What does Kyrie Irving actually want?
On July 7, the Cleveland Cavaliers star reportedly requested a trade. His rationale, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, was that he wants to be the focal point of a team rather than spending a fourth season with LeBron James, arguably the best player the NBA has ever seen. Next to James, Irving has been to three straight NBA Finals and made one of the most memorable and clutch shots in league history, one that secured Cleveland’s only title. Before James returned home in the summer of 2014, Irving’s Cavs had gone 78-152 in three seasons.
Irving has yet to comment publicly, and his reported list of preferredremains confusing. If he joins the Minnesota Timberwolves, he would share the spotlight with Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and perhaps Andrew Wiggins. If he goes to the San Antonio Spurs, he would be the second-biggest star behind Kawhi Leonard in a system predicated on ball movement more than one-on-one scoring. Miami and New York make more sense because of his apparent desire to be the go-to guy, but each team would need much more than Irving to become a contender like Cleveland.
Beyond the requested teams and the simple fact he asked for a trade away from James, the most fascinating part of this situation is his wish for more responsibility. Given the way he has played with the Cavs, it’s fair to wonder just how much bigger his role realistically could get.
Last season, Irving averaged more touches than any member of the championship-winning Golden State Warriors (79 touches for Irving; Stephen Curry led Golden State at 78.6). Each time he touched the ball, he dribbled a little less than James Harden and a little more than Isaiah Thomas. He had the ball in his hands longer each game than James, shot more often than his superstar teammate and finished the season with a higher usage rate (30.8 percent to 30.0 percent).
Irving may have never been the No. 1 guy in Cleveland, but his role realistically cannot get much bigger. His job was to create offense, and the Cavaliers collectively made up for holes in his game. He is not a great passer and not even close to an average defender most nights, but the way the team was constructed, he didn’t necessarily need to be.
Kobe Bryant called Cleveland’s system a “kingdom of two crowns” — James and Irving were responsible for creating essentially everything, making essentially every decision. Everybody else simply had to space the floor and do the less glamorous work that comes with being a complementary player. Irving didn’t bring the ball down the floor every time and run endless high pick-and-rolls like Harden under Mike D’Antoni, but it is not as if Irving was sacrificing like Kevin Love. That unforgettable shot Irving made in the Finals? Just having the ball in that moment said everything about his role.
The difference when Irving was on the floor without James — whether James was on the bench or missed games — looks awful for Irving. While he can heat up at any time and can compete defensively when he has to, Irving never has been consistent enough to be the. With the Cavaliers, he has had the luxury of being empowered to play the way he always has, and do so with a spaced floor without the extra defensive attention that comes with being the No. 1 guy. If he leaves James, Irving will make life harder on himself.
It is not only that Irving likely will have less talent around him at his next stop. There also is no guarantee the coach will design an offense based purely on Irving doing what Irving has always done. In fact, the way the NBA is going, configurations like Cleveland’s are becoming rare, especially among better teams. Rather than having one guy sizing up the defense and dominating the ball, most teams want multiple playmakers, with everybody on the court involved. You know, like the Warriors.
Ironically, that kind of situation probably would be the best setting for Irving’s game to grow. He may need to be challenged to help the team more when the ball is not in his hands and exert more defensive effort on a nightly basis. Perhaps Irving is simply looking for a new challenge and trying to take control of the next phase of his career the way James did each time he changed teams. Perhaps Irving needs Bryant’s boldness and confidence to become the best version of himself. The idea of being “The Man” on another team seems to be more important than anything that happens on the court.
If Irving truly wants to be a locker-room leader and feel the responsibility of having a franchise on his shoulders, perhaps this trade request is the right move. If he thinks he has been stifled in James’ shadow and will be given more freedom elsewhere, that’s a different story.