This is going to be awkward. There are no two ways about it. There’s a corner of my brain screaming silently that this is our favorite new NBA conspiracy, what with the league’s planning to pit the Cavs and Celtics head-to-head on opening night. We don’t know precisely when they made this plan, but we do know that Kyrie Irving, after clawing his way out of town, was flipped to Boston for Isaiah Thomas (among other important things). This means, (among other important things) that Irving will go head-to-head with LeBron James in the very first game of the season, in Cleveland, a scenario that still feels far-fetched even though it's a reality.
The Cavs, of course, have knocked the Celtics out of the playoffs in two of the last three seasons, including last season’s five-game conference finals drubbing with Thomas mostly on the sidelines. Boston had the East’s best record, Cleveland had it the year before that. It takes a whole lot of extenuating circumstances any time the two best teams in any conference make a trade. When there are stars in the fold, you know there’s unusual impetus. And when it’s Kyrie Irving asking out of LeBron James’s especially lengthy shadow—three Finals trips later—well, read between the lines. Here’s your recipe for the NBA’s new most personal rivalry.
I know we just went through the whole Kevin Durant–Russell Westbrook Cupcake Beef, which was certainly frustrating enough to conjoin two disparate foods into a hasty literary compound label. There’s no telling exactly how this will go down from here, but when it comes to LeBron James and his most difficult opponents, simple has never been the word. Eyeball emojis have come and gone, but there will almost surely be shirtless treadmill Instagram stories and strange tweets and captions. Millennials break up. The shock factor lies in the fact that LeBron has always dictated the terms of his various separations, from The Decision to the homecoming.
For all intents and purposes, Irving was the one who asked away from James, a brash move that even the staunchest back-in-my-day proponents of competition might question: LeBron has been as good as anyone in the history of the sport at getting the most out of his teammates. Whatever you think of him off the court, he’s rarely been selfish on it. Our televisions will be yelling about this whole thing so much for the next three months that we’ll grow numb to the circumstances, but on some human level, this has to sting. And while the notion of Irving heading directly to Cleveland’s chief East rival was defensible in the best-available-package sense, thinking competitively, we can do away with GM LeBron tropes for the time being.
Maybe Danny Ainge was well aware he could never pay all of his guys long-term, maybe he never intended to pony up for Thomas at the max, or maybe it just took the juju of a total eclipse for him to part with a Brooklyn pick. The Cavs gain sorely-needed depth for the short-term and a potentially massive draft chip, but the Celtics gained a premier, proven late-game scorer, while skewing their roster even younger. They’ve extended their timeframe further into a future that may not even include James playing in their conference. That’s the crazy thing about this whole presumptive feud: as well as Cleveland (and rookie GM Koby Altman) made out, this may not even be built to last.
The Warriors still run the big picture, but the internet-zeitgeist that drives the league thirsts for the new. Cavs–Celtics has levels now. It may behoove us to brace for an older, wiser, angrier, pettier LeBron James on opening night: no team Twitter thank you or LeBron Twitter thank you will take away the subtext. We haven’t even accounted for Isaiah Thomas’s role in this whole trade opera, going head-to-head against the guy the franchise he elevated wanted more. With Jae Crowder gone and Jaylen Brown still in diapers, the Celtics have nobody to guard James, except maybe Marcus Smart. With Thomas and what’s left of Derrick Rose and Jose Calderon, the Cavs definitely have nobody to guard Irving, except maybe James.
Sure, a tiring, lengthy Eastern Conference Finals might essentially be a suicide mission—after this, neither team matches up especially well with Golden State. There are also the Wizards and Raptors. The good news for the league is there’s no way this isn’t fun, which is an element that can still run dry at times over the course of 82 games. This summer stands to prove how quickly the NBA landscape can shift. Just when you think LeBron has seen everything, something shakes up the picture (Nevermind, of course, that he’ll in all likelihood re-team with Irving at All-Star weekend in…Los Angeles).
Cavs vs. Celtics can take any number of turns from here, but the thought of LeBron against Kyrie already feels urgent. Whatever it is, it’s certainly not flat.