Seems like he had it all, doesn’t it?

The ring, the dope sneakers, the commercials, the video game cover, a more elaborate trophy case than anyone gives him credit for, the winning organization, the FGAs, and the best basketball player in the world were all on his side. He even had arguably the greatest shot in NBA history in his back pocket. So why the hell would Kyrie Irving throw all that in the trash by asking for a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Respect.

It’s hard to put a price on respect. We clown those that don’t have it (sort of by definition), but we bristle at the great lengths at which our star athletes go to obtain it. It’s why LeBron left home for Miami. It’s why Kevin Durant took, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” to new heights. It’s why Kobe Bryant shoved Shaquille O’Neal out of Los Angeles…with two hands.

Call it a euphemism for “ego” if you must, but Kyrie truly believes he can be the best player on the team that contends for a championship. And who are we to blame him? True, he hasn’t had much team success in his sans-LeBron NBA campaigns; there are reasons for that. Be honest though: If you were as good at basketball as Kyrie Irving, wouldn’t you think you could lead a team to success too?

These days, respect is hard to come by. If you’re an “elite” player and don’t have a ring to prove you should have it, it’s damn near impossible to get. Surly a four-time All-Star, NBA champion and three-time Finalist would have it in spades, right? Somehow, despite all the accolades (see the first link above), Irving still found himself as the NBA’s Rodney Dangerfield.

Playing alongside James has about 1,000 benefits, but it also comes with a handful of significant drawbacks. The amount LeBron’s teammates (particularly All-Star caliber teammates) must sacrifice to make room for his orbit is profound. Besides giving up much of the playmaking and ball handling duties, Uncle Drew gave up the spotlight, and as a result, the credit for the Cavaliers three consecutive championship runs.

The penalty for LeBron coming home? Being told by Sports Illustrated a guy like Kyle Lowry is ranked 11 spots above you in a list of the league’s best players, despite your history of rising to the occasion and his history of peeing on it. Or being told that Isaiah Thomas is better than you by the basketball nerd community. It’s being criticized by fans and media for not taking your team to the playoffs in your first four seasons, while watching John Wall receive praise in spite of also not making the postseason until year four. It’s being told Damian Lillard is a better closer than you even though the Blazers have gotten worse in each of the two seasons since LaMarcus Aldridge left. It’s hearing Steph Curry is a better ball handler than you, even though you’ve put that guy on more skates than Tony Hawk. Never hearing the end about your sub-par defense, when the media damn near gave James Harden MVP. Twice. It’s being ranked the 25th best player in the league by the preeminent voice in basketball broadcasting.

Such is life in LeBron James’ massive shadow.

Kyrie never asked for any of this. When most assumed another star would leave The Land, Irving agreed to a five-year extension in 2014, before James wrote his letter to SI announcing his intentions to return.

In addition to all the added responsibility that comes with the territory, there’s nobility and honor in being “the man”. Being carried out on your shield in defeat can do wonders for your profile. The most recent benefactor of this phenomenon is Russell Westbrook. Itching to show of his entire repertoire to the world, Russ averaged a triple-double and won MVP in a year when we all knew his team would be lucky to get out the first round. People have more respect for Westbrook now than ever before, but it’s not like he improved from the year before—he’s always been capable of this. The same thing happened when Harden, a former bench player, left Oklahoma City for Houston and finally spread his wings. Bryant was a force of nature before Shaq left, but nobody saw 81 coming.

One thing each of those players have in common is none of them won anything as the lead dog without an unbelievable supporting cast (this being only Kobe, for now). That same “Mamba Mentality” is what caused Kyrie to feel compelled to go to Cleveland management with this trade request. That mentality is why gives Bryant the edge in the mythical “killer” counterpoint in the Kobe/LeBron debates. The idea of valor carries more weight than reality.

We’ve also observed this phenomenon work the other way right in Irving’s backyard. When Kevin Love was toiling away in Minnesota, he was putting up scoring and rebounding numbers that hadn’t been seen in a generation. Prevailing basketball wisdom said he was a top 10 player without having ever led his team to the playoffs. Once he was dealt to the Cavs, he rightly took his place behind James and Irving on the team’s pecking order. Three years later, Kevin “No” Love (as coined by Vince Hicks on the HHSR Podcast) is physically in the prime of his career. He’s slimmer, smarter and battle tested, having played in dozens of pressurized games. He’s a better outside shooter, and still an effective post scorer and rebounder. Yet nobody would consider him a top 20 player today, mainly because he gave up field goals for Finals.

Love’s lack of respect was never more evident when the Cavaliers were seemingly desperate to dump him in a trade for Paul George, only to be rebuffed in favor of a Victor Oladipo/Domantas Sabonis/3-piece dinner from Popeye’s offer from Oklahoma City. The truth of the matter is LeBron is so good, his presence alone significantly lowered the trade value of Love and Irving.

Boston’s end of the trade itself shows the true amount of respect they have for Irving (we knew Avery Bradley had his respect). While teams like the Phoenix Suns were foolishly clinging to unproven talents who can’t shoot, the notoriously stingy Celtics parted ways with their best player AND their coveted 2018 unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick to land Irving. The same Nets pick they were reportedly unwilling to unload for George or Jimmy Butler.

Even if you feel Kyrie Irving is an ungrateful, overrated brat who will receive his comeuppance beginning October 17, a player of his stature deserves the opportunity to see just how good he can be. And he doesn’t need to wait until his contract is up to find out.

It’s sort of a backwards system we have, right? Many will chastise Irving today, but those same people will call him an MVP candidate when he’s averaging 30 for a team that still won’t make the Finals. The Celtics weren’t the only ones making a blockbuster trade on Tuesday—Kyrie Irving traded team success for respect and doubled-down on the bet he made on himself. It’s a fascinating acquisition for the guy we thought had it all.

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