Kyrie Irving is a star; there’s no doubt about that.
If you need any evidence of it look no further than his shoe sales. Irving’s shoes are among the most sold among active NBA players, as he and teammate LeBron James sold more than any player last year.
He’s a bonafide electric player, particularly in big moments, as evidenced by some of his playoff highlights, which include a ring-clinching shot and a monstrous 40-point game in the NBA Finals.
However, Irving also has some major flaws. His defensive “effort” is minimal, and unlike some aging stars like James, his passiveness is not something he’s “earned” by years of carrying a team during the regular season.
He’s a brilliant shot-creator for himself, but his willingness to help others is questionable. In the interest of fairness, some of that criticism seems unfair; a year prior to James’ arrival he averaged 6.1 dimes per game, and since then he’s been the secondary facilitator on a team built for LeBron.
That he hasn’t been a volume shot-creator for others doesn’t mean he can’t be. And while he’ll never be the distributor that Russell Westbrook or James Harden are, he could be something closer to “MVP Derrick Rose“, averaging roughly 25 points and eight assists in an offense that runs through him.
The problem is finding a team where that’s possible.
Of the teams that he’s put on the table or who are rumored to be interested, it’s tough to find out a place that works in his best interest.
If he were to go to Denver, whatever went to Cleveland would most assuredly not include Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets’ offense has been quite spectacular running through the “Joker.” While Irving’s skills would fit remarkably alongside that group of players, I’m not sure his personality does.
The entire reason things are working there, is a combination of the egalitarian approach to scoring and the facilitating of Jokic. Adding Paul Millsap enhances that feel. Adding Irving, who doesn’t want to play second-fiddle to the best player in the world, would be going against the grain.
Furthermore, the Nuggets had two distinctions last year after putting Jokic in the starting lineup. They were the NBA’s best offense and the worst defense. There’s not a lot there that makes you look at it and go, “They need more offense and less defense” which is what they’d get if they traded someone like Gary Harris to land Irving.
If Irving went to Denver, a team everyone agrees is on the rise, and became a disruption of chemistry, it would be the second team in two where his desire for being “the guy” would be an issue. That’s going to impact his star status.
If he goes to the San Antonio Spurs, the same potential for issues exist, but even more so. Kawhi Leonard would be the primary guy, and if there’s a “me-less” team in sports, it’s the Spurs.
Of course, the alternative is that Irving capitulates to Jokic and goes along with playing team ball. But then he’s the “Robin” still. There’s no shame in that. But there’s a reason Scotty Pippen didn’t have Michael Jordan’s level of shoe sales.
He could go to the Phoenix Suns, presumably. Or perhaps the New York Knicks. But if he’s on either of those teams, he could be racking up big numbers on a bad team, which is essentially where he was before James came.
Fairly or unfairly, if he’s losing, the stigma would stick. “He can’t win without LeBron.” Some would rightly point out that, “The dearth of talent (which is what would inevitably remain after any trade) makes winning impossible.”
But the response would just be a reminder that Irving created this situation himself. Anyone who remembers the “Smush Parker” era of Kobe Bryant’s career understands this reality.
If you make your bed, your critics are going to make you sleep in it.
The only way that Irving can increase his star status through a trade is by going somewhere where he’s the man and that team can win. That situation does not exist. And because that situation doesn’t exist, he’s in a between a rock and a hard place.
Which is why the best thing for him is to really try and make up with LeBron and stick it out in Cleveland. Even if James bolts another year, Irving will get the credit for sticking around (think Russell Westbrook after Kevin Durant left).
Even if the team is terrible, we’ll dismiss the failure because it wasn’t built for Irving. Again, think Westbrook.
If he stays, this offseason’s shenanigans will be shrugged off as growing pains. And a year from now, he’ll be the hero in Cleveland. If he leaves. A year from now he’ll be the second chair to someone else, or he’ll be the first chair, orchestrating a really bad team.
Either way, the only way his star status doesn’t take a monumental hit is if he stays in Cleveland.