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The complicated legacy of Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, While We’re Waiting

Kyrie Irving
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

And happy Cavaliers season tip-off day!!!

I can’t speak for everyone, but me? I need this. After the sudden and surprising end to the Cleveland Indians season, and after six weeks of frustrating Cleveland Browns football, I need something good. Something exciting. For at least one more season, we still have LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Of course, I’d be lying if I said I was extremely confident about this season. I’m hoping for the best, but bracing for chaos. There are an awful lot of moving parts to this Cavaliers season and a lot of new pieces to integrate. Indeed, only seven players are returning from last season, and one of those seven, Kyle Korver, only played half the season in Cleveland. That means that of the 15-man roster, nine players will be playing their first full season in Cleveland.

For some reason I’ve seen a lot of people suggesting that the Cavaliers only made minor changes, that this is more or less the same Cavs team. Yet only two starters, LeBron James and Kevin Love, remain in the starting lineup. Tristan Thompson and JR Smith will be coming off the bench. It’s just a lot of change.

I have no clue what’s going to happen this season, I don’t know what LeBron’s going to do after this season, I don’t know what the Cavaliers will look like next year. I’m not worried about any of that today. Today, I’m just focused on the excitement of having NBA basketball back!

And of course, because fate has such a fantastic sense of humor, of course Kyrie Irving and the Boston Celtics are opening the season tonight in Cleveland. No time to get used to seeing Kyrie in another uniform. It’s time to deal with the Kyrie situation now.

So here’s the thing, what are we as Cavs fans supposed to feel about Kyrie’s return? Kyrie’s legacy in Cleveland was extremely complicated while he was still in Cleveland, but now it’s somehow even more complicated. But let’s back up first and look again at just why Kyrie’s legacy in Cleveland was so complicated.

The year after LeBron James left for Miami, it was a brutal season for the Cavaliers. The team suffered through a brutal then-record 26-game losing streak1. That winter felt so eternal and dark. Of course, midway through that season, the Cavaliers traded Mo Williams to the Los Angeles Clippers for an unprotected draft pick. That pick, of course, became Kyrie Irving.

The following season wasn’t much better in terms of wins and losses, but Kyrie Irving dazzled Cavs fans with his penchant for coming up big in 4th quarters, earning him the nickname “Mr. 4th Quarter”. Kyrie won the MVP of the Rising Stars game. When taking pictures with the trophy in his Cavs uniform, he told the camera operator to “Make sure to get the ‘Cleveland’ [on the jersey].”

Kyrie would go on to make four All-Star teams, win an All-Star Game MVP, represent Team USA in the Olympics where he brought home a gold medal, win a USA Basketball Male Athlete of the Year award, and drill the biggest three-point shot in team history to help win Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals and bring home Cleveland’s first ever Larry O’Brien Trophy and the city’s first title in any major sport since 1964. He was special, for sure, but the relationship with the fans was uneven.

At the end of Kyrie’s second season with the Cavaliers, a frustrating season with high expectations left unmet, Kyrie stormed off the court with participating in Fan Appreciation Night. When Mike Brown was hired, Kyrie and Coach Brown clashed and Kyrie played arguably his most uninspired basketball of his career that season. Fans began to turn on Kyrie a bit. Twitter was routinely lit up with fans questioning if the team wouldn’t be better off just trading Kyrie. It got to the point where otherwise serious basketball fans actually began to question if the team wasn’t better off with Matthew Dellavedova than Kyrie Irving.

It certainly wasn’t one of Cavs fans’ brightest moments, but there was a palpable cooling of the relationship between Kyrie Irving and the fans. Whispers of Kyrie’s desire to leave Cleveland soon began to grow louder and louder, and as Kyrie approached his restricted free agency, fears began to grow that Kyrie would try to sign elsewhere. After going through the LeBron rejection just a few years prior, Cleveland fans reflexively began to brace for the worst. “Who needs Kyrie? Let him go somewhere else if that’s what he wants. We don’t need him.”

Of course, then-GM David Griffin had other ideas. He met with Kyrie at midnight that free agency period and sold Kyrie on Cleveland. He sold him on the idea of building a franchise around him. After years of Chris Grant putting duplicate skill sets around Kyrie, Griff assured Kyrie that he was going to actually build complimentary pieces around him. Gordon Haywood was going to be the first target. Kyrie was all-in. Barely an hour into free agency, word came out that Kyrie Irving was staying in Cleveland. He signed a max contract to stay for the maximum number of years.

That was a good night for Cavs fans. At least, for those of us who never wavered in our support of Kyrie. Of course, nobody could have guessed what was about to happen next. A mere ten days later, ten days that seem like an eternity, LeBron James told the world he was coming home. Suddenly, this was no longer Kyrie’s team. Rebuilding around Kyrie took a backseat. Haywood, a player Kyrie was heavily recruiting to come to Cleveland, was cast aside. Instead, the team focused on trading for Kevin Love, the player that LeBron had hand picked to join himself and Kyrie.

This wasn’t exactly what Kyrie signed up for, but come on. It’s LeBron freaking James, right? Surely they would learn to coexist and do incredible things together. Suddenly Kyrie no longer had to carry the weight of a franchise while dancing around the shadow of the former star who left. Instead, he was now playing directly in that shadow.

And for a while, everything seemed pretty great. Kyrie and LeBron got off to a slow start, taking time to bond and get on the same page on the court. Imagine the culture shock of going from being the singular focus of the franchise to instead dealing with a passive aggressive megastar who was using the media to publicly chide you for the way you played. It couldn’t have been easy for Kyrie. But he never complained about it publicly. And over time, a real relationship seemed to form between Kyrie and LeBron.

Watching Kyrie and LeBron soak in the fans the day of the Championship parade in Cleveland, nobody could have ever guessed that Kyrie was unhappy. But privately, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Kyrie was already thinking about asking for a trade. He was already planning his exit from Cleveland.

After losing the deciding Game 5 of the NBA Finals to the Golden State Warriors in 2017, Kyrie waited for LeBron in the hallway leading to the locker rooms. When LeBron approached, the two teammates embraced in a warm hug, with LeBron telling Kyrie, “We’ll be back.” Later that evening, on the podium, Kyrie and LeBron both talked a bit about the eventual passing of the torch. Kyrie talked about how it was hard, at times, to wait his turn, but how he had grown to understand the importance of winning and that he knew his time would come eventually.

A month later, Kyrie’s trade request was made public. It was all over. Somehow, this superstar PG who was competing year-in and year-out for NBA Championships with LeBron James, wanted out. Not just out, he wanted to get away from LeBron James. He wanted away from Cleveland. He wanted to walk his own path, and he wanted to do it somewhere else.

Now, as Kyrie comes back to Cleveland, that complicated legacy is put more into focus. Even had he stayed, how would Kyrie be remembered? Would he ever be more than that guy who helped LeBron James bring a Championship back to Cleveland? Sure, he hit the shot to win it, but LeBron’s block of the Andre Iguodala layup got almost as much, if not more, attention than the game-winning shot. Again, it’s complicated.

So how will Kyrie be greeted by fans in The Q this evening? A lot has been said about what fans “should” or “should not” do. I’m not in the business of telling fans how to feel or react. This is a player who signed a contract, and then asked to be traded. This is a player who blew up this entire franchise’s plans for both the near future and the long-term future post-LeBron. This is a guy who told the media he was thrilled to go to a “real-life sports city”. He’s also a player who gave Cavs fans six incredibly seasons. He’s a player who won the NBA Championship with his shot. He’s a player who gave us so much joy to watch night after night in those cold, dark midwest nights.

I don’t know how the fans will react, and I don’t even know what I hope they’ll do. I’d like to think the fans could give Kyrie a warm standing ovation before the game to show thanks one last time for everything Kyrie did for the Cavs. But then once the game starts, fans can boo Kyrie mercilessly every time he touches the ball. He’s the enemy, now.

But again, it’s complicated. For all we can say about LeBron’s televised “Decision” special to announce he was breaking up with Cleveland, the fact is, he honored his contract and he was leaving a team where the second-best player was Mo Williams to go play with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Kyrie didn’t honor his contract, he asked for a trade, and he was leaving a team that was primed to compete for Championships the next few years. It’s not a simple, black-and-white scenario.

I don’t really mind what the fans do, I just know that for me, personally, I’ll be watching the game while still trying to figure out how I feel about this whole situation. Welcome back to Cleveland, Kyrie. I hate that it ever came to this.

  1. The record is still tied for the longest single-season losing streak. The 2013-14 Philadelphia 76ers tied that record, and the 2014-15 and 2015-16 76ers set a new record for losing streak over multiple seasons when they ended 2015 with a 10-game losing streak and then began the 2016 season with an 18-game losing streak. Thank goodness for the Philadelphia 76ers []