If you thought Kyrie Irving and LeBron James weren’t going to give us the satisfaction of lobbing passive-aggressive digs at one another through the media before Wednesday night’s game between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, you are sorely mistaken, because they’re at it again.
Thanks to Hall of Fame basketball writer Jackie MacMullan, who went deep behind Irving’s breakup with James and the Cavs for ESPN.com, we were treated to an exchange between the ex-teammates, delivered 650 miles and a week apart early last month, that captured their relationship perfectly.
First, there was Irving, from the Celtics’ practice facility, on his trade request from the Cavaliers:
“They didn’t want me there,” he says.
And there was James, after a win against the Atlanta Hawks in Cleveland, on Irving’s assertion:
“That makes absolutely no sense,” James declares.
Here they are, still settling their differences through a game of telephone played in print, and so long as they never directly communicate about the issues that ended a partnership that resulted in three Finals appearances and Cleveland’s only basketball title, this drama will continue to envelop the NBA.
For us, as basketball fans, we couldn’t ask for anything more. LeBron James, the greatest player of his generation, who has had no peers in the Eastern Conference for seven years running, is looking up in the standings at Kyrie Irving’s Celtics, and Game 2 of their rivalry will air on ESPN Wednesday night.
For them, as people, well, that’s something they’ll have to figure out, if they ever want to. Irving told ESPN’s “First Take” in September that he never communicated his desire to leave Cleveland to James and didn’t much care if the four-time MVP took his silence personally. And James did little on media day to quell rumors of an underlying feud between the two, repeatedly referring to Irving as “the kid.”
We don’t know what was the last straw, although MacMullan confirmed several of our suspicions. “The kid” comments, of course, bothered Irving, his teammates shared. There was Irving’s father, Drederick, who “filled Ky’s head with ideas that we didn’t appreciate him,” a Cavaliers executive added. There was Cleveland’s interest in a mid-June deal that would’ve landed Paul George and Eric Bledsoe for Irving. There was Irving’s belief that James’ camp pushed for that trade. And there was Irving’s own curiosity.
Then, there was the actual basketball part. “[Playing with LeBron] has its positives,” Irving told MacMullan, “and it also comes with responsibilities. It was clear to me that we needed each other.”
And Irving, it seems, felt as though LeBron didn’t reciprocate that sentiment. Maybe Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue didn’t, either. MacMullan detailed an argument the two had during a practice last season:
“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.
That makes Irving sound like a dink, and to his credit, he informed MacMullan he would “like a do-over on that,” before proceeding to take another subtle dig at his old coach: “I was trying to figure out where I fit in and at the same time asking myself, ‘What’s best for the team?’ Sometimes, I didn’t know the answer. I had to figure it out on my own. It wasn’t like I was getting answers from everyone else.”
Read between the lines, though, and Irving will again confirm your suspicions about the trade request: He felt the Cavs weren’t maximizing his potential, leaving him to work off the ball and in isolation, rather than as a true point guard. Of course, Lue had every reason to relegate Irving to a secondary option, since LeBron Freaking James, one of the greatest playmakers in NBA history, was on his roster.
So, maybe, as Irving suggested, his exit was “inevitable,” because Cleveland wasn’t big enough for the two of them. Let’s just be thankful it happened the way it did, with Irving landing on a Celtics team that may be the Cavs’ equal and not with a Phoenix Suns squad that wouldn’t have been quite the foil.
Because now, when Irving says stuff like this about whether James considered him an equal — “I don’t know if he did or not, but I don’t really care. I didn’t lose any sleep over it” — we are treated to a primetime matchup between the two foes as their teams battle for Eastern Conference supremacy.
This should be fun.
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