Championships are not the only thing worth playing basketball for. It’s kind of blasphemous to say—obviously every player in the NBA should want to win on some level—but not even a pseudo-guaranteed trip to the Finals every year will always be fulfilling. Kyrie Irving upset the off-season apple cart (and multiple writers’ vacations) by requesting a trade from the Cavaliers earlier this month, a request that was made public by perhaps dubious methods.
Irving’s decision has expectedly drawn criticism. Albert Burneko thinks he’s “kind of a dumbass". Marcus Thompson thinks Irving’s ego ballooned after 2016 Finals. LeBron James maybe (but probably not) wants to beat Irving’s ass. This all seems a little heavy handed.
Making basketball all about winning the Finals is reductive and one of the most annoying things about sports. Not to get too philosophical here, but in life, the journey can often be more rewarding than the result. And does the journey to the Finals for the Cavs—specifically for Irving—seem all that rewarding from the outside?
Think of what Irving deals with on a nearly daily basis. An unwavering spotlight on seemingly every shot. Passive-aggressiveness from LeBron, who is trying to lead a team he isn’t quite committed to. And the expectation that the only way your season even matters is if you win the last game on the NBA calendar. Maybe all of those things are worth it for an opportunity to play in the Finals every year, but it’s equally possible having more ownership of your team is ultimately more satisfying.
It’s been discussed at length since Irving’s trade request became public, but let’s rehash for a quick second: Playing with LeBron comes with pros and cons. For a star player, it means more fame, a higher public profile, and a chance to win multiple titles. It also means taking a backseat, getting publicly criticized, and an expectation that you’ll fall in line even if James doesn’t have to play by the same rules.
It’s unfair to Irving to assume he doesn’t know how good he has it. It’s unfair to assume he doesn’t realize with his own team not only comes the credit but also the blame. If he’s willing to live with the burden of success falling on his own shoulders, what’s so offensive about that? This isn’t a role player or scrub asking for a chance to see how far he can lead a team. This is someone who signed a max contract expecting to lead the Cavs himself before LeBron showed up. This is someone who hit one of the best shots in Finals history in the face of the league’s unanimous MVP. That player shouldn’t be curious about what he can do outside of LeBron’s shadow?
Of course, there are numerous examples of stars going out on their own and not exactly succeeding. Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign ultimately ended in a first-round exit. Kobe Bryant ran Shaq out of town, only to request his own trade when the Lakers couldn’t surround him with enough talent. So what? The same confidence that allowed Irving to rise over Stephen Curry with the Finals on the line is the same confidence that makes him believe he can lead his own team—you can’t separate what makes Irving great from his desire to forge his own path.
Maybe Kyrie will actually get traded and flame out spectacularly in his new home. Maybe he’ll continue to play poor defense, stray away from passing the ball, and everyone around the league will say I told you so. But at least in that scenario, Irving will know. He’ll know he didn’t have what it takes to create a winner based around his talents. He’ll know he couldn’t lift a team to same heights LeBron has lifted the Heat and Cavs.
And knowing is better than the alternative. Sure, Irving can stick with the Cavs, maybe ride to one more Finals before LeBron likely leaves, and earn the reputation as one of the greatest sidekicks of all-time. It takes more guts—however foolish it seems—to try to win as the hero.
The odds are stacked against Irving. So is, seemingly, the court of public opinion. But as he enters the prime of his career, he’s earned a chance to prove he can be the leader of his own team. Win, lose or draw, Irving deserves to know how far his own talents can take him.