When Kyrie Irving recently declared he wants to co-manage the Brooklyn Nets, he must have referred to how LeBron James exerted his power to construct rosters around him.
Irving reflected on his time with James and their eventual breakup in the latest I Am Athlete podcast.
“I was just a young kid trying to help Cleveland patch their relationship with [LeBron]. I got drafted the year after [LeBron left for Miami]. So when I first came in, the first question they [media] asked me was, ‘are you going to be better than LeBron?’ So it was mixed emotions the whole time we were competitors and when he came back as my teammate,” Irving said.
Even after taking the game-winning shot that gave Cleveland its first NBA championship, it was clear to him that the Cavaliers were still James’ team.
“That’s his home,” Irving said. “That’s not somewhere where he just goes and vacates. He’s from there. That’s like having my family in Brooklyn.”
A big part of the narrative that led to Irving’s decision to leave Cleveland was to be his own man and step out of James’ large shadow. While Irving pushed back with that idea and adamantly said he wanted to experience the league outside of Cleveland and not James per se, it’s still hard to buy that.
“That’s not what I mean — building your own brand, my own thing. Like again, it was, ‘let me go experience the league. Let me experience what my trade value is. Let me go’,” Irving explained.
Five years since that decision, Irving has yet to lead a team to an NBA title. He is now with his second team in Brooklyn, where Durant is viewed as the alpha.
While he had no regrets about his decision when he was only a 24-years-old rising star, he admitted they could have won more championships had he stayed.
“I definitely feel like if I was in the same maturity level now and understanding of who I am, and I look back, we definitely, definitely would’ve won more championships because there would’ve been a better man-to-man understanding about what I’m going through,” Irving said. “I didn’t know how to share my emotions. I didn’t know how to do that. So instead of sharing, I isolated myself.”
The Cavaliers failed to defend their crown in the following season. Irving eventually asked to be traded in the aftermath of the loss.
“I just started pouring myself more into the game — I had one of my better seasons, but I wasn’t connecting with everybody as much during the championship year. So 2017 was a different year for us. We went against Golden State. We went against a great team. When you’re not a great team and not clicking on all cylinders, and together, you’re easily defeated. You’re defeated before you can get to the arena.”
Irving left in the middle of one of the greatest rivalries. While the Cavaliers still managed to go to the NBA Finals without Irving, they couldn’t match the Golden State Warriors’ star power and folded up quickly in four games.
Irving had the urge to experience something different as the Cavaliers’ front office and James had different futures in mind. His only regret is not talking to James right away, as words of his trade demand leaked out while he was on a Nike Tour in China.
“We didn’t talk during that time,” Irving said. “When I look back on what I was going through at that time, I wish I did because it would’ve been a good understanding of what the future will hold for both of us, and we know how much power we both had together. Me and him in the league together running Cleveland, and then being able to put a better team together every single year would’ve definitely been worth it.”
Irving saw first-hand how James wielded his power in roster construction. He admitted that being around James accelerated his understanding of the game and the business that they are in.
“I watched him deal with it in front and off the camera,” Irving said.
But James’ teams from Cleveland to Miami and now in Los Angeles were not built for sustainable success. His previous teams hit rock bottom when he left them.
So when Irving said he wanted to co-manage the team, it raised eyebrows.
During his end-of-the-season press conference, Nets general manager Sean Marks indirectly shut down the idea and cast dark clouds over Irving and his long-term future with the team. Durant was the only player Marks mentioned as part of the stakeholders regarding personnel decisions though he explicitly said that he’s the one making final decisions.
Marks took a jab at Irving when he said they’re looking for “guys that want to come in here and be part of something bigger than themselves, play selfless, play team basketball, and be available.”
During Irving’s exile from the Nets due to his unvaccinated status, the Lakers reportedly thought about reuniting him with James.
Irving has a big decision to make this summer.
He has a $36.9 million player option. If he opts out, he is eligible to extend for up to four years, $183.6 million, or up to five years, $247.6 million with the Nets. At the same time, he would become a free agent and could choose to go anywhere.
With another big decision looming, will Irving finally make the right one this time?
Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo