Cavaliers, WWW

Missing Kyrie Irving: While We’re Waiting

I know that news of Kyrie Irving’s trade is likely played out, but since Craig gave me the keys to ‘While We’re Waiting’ this week, I thought I’d throw my hat into the Kyrie ring. I preface this all with the simple fact that this is all through my eyes…clear or not…

By June 19, 2016, my basketball journey as a Cleveland Cavaliers’ fan looked a lot like what it must have for Western explorers during the days of Manifest Destiny. I’d seen the gambit of basketball eras in Cleveland, from the drought of the Stephien era, to the playoff highway of Lenny Wilkens and Mark Price and Brad Daugherty and Larry Nance. I treaded water with Fratello and Shawn Kemp, and caught scarlet fever with Wittman, Lucas, Chris Mihm, Trajon Langdan, and Ricky Davis. I climbed the mountain with LeBron, and caught the holy trio of cholera, typhoid, and yes, dysentery when LeBron took his talents to South Beach. Since that fateful day, the traverse to June 19, 2016 brought me through a lot of uphill terrain (boy were the years between 2010 and 2014 bad), before LeBron returned, clearing the final path. But, he didn’t do it himself.

And while LeBron James will always correctly be credited with the era of basketball that brought Cleveland its Manifest Destiny when they won the 2016 NBA World Championship, it was Kyrie Irving that pounded home the final nail. There will never be a bigger shot in Cleveland Cavaliers’ history than that shot on June 19, 2016, with 55 seconds left in the NBA finals. In the 1.5 seconds it took the ball to leave Kyrie’s hands, until it rattled through the rim, a lifetime of NBA ridiculousness was washed away.

And now Kyrie Irving is no longer a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

I’m not going to lie… that wasn’t an easy sentence to write. It started off as my lede. I moved it to the second sentence, then bumped it to paragraph two, before finally deleting it altogether. There was a small part of me that thought that if I wrote it down, and deleted it, I could somehow make it go away; because as annoyed as I was in hearing that Kyrie asked to be traded, he still hit THE SHOT!

When the Cavs drafted Kyrie Irving, I was ecstatic. While there were questions regarding Kyrie being the best player in that draft (right Derrick Williams?), the few games I had seen him play at Duke left me pretty excited. No, he wasn’t LeBron, but boy could he score. With a couple of really good drafts, and some good trades, I really felt like Kyrie could be a centerpiece of a really good basketball team.

It was frustrating watching the Cavs those three years before LeBron returned. The team never seemed to click; their post 2011 draft picks were either suspect or mismatched, and the team struggled to gel together. The Cavs struggled to sign free agents, and had to take chances on players like Andrew Bynum.

Whenever I think about the pre-LeBron / Kyrie years, I can’t help but think of Anthony Bennett wandering around the court, not having a clue of what to do, and that infamous players-only meeting in November of 2013. It was in that meeting, according to Brian Windhorst, in which things got contentious between the roster.

According to everyone involved, it didn’t become physical, but Kyrie showed up to the next game with a broken nose and a black eye (it happened in a game… supposedly), and Dion Waiters went missing (he was sick… supposedly). The year was messy. Andrew Bynum was there, and then he wasn’t. Mike Brown was there (again), and then he wasn’t, and boy did he and Kyrie get along (not).

Three years into the Kyrie experiment, and it wasn’t really looking all that good for the team. There was some buzz about Kyrie leaving, and more than a few questioned his ability to lead a team. Mind you, Kyrie was all of 21 years old at the time, playing in his first 70+ game season.

But did I love what Kyrie could do? He was such a fast, shifty player. There were moments when he looked a bit like some sorta CGI effect, moving like The Flash at hyper speed, while everyone else was in sl0-mo. He’s always been so tough to guard, and to block, and he just finds a way to get to the basket and finish. He’s always been that way. But it wasn’t translating to Cavs wins, which was a much bigger problem than just Kyrie. But when LeBron was the previous star… the comparisons are hard to match up to.

And that may be the singular reason why Kyrie Irving is no longer with the Cleveland Cavaliers, because if it was tough living up to LeBron’s expectations when he was Miami, things were about to get a lot more difficult. Less than a week after Kyrie signed his extension, LeBron returned, with his now famous SI “coming home” essay, and in the paragraph that meant the most, he talked about the quest to win a title, mentioning Kyrie before any other Cavalier.

“I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league.”

I remember thinking two things about that one line:

  1. LeBron is the one guy that can steer Kyrie…
  2. What if Kyrie doesn’t want to be steered?

I only mention this because it seems relevant today, whether or not it’s connected is up to whatever you believe, between then and now. In what seemed like a marriage made in heaven, LeBron and Kyrie, and eventually Kevin Love, would form the Cavs version of the Big Three, and while there always seemed to be some sorta drama going on, there was no doubt that the Cavs and Kyrie, at least on the court, were better for it.

And while it seems incredulous to say now, it probably is tough for a guy like Kyrie to play with LeBron James, perhaps the greatest player to ever lace up high tops, in much the same way it’s difficult for anyone trying to find his or her own footing, when they’re working or playing in someone else’s shadow. Right or wrong, this is something that has happened daily across the country in a million other professions, professional sports included. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and way off topic here.

So much has gone down since LeBron returned, and Kyrie is clearly a better player for it. The first year in LeBron’s return, and the Cavs found themselves in the finals, but without a healthy Irving. Irving was already playing with bad wheels, when he aggravated an already painful knee injury, missing two games in the Eastern Conference semis. But Kyrie, diagnosed with tendinitis in that knee, was giving it all on the court, and was clearly pissed off that he was missing any time at all. There were many that questioned Irving’s heart before that 2014-2015 playoff run. Some said he didn’t play through pain, and some said he didn’t have the heart to take it to the next level. That playoff series shut a lot of people up. Irving literally played until his knee gave out. He broke his knee cap in the first game of the finals against Golden State, and if there wasn’t surgery to fix the injury, I’m pretty sure he just would have taped it up.

Talk about tenacious.

It’s times like this when you realize how little we really know about these players. With social media, and coverage 24/7, it’s easy to think that we can define a player based on rumors and innuendos, or based on a puzzle that we put together from less than 5% of a complete picture. Kyrie was probably as mislabeled as any player prior to that 2014-2015 season. He was immature, because of course, he was young. He didn’t play through injuries, because he hadn’t played in over 60 games in his first two years. He couldn’t carry a team, because they had never made the playoffs.

I was a Kyrie fan before LeBron James, but after that first playoff year with LeBron, Kyrie became something a little different… or was it earlier? Could it have been when Irving scored 57 against the Spurs, in a 128-125 Cavs win in overtime. Did I mention he hit the three pointer that sent it into overtime?

Or maybe it was a few weeks before the 57 point game, when he scored 55 points, hit the game winner, and the Cavs only scored 97 total point in their victory.

You see, this was what everyone expected from Kyrie when he was drafted first in that 2011 draft. No, not 55 or 57 every night, but that kid that could take over a game at will. Having LeBron helped him do that, but notice who isn’t on the court at the tail end of that Portland game? This is when it felt like everything was going to come together…that Kyrie and LeBron were going to ride this thing for as long as LeBron James could throw on an NBA jersey. While LeBron was the clear centerpiece of the team, you could almost see a day when LeBron passed the baton to Irving, who would perhaps find an offensive ceiling that even LeBron didn’t.

Kyrie could ice you from behind the arc.

Kyrie could ice you from the mid-range.

Kyrie could ice you in the paint, from every angle.

Kyrie was the player that found every open nook or cranny, and was able to get up a shot, over, under or around whoever was in front, next to, or behind him. No, he didn’t play D all that well with the Cavs, and it’s probably the one consistent flaw that has nagged at him since high school, but that was part of the charm, wasn’t it?

And while charm probably isn’t the best word to use there, isn’t that how it always secretly plays out in those driveway basketball dreams we’ve all had? When the hell do we play defense? Sure, there’s that one magical steal (and likely, one magical block), but it’s all about taking the last shot, or throwing down a dunk, or getting fouled going to the basket, for the inevitable buzzer beater.

And we all know that Kyrie could play better defense, right? Maybe that’s the part of his game that would transform him into the transcendental superstar on the court, the way that his Uncle Drew commercials, and his fantastic run of sneakers did off the court. His offensive skill, and more importantly, his ability to take over games when it counted most had put him on that precipice, if his NBA Championship winning shot hadn’t already done that.

So here we are today, looking at a 2017-2018 season in which Kyrie Irving will be wearing the Green and White of the Boston Celtics, a team the Cavs will likely see in the 2018 playoffs. If you stand back and take out the emotion, the trade in which the Cavs acquired Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas, forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets 2018 unprotected first-round pick is a good one. It does all of the things you want that trade to do.

And Isaiah Thomas is going to be a really fun player. Jae Crowder will bring some youth, defense and three point shooting, and that first rounder pick could either bring the Cavs future with it, or another veteran start to push the Cavs towards another NBA title.

It’s not hard to look at Isaiah Thomas’s numbers and compare him to Kyrie Irving. It’s not hard to think that Thomas isn’t going to join the Cavs, and bring the tenacious underdog quality that made him the most popular player in Boston. It’s even possible that Thomas will make the similar big shots that put Kyrie on the map.

But Thomas will never hit THE shot. Thomas will never be THAT guy, and while Kyrie struggled with the shadow that was LeBron, I hope he realizes the shadow that he left, because there will never be a bigger shot made in Cleveland. When you hit the game winner of an NBA Championship in a town that hadn’t seen a trophy in a major team sport since 1964, you have a special place in that city…for life.

And he better never have to pay for a meal here. Not ever.

And now… Kyrie’s gone… and long before it should have been over… the player that hit THE SHOT is gone…

and damn it…

…I’m going to miss him.