Maybe we will come to learn that actually, LeBron James is Hannibal Lecter. Or Charles Manson. Maybe he sits his teammates in a solemn circle in the locker room and passes around a jug of his own hot piss for them to drink, as a test of their personal loyalty and devotion. Maybe he is Donald Trump. Otherwise, I think Kyrie Irving is kind of a dumbass.
By now you know that Irving, the second-leading scorer and alternate ball-handler on the Cleveland Cavaliers team that has made the past three NBA Finals, has requested a trade. The reports (in all cases credited to anonymous sources) differ in their wording, but the basic idea is, he wants out from under James, the league’s best player and most massive star; he wants to be the centerpiece of a team. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, Dave McMenamin, and Brian Windhorst have it thusly:
Irving chafed about how peers such as Damian Lillard and John Wall were the center of their franchises and catered to accordingly. There’s irony there, as Wall was envious of Irving’s Nike shoe deal and Lillard has never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. Irving has been to three Finals and has a championship.
The irony runs a bit deeper than that. As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller points out, Kyrie sells more jerseys than any point guard other than Golden State’s two-time MVP Stephen Curry, and more of his signature shoes than any player other than LeBron. He received more All-Star votes from fans than either Wall or Lillard—the latter of whom, unmistakably the face and centerpiece of his franchise, has not made an All-Star Game as a starter or a reserve since 2015. Irving is, by virtually any measure, one of the sport’s very most popular and visible players, and certainly a bigger media star than at least a handful of players who are a whole lot better than him.
Windhorst—whose reports, it must be noted, tend to seem to originate with sources friendly to LeBron—has it as more of an on-court concern: Kyrie wants to be the focal point of a team’s offense. But how much more focal a point can he be? According to Basketball Reference, Kyrie attempted more shots per game (19.7) than all but five other players in the NBA this past season; more than Harden (18.9), Wall (18.4), Curry (18.3), or James himself (18.2), and only 0.1 fewer than Lillard—who, again, missed the All-Star Game and whose team got swept out of the first round of the playoffs. Irving had the ninth-highest usage percentage (30.8) in the NBA—again, higher than Wall’s (30.6), Curry’s (30.1), and James’s (30.0). As ESPN’s Zach Lowe notes, Kyrie even held the ball longer than James did, according to the NBA’s player tracking database.
The only meaningfully new frontier of ball-dominance and offensive centrality left for Kyrie to reach is the lunatic height Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook—Irving’s superior as a player in virtually every respect except isolation scoring—hit this past season, when he averaged a triple-double, led the NBA in both scoring and shot attempts, recorded the highest usage percentage in history (41.7), and committed the second-most turnovers (438) in a single season, ever. But, would any team in its right mind—any team looking to do more than hover around .500 and get smushed in the first round of the playoffs—make that role available for Kyrie Irving? Hell, even Russ himself will not enjoy that kind of total ball ownership next season: After one year of it—a year that ended with a sixth seed and a quick first-round exit from the playoffs—the Thunder smartly traded for Paul George for the express purpose of lightening the workload.
Confusing the matter even further is Kyrie’s list of preferred destinations, as reported by ESPN’s Chris Haynes. As with pretty much every young star of the past decade, he’s got New York and Miami on his wish list, of course; they’d have to gut themselves to get him and would be years from contention afterward, but they’re sexy cities to play in and he’d be the unquestioned star in either (assuming the Knicks would have to unload Carmelo Anthony in any deal that got them Irving). But his other two choices? San Antonio and Minnesota, smaller and less sexy markets with more talented teams. In Minnesota he’d be sharing the ball with Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns; between the two of them, they put up 34.5 shots per game last season and averaged, combined, fewer assists than LeBron did by himself. In San Antonio he’d be paired with wildly popular homegrown MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard (and his 31.1 usage percentage) in a system that specifically de-emphasizes the kind of ball-pounding and isolation scoring Kyrie specializes in.
Which brings us back to the question: Just what the hell is Irving thinking? The most charity you can extend Cleveland’s recalcitrant flat-earther is to grant that he is very young and maybe does not appreciate just how good he has had it so far in his basketball career, first on a loaded Duke University team and then, after a couple years of losses and injuries, as the well-fed running mate of one of the very greatest players in NBA history. Only someone a bit spoiled by great basketball fortune could look over from Kyrie Irving’s career to Damian Lillard’s or John Wall’s and see something to envy, rather than cautionary tales.
This past June, in the closing moments of Game 3 of the Finals, LeBron goddamn James passed the ball to Kyrie with the Cavaliers trailing by a bucket and their already remote hopes of winning a second championship in the balance. Then he stood and watched while Kyrie isolated against the best perimeter defender on the best team of all time and worked to get himself a shot. LeBron had dragged the Cavaliers to that point, in the game and in the 14th season of his career; then he handed it to his young teammate, and got out of the way.
Literally no one else in the NBA had it that good. It’s possible that no one in the history of the league has ever had it that good. Kyrie Irving wants to give it away so that he can play with worse players, so that he can get a larger share of dimmer shine. That’s fucking stupid. Drink the piss, man!