Photo: Tony Dejak/AP

Tonight the Celtics and Cavaliers will meet for the second time this season, and ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan marked the rematch of the East’s two best teams with a feature on Kyrie Irving. Irving’s first half-season out from under LeBron James has been an unquestioned success, an especially impressive feat given that Gordon Hayward’s leg was in one piece for six whole minutes of basketball. MacMullan dug deep on Irving’s surprising decision to leave behind a championship-winning team for the unknown, and while the story does not delve into Irving’s conviction that the Earth is flat, it’s a relatively comprehensive look at why he struck out on his own.

The biggest revelation in the story is that the Cavs tried to move Irving this summer before he made his trade demand. Cleveland apparently had a deal in place with Indiana and Phoenix that would have netted them Eric Bledsoe (a close friend of LeBron’s) and Paul George in exchange for Irving and other pieces. The deal obviously never went through and all talks died when GM David Griffin left the team, but Irving got the impression that LeBron was behind it:

No formal offer was made by any of the teams, but news of this potential transaction stung Irving, who, sources close to him say, became convinced that LeBron’s camp, which also represents Bledsoe, orchestrated the trade talks.

LeBron and Irving were never outwardly antagonistic, but it wasn’t any real secret that the two were never particularly close. Irving was spotted making fun of LeBron this summer with Steph Curry, and he reportedly didn’t talk to his teammates much in the 2016-17 playoffs. MacMullan’s story cements this narrative, and more than anything, it seems like Irving was sick of playing in LeBron’s shadow:

Teammates say LeBron’s habit of referring to Irving as “the kid” and his “little brother” was eventually viewed by Irving as a subtle lack of respect.

[...]

Today, when asked if he feels that James viewed him as a basketball equal, Irving answers, “I don’t know if he did or not, but I don’t really care. I didn’t lose any sleep over it.” Those close to Irving insist his leaving wasn’t all about LeBron, and not one of them was surprised that Irving asked to move on from Cleveland.

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Here’s a good anecdote about that:

During a rare practice in the middle of last season, coach Tyronn Lue, who was standing next to assistant coach and Irving confidant Phil Handy, called out to his young point guard.

“Ky,” Lue said, “I want you to play a little faster.”

“Why?” Irving asked.

“Because if we play faster, we get shots off easier.”

“I don’t need to play faster to get my shot off,” Irving replied. “I can do that anytime.”

“I’m not talking about your shot. I’m talking about RJ and JR,” Lue said, citing teammates Richard Jefferson and Smith.

“Well, that’s No. 23's job,” Irving replied, referring to James.

As for James’s role in all of this? He’s remained coy as ever on Irving, as well as his future in Cleveland:

When Gilbert, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was presented with the Celtics as a trade partner for Irving, he went to LeBron and tried to secure a pledge from his franchise player to remain beyond the 2017-18 season. James, team and league sources confirm, wouldn’t commit.

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[ESPN]