By Jason Keidel
Three years ago, LeBron James served up some chicken soup for the NBA’s soul. Despite his run of four straight NBA Finals with the Heat, he decided to leave, trading sun, sand and sandals for snow, slush and Timberlands. He fled 80 degrees and palm trees for the cold carcass of the Rust Belt.
He came home — for real — back to his native Northeast Ohio.
There was no incentive, no monetary or celebrity splash, only the charming desire to bring the title-starved city of Cleveland its first sports title since Jim Brown bowled over defenses in 1964.
LeBron cobbled together a healthy, hardwood triumvirate, joining Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to plant their flag as kings of the Eastern Conference, where they wouldn’t really be pushed until the NBA Finals. After a first-year heartbreak, losing to the Golden State Warriors as the injured Irving and Love watched, they broke their forlorn historical membrane, winning in LeBron’s second year back.
Now Irving, who is largely credited with beating the Warriors with his amazing step-back three-pointer late in Game 7, wants to be traded. This is surprising — no, stunning — on several levels. Life has been exponentially better for Irving since LeBron became his teammate, as the Cavs basically went from a 20-win team to a 60-win team with the single stroke of a pen.
Irving does not, in any way, come off as the typical dumb jock, as personally or professionally obtuse, selfish or myopic. No doubt he sees the world well beyond the bold ink in today’s tabloids. As arguably the most gifted guard in the sport, he can also appreciate what LeBron has done for him on the court and for his career. Winning does more than move the bottom line; it nudges the PR needle every year. Irving has morphed from a big fish in a polluted NBA pond into a considerable catch in a glittering ocean of victory and celebrity.
It’s even more jarring when you consider Irving’s recent remarks to Sports Illustrated. After calling the Cavaliers’ current state “peculiar,” he then preached the team ethic. “The best thing we can do is handle things with class and professionalism,” he told SI. Then he asked to be traded. “Obviously, we have a great owner that’s willing to spend a little money on guys that he believes in,” Irving said about the owner whom he just asked to trade him. “At this point, we just have to see what happens throughout the summer.”
Where will life be any better for Irving than exactly where he is? Should LeBron leave next summer, as many predict he will, then that changes things. But for now, playing with the best player on the planet, still in his relative prime, with a strong chance of making the NBA Finals again, while making $20 million a year, isn’t a bad place to be. Was the world better when Irving was living in cellar-dwelling anonymity in perhaps the worst sports town in the nation?
It’s not like the Cavs have bombed over the last three seasons. Not only have they breezed through the Eastern Conference playoffs, they lost in six games to the Warriors in their first meeting, despite LeBron’s laughable supporting cast while Irving and Love were injured. The next year they beat a 73-win team whom many were ready to crown the greatest ever. And this year they had a chance to make it a series had they held onto their fourth-quarter lead in Game 3. It feels premature to jam the panic button.
Especially for someone as seasoned and laconic as Kyrie Irving, who knows that LeBron James is good for business, especially for point guards in their prime.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.