When Kyrie Irving emphatically shocked his employer, the Cleveland Cavaliers, with his insistence to run away from LeBron James, something no one has ever publicly said they wanted to do, it turned the NBA world [and the Cavaliers] upside down. First, it erased a myth that players would sell their soul to draw a gasp of LeBron James air. Even if Irving was an outlier, he changed the romantic idea that LeBron was the teammate most likely to be loved by everyone. Um, not really. LeBron is human just like Kyrie is human with all the corresponding emotions, hurts, pettiness, jealousy and power struggles that encapsulate adult working relationships.
Irving wanting out, ridiculous or logical depending on your skin in the game, was in a way refreshing. He was doing more than betting on himself. He was willing to fall to the bottom and claw his way to the top when all of it was unnecessary. He was already at the top. In essence, he didn’t want to blow the house down. He wanted to ruin the mega-mansion. If nothing else, it was as dramatic as his game 7 game winner in Oakland.
On the other side of Kyrie selfishness, Isaiah Thomas was the victim we all are when we are sucker punched by someone saying, “it’s not you, it’s me.” Isaiah didn’t do anything wrong except have value as a scorer, and a bum hip that some felt would never return to form. But as an asset, the leading 4th quarter scorer had value in a trade package that required the Celtics to give up their coveted Brooklyn lottery pick, which may be (but probably isn’t) a top-2 pick.
The Celtics, as loaded as they are with gritty, tough, physical unselfish athletes, need a dominant big like DeAndre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III. But to get something, you have to give something up.
Kyrie was the Finals MVP. He is a magician with the ball. He can get into the lane and finish with both his right and left. He can change directions in mid-air. He drains threes like they are layups. He loves pressure and he loves everything about Kyrie.
Isaiah is similar. He finishes at the rim, drains clutch shots, can run pick and roll. He’s too small to possess some of the Kyrie ball handling intangibles and he’s not an acrobat like Kyrie but he finished in top-5 in MVP last season. He can handle all the stress of carrying a team.
Almost eight months later, what has been accomplished in the beautiful trade where both teams got something?
Both Isaiah and Kyrie had or will have season ending surgery. Both teams involved in the trade were delivered on a platter damaged goods. In fact, Kyrie mentioned had the Cavs refused to trade him, he was going to protest by having season ending knee surgery which means he knew he needed the surgery and was trying to hold off.
Isaiah is a free agent with his career in unchartered waters, even more confusing than when he was drafted 60th. In that same draft, Kyrie was drafted first. But a knee surgery following a knee reconstuction before the age of 28 is Derrick Rose waving the white flag.
The trade that was supposed to deliver the Celtics to the NBA Finals and be a stop the bleeding until the Cavs sew up one more NBA Finals has both franchises traveling a rocky road. For sure, the Celtics cannot get to the NBA Finals without Irving. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and Al Horford and the rest of the gritty C’s will play tough defense and never quit but it’s not enough to overcome LeBron James.
As for James, his path has gotten easier but it is not game over, see you in Houston or Oakland. The Cavs added three players at the deadline (Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr.) who either have never played in the playoffs or never played in a Conference Final. Without Kyrie, James needs everybody to play at a super elite level and he needs to trust Kevin Love more than ever. Even with that, the Cavs have a point guard hole that is bigger than Isaiah’s dented ego and Kyrie’s world is flat confidence he’ll return better than ever.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. This week on ESPN’s First Take, Stephen A. Smith talked about LeBron beating Kyrie or else his legacy wil take a big hit. That’s been put to bed with the Kyrie-having-screws-out-his-knee-replaced. In the interim, the East has weak story lines other than LeBron trying to get his team to the big party one more time and Brad Stevens, yet again, having to do more with less.
This NBA season has been a fable: be careful what you wish for.