You’ve probably seen the clip. It’s the one in which LeBron James is shouting at Kyrie Irving on the bench in an overtime timeout while forcefully poking the shoulder of the point guard seated two chairs away. Instead of facing James, Irving looks straight ahead and refuses to make eye contact. James gives him an earful.
As James seems to wrap up his speech to the unengaged audience of one, Irving looks the other way and smirks.
Irving was no child, even though he was seemingly treated like one in that moment. The scene took place in April 2016 against the Atlanta Hawks. Irving was a No. 1 overall pick, a three-time All-Star and recently the starting point guard for a Team USA squad that won gold at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. To many, he was Uncle Drew. At 22, Nike had already given him his own signature shoe line.
But the context surrounding that moment between Irving and James seems to speak volumes. It wasn’t Irving’s best moment, in the final seconds of a heated overtime regular-season game against the Hawks with the score 105-104 in favor of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Jeff Teague had been lighting Irving up, forcing Tristan Thompson to switch to Teague in pick-and-rolls to rescue the Cleveland point guard. About a minute before that clip, Irving went one-on-one and got blocked by Kent Bazemore and then got blown by again defensively — only to have James soar from the weak side and swat Teague’s shot out of bounds. James ran the offense the next three possessions, while Irving mostly hunched over by the half-court line with his hands on his knees. The sequence screamed that this was James’ team, everyone else step aside.
Irving considered asking for a trade two months later but ultimately decided against it, according to a report by ESPN’s Brian Windhorst. A year later, Irving reportedly has had enough and wants out.
“He’s ready to have his own team,” a source close to the situation said.
But is he good enough to do that and win?
Kyrie’s losing track record
Just minutes after 2014 free agency began on July 1, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert proudly announced in a tweet around 2 a.m. that Irving agreed to a five-year extension. A few minutes later, Irving chimed in:
I’m here for the long haul Cleveland!!! and I’m ecstatic!! Super excited and blessed to be here and apart of something special.#ClevelandKID
– Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) July 1, 2014
From a distance, there wasn’t much to be excited about in Cleveland. In three seasons with Irving, the Cavs were 74 games under .500 and cycling through head coaches. The Cavs’ 2013 No. 1 overall pick, Anthony Bennett, looked lost in the NBA, and their 2012 No. 4 overall pick, Dion Waiters, wasn’t exactly clicking with Irving. Just before Irving signed long term, David Blatt was hired to be the third coach of Irving’s young career. The 2014 No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins, was on the way, but from all accounts, this was going to be Irving’s team.
Ten days later, James announced he was coming home to Cleveland, turning Irving’s world upside down. After three trips to the NBA Finals and a championship with James, Irving’s value on the court is harder than ever to peg. Is he an MVP in waiting or merely a high-volume scorer?
Irving’s stat line has superstar written all over it. In 2016-17 — his age-24 season — Irving scored a career-high 25.2 points per game, while sharing the ball with James and Kevin Love. To put his scoring ability in perspective, when James went to the bench last season, Irving’s scoring average per 36 minutes soared from 23.2 points to a staggering 35.2 points. Irving can get buckets.
But he is not James Harden or Russell Westbrook. Irving hasn’t shown the ability to consistently set up his teammates like this year’s MVP and runner-up. In the past three seasons, Irving has spent exactly 2,000 minutes on the floor without James, which amounts to basically a full season of action. During that time, Irving has averaged 30.6 points, 6.3 assists and 3.3 turnovers per 36 minutes. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas last season put up a nearly identical line: 30.8 points, 6.3 assists and 2.9 turnovers per 36 minutes.
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As a player, Thomas and Damian Lillard are probably the best comps for Irving, who has struggled to win as the guy. In the 17 games that James has sat the past three seasons with Irving starting, the Cavs’ record is a woeful 4-13 (.235). Keep in mind, Love shared the floor with Irving in all but two of those games, so it wasn’t like Irving was going at it alone out there. To put that win-loss record in perspective, it is actually lower than the Cavs’ win percentage in three seasons with Irving running the show pre-James (.339). Yikes.
That doesn’t bode well for Irving. And it looks worse if you turn the tables. When James played without Irving the past three seasons, the Cavs went 25-11 (.694). With Irving off the court and James on the court, the LeBron-led Cavs outscored opponents by 585 points in 3,074 minutes, or plus-9.1 per 48 minutes — a point margin that would have been good for second in the NBA behind the Golden State Warriors last season.
Let’s flip that. With Irving on the court and James off the court, the Irving-led Cavs have been outscored by 94 points in 2,000 minutes, or minus-1.7 per 48 minutes — a point margin roughly on pace with a New Orleans Pelicans team that finished 14 games under .500 last season. Not good.
What’s clear is that when it came to winning basketball games, Irving needed James more than James needed Irving. That dynamic speaks to Irving’s one-dimensional game, where he’s superb in one-on-one situations but struggles in other areas. As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton pointed out, Irving ranks 12th among point guards in real plus-minus, thanks to a defensive RPM that places him 440th among all players on that end of the floor. With defense bogging him down, Irving didn’t register in the top 50 overall in RPM last season, nor did he in 2015-16 or 2013-14 (but he finished 38th in 2014-15, before his knee injury).
All-Star ballots, Team USA officials and Nike execs are unanimous: Kyrie Irving is a superstar. But the on-court numbers don’t agree. As the No. 1 option on the team, Irving’s record in the NBA is 132-247 (.348), or the equivalent of a 29-win team.
To be fair, Irving’s sorry record without James the past few seasons has been on a shooter-heavy roster that has largely been geared toward James’ talents. Though being surrounded by sharpshooters like Love, JR Smith and Kyle Korver would seemingly help space the floor for Irving’s dribble-heavy game, it hasn’t delivered winning results, unless James is out there. The Cavs scored a paltry 103.1 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the floor and no James last season, down from 117.5 with James and Irving both on the court.
If Irving’s talents are on the offensive end, why can’t his team score when he’s the No.1 option? Will that change on a different team?
The Bean vs. Ben Gordon
When Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City last summer, the NBA had an idea of what the Thunder would look like with Westbrook as the face of the franchise. In 2014-15, Durant missed most of the season with a broken foot and the Thunder held their own by posting a 22-18 (.550) record with Westbrook in the lineup and Durant in a suit. The Thunder had won without Durant before, and they showed the same resolve last season, finishing 47-35 and with Westbrook being named MVP.
Westbrook has a winning track record. Irving doesn’t. When James took a couple of weeks off to hang out in Miami during the 2014-15 season, it was a golden opportunity for Irving to showcase his growth. Instead, the Cavs lost six of seven games with Irving at the helm over that stretch. James came back and they started winning again.
What Irving has and Westbrook doesn’t have is a ring. In that sense, Kyrie is more Kobe Bryant than Westbrook. (It’s no secret that Irving and Bryant are close. After his Finals-clinching 3-pointer in 2016, Irving said that all he was thinking was “Mamba mentality.”) That championship might make Irving believe he can do it on his own, but Bryant’s story can offer a sobering lesson: Alpha dogs are nothing without the supporting cast.
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After a 2004 Finals loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Los Angeles Lakers traded Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson retired from coaching duties. Bryant was the man. And a losing one at that. Without O’Neal or Jackson there to help, Bryant’s Lakers went 34-48 the following season and missed the playoffs. Rudy Tomjanovich quit as coach halfway through the season; and Jackson wrote that Bryant was “uncoachable” in his book detailing the 2003-04 season. Bryant’s reputation cratered as he slipped from first-team All-NBA to third-team honors and fell off the All-Defensive team altogether.
It wasn’t until Jackson came back in the 2005-06 season that things got better for Bryant. But overall, it was a mixed bag. In the three seasons after Bryant got his wish to have his own team, the Lakers went 121-125 (.491) and never got out of the first round. Bryant won his MVP award only after Pau Gasol got traded to the Lakers midseason in 2007-08. With star talent around him and a Hall of Fame coach, Bryant won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
It’s possible that when Irving looks in the mirror, he sees Bryant. The playbook seems within reach: achieve championship glory at a young age, go off on your own, maybe get humbled a bit, surround yourself with stars again, win titles. But that’s assuming Irving is as good as Bryant.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections, the two closest facsimiles for Irving are Lillard and Ben Gordon. The next five names are a mix of champs and forgotten stars: Stephen Curry, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury, Reggie Theus and Jerry Stackhouse.
Irving might fancy himself as the next Kobe or Westbrook — alpha dogs who became MVPs after their co-star left the picture — but you can’t just ignore Irving’s losing track record as the No. 1 guy. The more realistic expectation is that he’s another Lillard.
Of course, it’s also possible that things cool down and Irving returns to the Cavs for next season. After all, following that ugly moment with James on the bench against Atlanta in 2016, the Cavs moved on and later won the game. Two months later, Irving and James won the championship.
Now, we might get to see, going forward, whether they can win a title apart. James has shown he can. But Irving’s track record suggests otherwise, even if he doesn’t want to hear that.