anticipated to request a trade before then, assuming the Pelicans’ trajectory remains bleak. If Davis is traded, he won’t necessarily have the final say on where he goes. The Lakers would have to outbid asset-loaded teams like the Celtics to pull off the acquisition; it’d be unfortunate to do so only for Davis to decide in 2021 that he’d rather play somewhere else. (Though Davis seems like he might be open to playing in L.A.—he is a Klutch Sports client, James said in December that it would be “amazing” to play with Davis, and the two had dinner a few days later.) Putting Davis and James together would be the deadliest one-two punch since Durant and Steph Curry (perhaps much more fatal once Davis shows what he can do next to another star). Irving, who will likely hit unrestricted free agency this summer, even prompted speculation that he could be interested in rejoining James.
The high frequency of free-agency movement in the league today is relatively new. We’re in an age of player control in the NBA, when guys like Davis and Irving have a hand in their future even while they’re under contract. George forced a trade from Indiana, and Leonard forced one from San Antonio. Durant shook the institution that is free agency when he signed with the team that knocked him out of the Western Conference finals the year before—the only team that should’ve been off-limits.
All three of these players did something unconventional—George stayed in Oklahoma, Leonard left one of the greatest coaches ever, and Durant joined an all-time powerhouse. But what Irving did in 2017 was unprecedented in this era: At 24, he broke from a Finals team and left one of the two greatest players of all time. Even as superteams reign, Irving wanted his own. Now, he’s in the shoes of the man he wanted to leave, empathizing with the very conduct that made Irving stray. In an era when change comes fast and often, Irving’s rhetoric has come full circle, and his decision made an irreversible impact.