The aftershocks of LeBron James' departure from the Cleveland Cavaliers are still being felt across the NBA ten days after the 4-time MVP announced he was joining the Los Angeles Lakers.
In retrospect, the earthquake may have started last summer. After the Cavs were beaten by the Warriors in the 2017 NBA Finals, GM David Griffin departed the team when it became clear he and owner Dan Gilbert could no longer co-exist.
About a month later, word came down that Kyrie Irving asked the Cavaliers to trade him. In August, Irving was dealt to the Boston Celtics, breaking up the Big 3 of Irving, Kevin Love, and LeBron James.
We know why Irving wanted to leave. He wasn't happy being second fiddle to James and wanted the opportunity to expand his game somewhere else. But what was going on behind the scenes?
Griffin recently was a guest on the Good N’ Plenty Podcast with Jeff Goodman and spent several minutes discussing the motivations behind Irving deciding it was best to be away from James and the Cavaliers. The portion featuring the Irving-James relationship started around the 6:30 mark.
First and foremost, Griffin spoke about the summer of 2014, when Irving agreed to a long-term contract to remain in Cleveland. Kyrie didn't just sign with the Cavs, he was actively trying to recruit other free agents to come here before anyone had a clue what James was going to do. Suddenly, LeBron decided to come home and everything changed for Irving.
“Obviously if LeBron decides he wants to come home you’re taking LeBron, you want LeBron. But, that meant Kyrie went from being ‘the man’ on a team he recruited every member of to he is now going to be second fiddle to the greatest player of his generation. Well that’s a radically different life experience for Kyrie. Because all we were doing (prior to LeBron arriving) was going through “the process” without the rhetoric. So we had been building very mindfully to create this space and to create this treasure trove of assets. That’s all he [Kyrie] had been there for. So to go from ok, kid flip the switch you’re gonna play with the greatest player ever you have to win a Championship this year. That’’s not easy. I don’t think people understand the totality of how profound that would have been on a great young player who still hadn’t figured out how to be the reason you win games.”
This was a point recently made by Jason Lloyd of The Athletic during a roundtable that featured Lloyd, ESPN's Dave McMenamin, and Cleveland.com's Joe Vardon on 92.3 The Fan. Irving suddenly was not going to be the man in Cleveland. And it was a bitter pill to swallow.
Griffin mentioned that during the three years James and Irving were together, he traveled with the Cavs on the road quite a bit, never sensing any friction between the two superstars.
“Kyrie and LeBron didn’t have drama as individuals,” said Griffin. “They could laugh and joke and make fun of each other just like everyone else did on the team. But there was more and more friction in the process in terms of how we go about winning games. It became really evident to Kyrie that he wasn’t going to have the template from which to find out how great he can truly be because he wasn’t going to have the ball enough. And when you’re trying to be point guard who makes everybody better that can be complicated. So I think once we won the championship it became clear to him that maybe he was going to need to do something else. And once I was gone, I think it became clear to him that he probably wanted to execute that plan sooner rather than later.”
Why would Irving give up the chance to play in a Big 3 with LeBron where he could have a chance to win a championship every year?
“Not everyone wants to play with the best player of his generation. People have had the opportunities to join forces and didn’t. If Kyrie envisions himself as an Alpha and LeBron is an Alpha, the worst thing you can do is say you can do this and then sink us (Cavaliers) from within. If you can’t be over yourself enough to be part of winning and that’s all you care about just say so and there’s no judgment here but don’t sink us from within. I gave Kyrie a lot of credit for just saying ‘listen I think there's a better expression from my game somewhere else'."
“It’s not that he [Irving] didn’t feel he could (play second fiddle to LeBron) he couldn’t. Nobody could have become a ball dominant play creator that makes people better in the presence of the single most efficient ball dominant play creator in history. Kyrie had to do this for the sake of himself as a basketball player and it had much less to do with his relationship with LeBron. But, it’s not as sexy a story, so we focus on the relationship as though somehow it would matter more if they hated each other. Ok lets pretend that they did, and they don’t, but if they did now what? Why is that more interesting than someone recognizing they have true greatness in him and wanted to find it?”
What about the way the request was handled by Irving to the Cavaliers?
"I think he (Irving) handled his side of things exactly right. He asked for the trade quietly, it's not his fault that the matter became public. It became public because it wasn't handled well on a lot of different levels, which wasn't his fault. He became vilified, when in reality it hand nothing to do with getting away from LeBron. It's I'm a 24 or 25 year old kid with a wealth of potential, who already has won an Olympic gold medal, who has won an NBA championship, who has hit the biggest shot in Cleveland sports history. Now I want to go see how good I can really be. You can't fault him for that."