Kyrie Irving’s trade to the Boston Celtics not only proves his genius on the court, but also off the court. However, to understand why, it is important to first examine the events in the summer of 2017 that preceded his trade request.
It was May 2017, and the Cleveland Cavaliers had just eliminated the Celtics in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which sent the Cavs to its third consecutive NBA Finals. After the victory, Irving described his closeness with James and how staying together could benefit them.
“When you get to that level of trust and you allow someone to come into a friendship that extends well off the court,” Irving said, “and you understand how great this era can be if we are selfless to the point where we don’t think about anything else except for the greatness of our team and what we can accomplish.”
The Cavs went on to face the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, but were ousted in five games. In the postgame interview following the elimination, Irving gave a heartfelt tribute to James, as seen in the tweet below.
Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving with an amazing tribute to LeBron James pic.twitter.com/XXZan1lwHE
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) June 13, 2017
Despite the loss to the Warriors, it seemed like the Cavs were primed to continue as true contenders for many years to come, so long as they had Irving and James, who were one of the NBA’s best duos at the time.
However, things started to spiral downwards shortly afterwards. On June 19, 2017, Cavs general manager David Griffin was fired. Former NBA star Chauncey Billups was briefly considered to be Griffin’s replacement, but turned down the position as the Cavs reportedly lowballed him during negotiations.
Furthermore, shortly before Griffin’s departure, the Cavs explored a three-way deal with the Indiana Pacers and Phoenix Suns that would have shipped Irving and Channing Frye to the Suns and brought back Eric Bledsoe and Paul George to Cleveland. Irving came to know of this potential trade, and felt that he wasn’t valued enough by the Cavs.
In July 2017, Irving told Sports Illustrated that the Cavs were in a very peculiar place that offseason.
“We just have to, you know, make sure that all our pieces are aligned first, and then we go from there,” Irving told the magazine. “It’s the summertime, a lot of craziness going on in the NBA.”
A few days after his interview with Sports Illustrated, Irving spoke to the Cavs front office and requested a trade. His request was not necessarily received well at the time by some NBA pundits and sports analysts. In fact, former NFL and MLB star Deion Sanders chided Irving for wanting to leave James. In a similar fashion, former Cavs guard Ron Harper ripped Irving’s trade request.
However, a few people were not surprised by Irving’s decision. Legendary college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski saw Irving’s decision coming, not due to any potential rift between Irving and James, but instead due to Irving’s blossoming leadership over the years.
“What I see happening with him right now is something I thought would happen eventually, and that’s him becoming a great leader,” Krzyzewski said in a phone interview. “He was born to be a great player, but he was also born to be a great leader, and I think that’s one of the reasons he wanted to take this chance.
“It wasn’t a negative against anybody [in Cleveland]. It was a positive of, ‘Look, I’m only going to do this for so long. I want to be that leader.’ And I applaud him for doing that. And he’s right. He was right in making that decision.”
Now that James is a Los Angeles Laker, Irving’s decision seems all the more justified. In a recent interview with Bleacher Report, Irving voiced his opinion about James’ move to the Lakers.
“Like, keep it real,” Irving said. “If I was still in Cleveland, I would be … like everything that was foreseen to happen, happened.”
Irving appeared to have a thought that James would leave Cleveland a second time, which would have left the former stranded on a non-contender with a lineup built to support a different superstar.
“I think it was the best move for my career, honestly, because it wasn’t about any particular person or anything like that,” he added. “It was just time. It was just time. It may not have looked ‘time’ for everyone else, but for me, it was time.”
It should be restated that Irving’s trade request was likely not because of any personal beef between him and James. Instead, it was likely due to his desire to maximize his potential as the primary option on a winning team. Yes, the Cavs were still a winning team at the time, and would have been even better had Irving decided to stay. But in order to truly maximize his potential, he needed to go to a new team with a new system.
As one of the most storied franchises in American sports history, the Celtics have been ideal for Irving thus far. They have a great general manager in Danny Ainge, a phenomenal young coach in Brad Stevens, cap flexibility, and a series of more draft picks, including some potentially high ones.
Despite the Celtics’ rough start to the season so far, the team had a very successful 2017-18 season. They may have lost Gordon Hayward — and later, Irving himself — due to injuries, but they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they pushed the Cavs to the brink. With Irving and Hayward back this year, the Celtics boast one of the deeper and more talented rosters in the league, and are one of the top contenders in the East.
At the end of the day, Irving apparently saw what the rest of us couldn’t, and it’s paid dividends.