Regardless of what Twitter trolls may tell you, LeBron James’ career on the court is unassailable. Even the most staunch non-believers would have to place him amongst the 10 greatest players in league history on résumé alone. For years though, James has also been considered by most to be one of the best leaders in the NBA, a designation that has not undergone half the scrutiny as his game-to-game performance. As the news that All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers rocked the basketball world last Friday, people were left scrambling for an explanation.
How could a core that just went to their third straight NBA Finals and had won a championship be on the brink of disbandment? Was Kyrie’s selfishness to blame (like 2004 Kobe)? Or is it perfectly reasonable for a player of Kyrie’s caliber to seek more individual glory (like 2004 Kobe)? Was Kyrie fed up with the appearance of front office chaos in the wake of David Griffin’s departure? Did beef motivate this move or was it simply a case of a young player being ready to leave the nest and flourish on his own?
According to ESPN reports, Irving is looking for “a situation where he can be more of a focal point”. However the report also specifically indicates Kyrie is no longer interested in being a teammate of LeBron James.
That last statement flies in the face of everything we know and believe about LeBron, the leader.
Every basketball decision LeBron has made since (and including) signing his first contract extension with the Cavs in 2006 has been executed with two goals in mind: A) maximizing his opportunities for winning and B) maintaining personal flexibility. James has been willing to compromise on everything else—money, location, historical pedigree, organizational stability and power. It stands to behoove James to ensure the individuals most capable of helping satisfy Goal A are satiated at all times; except LeBron has elected not to operate in that way.
Irving is an All-NBA talent who James himself said could win a league MVP award a year and a half ago (then doubled-down on that position 10 months later). That he would want to leave Cleveland now — the class of the East and, contrary to popular belief, not far from the Warriors’ stratosphere — is a direct implication of LeBron’s lack of leadership skills. On the court, he’s near flawless. Frequently encouraging, if not empowering teammates, LeBron always emphasized the importance of sharing the ball, even at his own peril. James directed Tyronn Lue to allow Kyrie Irving to take the shot that ultimately toppled Golden State in Game 7 last year. He kicked the ball to Kyle Korver for a corner shot that would’ve sealed Game 3 versus the Warriors this year. Korver missed and the Cavs lost. Regardless of the outcome, James consistently abides by a philosophy of keeping his teammates engaged on the floor, which makes his inability to mirror that philosophy in his off-court dealings all the more puzzling.
James-led teams scramble to acquire and retain older players with heavy contracts, under the treat of LeBron leaving (because, ya know, young teams don’t win). Draft picks become instantly irrelevant, and after a few years the team’s flexibility is capped out. Some national media members are just now concluding LeBron’s refusal to commit to the Cavaliers on a long-term deal is actually doing more harm to the franchise than good. However this is the same behavior that crippled the Cavs title chances the during his initial stint with the team. Cleveland’s front office is often blamed for mismanaging James’ time from 2003-2010 as then GM Danny Ferry whiffed repeatedly on top free agent targets. Ray Allen, Michael Redd, Joe Johnson, Ron Artest and Trevor Ariza are just a few of the names who declined Cleveland’s overtures, many of whom (if not all) in part because of LeBron’s inability to commit to the Cavaliers beyond the 2010 season.
Playing with LeBron was the primary draw of signing with Cleveland; nobody wanted to agree to play on Lake Erie only to see him bounce a year or two later. Mind you, this was roughly 10 years ago; King James has since left his kingdom behind twice, with rampant speculation (albeit mostly nonsensical— see: Goal A) that he’ll make it a hat trick next summer. It’s certainty within reason that he is capable of skipping town again, and where would that leave Kyrie? Or Kevin Love?
James recorded a huge assist off the court as he helped launch the career of his good friend Rich Paul as an agent. In addition to representing James, Paul’s Klutch Sports group also represents Cavs players J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson, each of whom recently received generous contract extensions by the team. LeBron is also a vice president of the NBA Players Association and has openly advocated for players making even money than the record-breaking contracts that were signed this offseason.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) July 1, 2017
While ensuring players earn as much as possible is admirable, the perception is that James is putting his friends, and the friends of his friends, in position to succeed at the expense (literally) of his franchise. He’s viewed as the puppet-master who can force Dan Gilbert to contort his roster and ledger at his whim. We can only speculate on how true this is, but whether or not Kyrie buys into this perception is truly paramount. Irving’s acknowledgement of the organization doing everything possible to appease LeBron is motive enough for him to want out.
Irving has benefited from this arrangement by becoming a champion, but he’s also forced to endure the drawbacks, such as the somewhat unfair criticism he faces if the team loses as LeBron rests. Kyrie skeptics point to the team’s record in these situations as evidence of his inability to lead a team, in spite of the fact the entire roster and team identity is molded to James’ strengths. Because of Goal B, Uncle Drew is forced (there’s that word again) to acquiesce to everything in the name of “keeping LeBron happy”, even though he knows it means receiving nominal credit when the team succeeds.
And if controlling the roster, coaches, philosophy and payroll weren’t enough, LBJ takes to social media and pulls stunts like this…
interesting song choice by Lebron here 👀 pic.twitter.com/rSIeVQbSq4
— Jordan Heck (@JordanHeckFF) July 22, 2017
on a regular basis.
Who wants to put up with this every three months? The argument could be made that Kyrie is acting immature, but what’s more immature than a 14-year veteran sending (amusing) subliminal shots at teammates via social media? This kind of aggressive passive-aggressive behavior could’ve eventually led Kyrie to the conclusion that he must put his own interests ahead of LeBron’s, for fear of his career becoming the King’s collateral damage.
Nobody has earned the right to dictate the terms of their athletic future more than LeBron James. Accomplishing what he has under the weight of a thousand oceans is the stuff of legend. But it is not LeBron’s duty to exercise the extreme power he has at his disposal at all times. James has used his influence to hook up his boys (members of his camp fly on the team plane, unlike Kyrie’s), further his business interests and construct the backdrop of his career. By choosing to flaunt this power and waive his one-year contracts around like a winning lottery ticket, it probably only served to alienate his most talented teammate.
Sidebar: LeBron was directing Kyrie even before he came back to Cleveland.
So it’s come to this: Kyrie Irving taking a page out of LeBron’s book and controlling his own destiny. There’s no guarantee Irving actually gets traded, but his cards are all out on the table. The glory, the power, and the freedom are worth throwing away what could be a championship in 2018. Some would label this as selfishness; others view it as a young player in desperate search of stability. Whatever it is, it certainty falls under the concept of what Pat Riley once dubbed, “The Disease of Me“, a concept that has harpooned many a championship team.
“The most difficult thing for players to do when they become part of a team is to sacrifice,” Riley said. “It is much easier, and much more natural, to be selfish.”
It’s a disease many thought would unhinge the well-oiled Golden State Warriors, especially with Kevin Durant in the fold. As it turns out, the Dubs should be credited for not succumbing to the allure of envy. LeBron James meanwhile is credited as being one of the most self-aware athletes of our time, though the Kyrie Irving situation walks us directly into one of two possibilities: LeBron is fully aware of the strain all of his off-court decisions place on his teammates and the organization, and he doesn’t care. Or the aforementioned statement is a false narrative.
There’s no straight line towards good leadership. Different leaders lead in different ways, while their co-workers or teammates respond differently as circumstances evolve. This history of LeBron’s off-court behavior however is unbecoming of any great commander. Yes the success is there, but are you getting the most out of your guys? There’s no question Julian Edelman would run though 10 brick walls for Tom Brady, in part because Brady goes out of his way to show he’s “just one of the guys“.
LeBron James has earned the right to be LeBron James. Every team in the league would welcome his services, even if it means putting up with some drama after the clock hits 0:00. His pattern of behavior though may have contributed heavily to the fracturing of a relationship with his most talented Cavaliers teammate ever. For that, he must be held accountable.
Kyrie may get his wish and both players careers will move on— the buckets will get got; the checks will clear. But if James pushes “the future” out the door before walking though it himself, the fans of Cleveland will once again be left holding the bag.
At least they got one ring out of it.