It takes two to tango but only one to request a trade that changes the course of a potential NBA dynasty. In the case of Kobe Bryant and Kyrie Irving, ditching their lead partner gave them a new lease on their NBA lives.
Toxic situations like that of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Lakers left stars like LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal to receive the better half of the divorce settlement as both Kyrie and Kobe were left on an island to their own basketball devices in the aftermath.
In the 2003-04 seasons, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal allowed their relationship to reach a new low as Bryant called out O’Neal’s effort to start the season. Kobe wasn’t wrong as O’Neal posted his worst season scoring since his rookie season in the NBA. Expecting a motivated Diesel after a lackluster second round exit to the Spurs the year before, Kobe had to shoulder most of the Lakers offensive load. Living up to his Vino moniker, Bryant increased his scoring average throughout the season including a league-best 28.2 points per game on 53% shooting in February.
The Lakers didn’t need a month of dominance to know Kobe was legit, but the Cavs, on the other hand, needed a better track record out of Kyrie to buy into him as the man. In the summer of 2014, The Cavs signed Irving to a five year $90 million dollar contract. Coming off an All-Star MVP, Kyrie was the quintessential franchise player expected to reach new heights with his new contract. Give or take three or four years, David Griffin molded the Cavs roster around the new savior of Cleveland sports. That was until the King decided to return to his throne.
Unlike Kobe, Kyrie paled in comparison to a motivated LeBron coming off his fourth straight NBA Finals appearance. Cleveland saw that their oligarchy which focused on making Kyrie better needed an overhaul now that LeBron was in town.
LeBron’s sheer will drowned out any objection by Kyrie. Unlike Kobe, Kyrie had not matured to the point of openly addressing his concerns of playing with LeBron. Instead, he gladly deferred. Morphing himself from a do it all point guard to a scoring specialist. LeBron had Kyrie on a leash, deploying him against defenses when the time came. And for one season it worked, culminating in an NBA championship in 2016, with Kyrie stealing the spotlight with “The Shot” over Steph Curry that clinched Cleveland’s first title.
Championships mask problems, but they don’t get rid of them. Kobe and Shaq could have won 10 championships in a row and still hated each other. Egos have to be checked at the door because once they’re inside your house they make it hard to co-exist.
After the 2016 Finals, Kyrie was at the highest point in his career but still under the mighty thumb of LeBron James. LeBron, like no player before, has developed a comprehensive control over the game when he is on the floor. Dwayne Wade came around to understanding that, which lead to championships but, having got his ring already, Kyrie felt that there was nothing on his end he had to change
The LeBron-Kyrie on-court relationship wasn’t the Yin and Yang relationship of power and skill Kobe and Shaq had, but it reinforced that two is better than one when it came to dominating the ball.
In 2016-17, the Cleveland tandem ranked 4th and 5th in isolation possessions, with Kyrie leading the way. They were also the only pair of teammates to rank in the 80% percentile in pick and roll efficiency as the ball handler; once again Kyrie was the better of the two. Watching the games play out, most would never even contemplate Kyrie being more efficient than LeBron, especially in two of the staple plays of the modern NBA offense. Kyrie saw it when nobody else did and decided it was enough for him to blaze his own path.
Everyone points to Kyrie’s 4-19 record when LeBron sits, but Kobe had growing pains of his own without Shaq. The superstar effect of being the guy responsible for your team’s success is where there is a gap between Irving and Bryant.
Without Shaq, Kobe flexed his all-around talents to shore up the team on both ends until the Lakers were able to acquire Pau Gasol and Ron Artest. Kobe already established he could dominate scoring the ball after Shaq’s departure, however, it wasn’t until he adapted his game to complement the ability of Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Derek Fisher that he began to win championships.
Kyrie was spoiled winning a championship without having to adapt his game in the way Kobe did. Kyrie is arguably the most skilled ball handler and scorer in the NBA, but those titles only compliment him. The terms “playmaker” or “two-way player” don’t apply to Kyrie. Kyrie wants to perfect his craft playing with the Boston Celtics in the same way Kobe perfected his craft in the absence of Shaq. However, there is a key difference between the two.
Shaq couldn’t put his arm around Kobe in the locker room and tell him about making game-winning shots, running the offense, or even making clutch free throws.
If Kyrie couldn’t perfect his craft playing with one of the greatest all-around players of all time, then how can he do so now on his own?
He has a forever template for his situation in a five-time NBA champion in Bryant. This season will tell if he can follow it.
photo via llananba