Remember that article I wrote about the Golden State Warriors shaking up the NBA ? You should probably go check that out if you haven't seen it. The landscape of the league is changing daily as the NBA is turning into an arms race where teams are trying to gather enough talent to compete with the reigning NBA champion, Golden State Warriors. This offseason kicked off with a number of blockbuster trades and signings that may have possibly made this version of the Western Conference the deepest that we have ever seen, and there are still moves left to be made. The Warriors' dominance has trickled down to every franchise in the league, including the team that they beat in this year's NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the short span of this summer, we have heard the reports that LeBron is not satisfied with the lack of key acquisitions made by the Cavaliers after missing out on opportunities to acquire Jimmy Butler AND Paul George. The numerous theories for scenarios of teams where LeBron should or would go once he becomes a free agent are back in full effect, but I'm not getting into that at this moment. Ironically, while LeBron has been upset with his team’s inability to acquire key assets this offseason, we find out that the most valuable key asset he currently has is trying to get out from beneath his wing. As if there haven't been enough blockbuster trades, in a meeting with Cavs management, Kyrie Irving asked the Cleveland Cavaliers to trade him. Sorry to interrupt, but I just want to remind you that the Cavaliers have been to the last THREE NBA Finals, and won the first championship in Franchise history in 2016. I also want to remind you, that despite the series going only five games, if you really watched every game then you know it was a competitive series for the most part. Cleveland did not just get blown off the floor every game and the series very well could have went six games. Last reminder, both Kyrie and LeBron had HISTORIC performances in the series so it's not like either of them underperformed. Golden State's dominance just has every team feeling like they need ... more.
So, back to the topic, we have a dominant physical specimen of a basketball player, the likes of which the basketball world has never seen, and his teammate, who is one of the greatest scoring guards we have ever seen wants to split up with him. Nope, I'm not talking about Shaq and Kobe; this is the situation with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. But, since we're here this does bring back very vague memories of Shaq and Kobe. Two alpha dogs that lead their team to the Finals for three consecutive years and one of the two wants to split. However, for all those that want to try and use Shaq and Kobe's situation as a parallel for this one, you probably shouldn't. The physical attributes of Shaq and LeBron and the skilled components of Kobe and Kyrie are the ONLY two things that are even remotely alike in this scenario. The situations and circumstances that surrounded these two duos are completely different from one another.
Kobe and Shaq may very well have been THE MOST DOMINANT tag team to ever play together in the NBA. Together the tandem was able to help the Los Angeles Lakers capture a 3-peat, winning three straight NBA championships IN SPITE of constant friction between the two alpha-dogs. This friction was stirred by the fact that both players were so incredibly talented at what they did. Well why would that cause friction ? Because you cannot confuse being talented with being motivated which is where the real bumping of heads began between the two. Shaquille O'Neal was a monstar, yes a monstar. As the number one overall pick coming out of LSU, his natural size and dominance made the game relatively easy for him because there was literally nothing outside of fouling him that you could do to contain him. Kobe on the other hand, was not as fortunate as Shaq in the early stages of his career. Kobe was drafted 13th overall out of high school and nothing in the NBA was given to him from the start. Kobe rode the bench his rookie year and had to work from his first day in the NBA just to earn the respect of his coach and teammates. The fighting spirit that resulted from his early years in the league and allowed him to become great is what fueled Kobe throughout his entire career. In addition to that, Kobe was obsessed with being better than Michael Jordan. He was aware that to even be in the conversation with Jordan that he would have to outwork everyone else and WIN to get there.
The reason why the dynamic duo did not always see eye to eye was because Kobe felt like Shaq was not working as equally hard as he was to become the greatest to ever play the sport. Mind you, in their three championship wins, Shaq led the team in scoring and won the Finals MVP in each championship season. Sheesh, well what else do you have to do to prove your working hard right ? This is where hard work beats the talent when the talent doesn't work hard. Kobe, obsessed with becoming greater than Michael Jordan, would still be working his butt off even during the off-season. Shaq on the other hand, felt like he could play his way into shape during the regular season. This is when the egos of players at this level can start to kick in.
Kobe was aware of how hard he worked and didn't believe that Shaq shared the same commitment to excellence that he did. He felt that if Shaq would have worked equally as hard that they could have been even greater. Shaq on the other hand who was dominant his entire life due to his natural size and talent felt like his methods had worked thus far and that it could continue to work. Things only got worse when the narrative in the media portrayed Kobe as a sidekick. Kobe did not appreciate being viewed as the Robin to Shaq's Batman. Especially considering that there were games when Shaq couldn't even play in the fourth quarter because he was either in foul trouble or because his horrific free throw shooting would be detrimental to the team. In these situations the ball was always placed in Kobe's hands to bring the Lakers to victory. Kobe ultimately took offense to everything because he and everybody around the team knew that Kobe was working harder than Shaq to perfect his craft.
The reason why I give you the back story of Kobe and Shaq is to show you how the current situation with Kyrie wanting to separate from LeBron is NOTHING alike. This duo has led the Cleveland Cavaliers to three straight NBA Finals appearances while also capturing the franchise's first ever NBA title in the process (not exactly a 3-peat but you can't sneeze at that either). In the process, both Irving and James have put forth some historic NBA Finals efforts in an attempt to capture multiple championships for the city of Cleveland. Unlike how Kobe could do with Shaq, there is NO ONE that can question the insane work ethic and commitment to excellence that LeBron James puts on display whether it be during the playoffs, regular season, or the off-season. The man takes exceptional care of his body and has been a poster child for durability during his time in the NBA. So this is not about LeBron's lack of commitment to excellence, but rather on his lack of commitment to his current team. But if LeBron is taking great care of his body and staying in shape then how is he not committed to his team ? I don't want you to get confused so listen close. It has less to do with how hard LeBron is working out but how hard it is to work with him on a team.
So what is it that really may be causing Kyrie to want to split ? There may be a few factors in this equation.
This seems like the least likely reason that Kyrie would want to separate from LeBron James. To put everything in perspective, Kyrie looks at Kobe as a mentor and he shares many of the same characteristics as Kobe, being an elite clutch scorer which makes them who they are as players. With that being said, Kobe's ego was damaged because people loved to heap all of the praise on Shaq being the most dominant player ever as if Kobe was riding in the passenger every game and never parked the car (hope you catch the analogy). Kyrie on the other hand, gets way more credit in his respective situation with LeBron than Kobe got with Shaq. There were legit people that felt like Kyrie and LeBron should have been named co-MVPs after winning the championship in 2016, claiming that Kyrie saved LeBron's legacy.
Now, some of that extra bestowed credit comes from people that hate LeBron and want to discredit his legacy for whatever reason, but either way Kyrie definitely gets the amount of recognition he deserves as an alpha dog.
Maybe the outside noise means nothing to Kyrie at all, maybe it is the internal noise created by LeBron himself that could be possibly disturbing the ego of his co-star. LeBron's willingness to accept short term deals and possibly leave at any moment will always stir up conspiracy theories on whether he is leaving or not, or whether his team is "good" enough to win. These short term contracts do not show the level of commitment to the team or to the talent around him. Kyrie may possibly be looking at LeBron and saying 'I'm not just some scrub, I'm as good as anybody out there and if you don't want to commit to me and my talent then I don't want to play with you either.'
DAILY DISTRACTIONS AND DEPARTURE
While keeping your body in peak condition as LeBron James does yearly is certainly one way to show your commitment to your team, another way to do that is by silencing any noise that may surface to try and disrupt your team. This is something that LeBron James has not been the greatest at doing. In fact, forget silencing the outside noise, sometimes LeBron himself will add fuel to the fire with subtweets to his teammates and comments in the media. Whenever LeBron tweets or posts a video on social media, the sports news world analyzes every last detail trying to piece together any hidden messages he may be sending. The dilemma lies in the fact that LeBron can impact a team so much while he is there that you have no choice but to build around him because he can best maximize the potential of any roster constructed around him. LeBron James' impact on franchises can be completely uplifting if he joins you, and absolutely catastrophic if he leaves you. Unfortunately, it also means that franchises have to acquiesce to the demands of LeBron who essentially holds them hostage because they do not want to see him leave (which we know now is becoming more likely than not). This is no good for any locker room or for the franchise itself because it means that everything will sway as LeBron sways.
This seems like the most logical reason out of the three. Kyrie may simply just be trying to beat LeBron to the punch of getting out of the disfunctional organization known as the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert does deserve credit for being willing to pay the luxury tax the last couple of years in an effort to win, but let's be serious, what else was he gonna do ? It was the franchise's first legitimate shot at winning multiple championships, he had no choice. Outside of that he is not in high regard as a franchise owner. This offseason, he parted ways with the team's general manager David Griffin literally days before the draft and free agency (not the smartest move that could have been made). Dan Gilbert's track record with the Cavaliers is literally successful with LeBron and absolutely atrocious without him. Dan Gilbert is not the only reason however, which is where we circle back to LeBron. When Kyrie first resigned with the Cavs after his rookie contract was up, he did so with the thought that he would be the franchise player and that the youth movement for the team would be molded around him. Instead, that offseason, LeBron James decided to come back home to Cleveland and that same youth movement set to take place was traded in for a win-now opportunity (and rightfully so). I don't think that Kyrie had a problem with the win-now mindset, he was probably more excited then anybody about the opportunity to showcase his talents on the biggest stage. Here is where Golden State re-enters the equation. After beating the Warriors to win the championship in 2016, all signs pointed up for the Cavaliers, until the Warriors signed Kevin Durant. The Cavs, trying to appease LeBron, went deep into the luxury tax to keep all of their free agents while adding a number of older veteran shooters. Unfortunately, that wasn't even remotely enough to beat the Warriors with a newly acquired Kevin Durant.
In the aftermath of losing to the Warriors we saw a LeBron James that was pretty nonchalant for lack of a better term. This may come from the fact that LeBron has already delivered on his promise to bring a championship to Cleveland and feels like he has nothing else to prove. No matter what the reason, Kyrie is smart enough to analyze this current situation and what it would look like in the near future. Essentially, Cleveland is locked up by a number of bad contracts and LeBron is the only person that is able to maneuver freely amongst the chaos. The Cavs would be a roster filled with older veteran players that would be forced to play in the half court which does not suit what Kyrie had envisioned for himself as the franchise player. Kyrie does not plan on being left to clean up the scraps of a mess that he didn't create. With two years left on his deal the only way to get out of this situation is to request a parting of ways from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Now, in all fairness to LeBron, Kyrie wasn't the biggest winner (for lack of a better term) in the NBA before LeBron James came back to Cleveland, and even since then the Cavs have a sub-500 record when LeBron doesn't play. You can blame the system, you can blame the fit, but that statistic is a fact. Now the one thing that may help, or ultimately hurt Kyrie if this departure takes place, is that he heavily leans on Kobe Bryant for advice. After splitting with Shaq, Kobe went on to capture two more titles in his quest which justified the separation in the minds of some. Kyrie may look at Kobe being able to win after Shaq and get the feeling that if someone he is so close and similar to in spirit can handle this situation, then he can do it as well. We've seen what Kyrie did before LeBron and with LeBron, but we haven't seen a team fully invest and build an actual contender around Kyrie Irving. Maybe there is no such thing as that, but Kyrie does need to be careful what he wishes for and be ready to deal with everything that will come his way if that wish is granted.