The Death of Honor

On July 10, 2014 Kyrie Irving signed a max extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The next day LeBron James announced his intention to return home, blowing to smithereens the Kyrie as star narrative.  Three years later, a lot of backwards and forwards leads to revisionist history. What if?

Had the Miami Heat not been so thoroughly dominated by the San Antonio Spurs creating a LeBron James funk, Kyrie Irving may have gotten his wish- the center of everything Cleveland Cavaliers, paired with Andrew Wiggins. But LeBron James came into his orbit and everything about Kyrie Irving’s career changed.

Earning a NBA title as a reward for being a good soldier, Irving now wants out despite the high probability of being in the NBA Finals if he stays. It is not that Kyrie Irving wants more but he wants something else. Is it greed? Is it selfishness? Is it ambition?

The Death of Honor

I miss Tim Duncan. I miss his loyalty. I miss his commitment to teammates. I miss that he took less money so his teammates could get paid more. I miss his integrity. I miss his game. I miss his gratitude and generosity. I miss his ego-less persona, the we and not me.

When Tim Duncan left the NBA, honor went with him, at least that’s what it felt like.

Kyrie Irving wanting a get out of jail free card is symptomatic of stars wanting to flee when it is convenient for them to not live up to what they agreed to. A small cadre of stars have the entitlement excuse. Their talent incentivizes their hypocrisy: winning isn’t the important thing. They need to feed their selfishness at the expense of teammates, organizational culture and the fans who support them with no such loyalty breach. Fans remain.

Kyrie Irving’s trade request is the first of its kind. He is not ring hunting. The best he will amount to in the near future if a trade is negotiated and then executed is a second round loser. His days of playing in the Finals will come to an abrupt end since he won’t be a member of the Warriors and LeBron won’t be his teammate.

A lifetime ago,  Kyrie was looking forward to an Andrew Wiggins pairing. Instead, Irving had to defer to the veteran and champion James. Despite how hard Irving thinks he has it, he is privileged. James is a willing passer, a generous teammate, a tough competitor and he is a perfectionist like all great players. Without him, Kyrie would be a better version of Kemba Walker. An All-Star yes. But that’s as far as it would go.

Nevertheless, the fantasy remains. Kyrie wants a team to himself and it doesn’t really matter if that team has the ability to march it’s way through the conference or not. All that’s important is that Kyrie would be the center. In essence, he would trade honor for look at me.

I miss Tim Duncan. (Brendan Gillespie)

The Money-Heart Exception

Often, greed and ego are interchangeable when talking about NBA athletes and their desires. On the one hand greed can never be satiated in simple terms; on the other hand, ego can ruin possibilities. The Irving trade-me bombshell encompasses both. The greed of a max player flexing his power. And the ego of a man who doesn’t care about winning. It is all easy math with narcissism at the center.

Kyrie needs the ball in his hands. LeBron needs the ball in his hands. Someone has to defer. The better player never does.

This time of year players salaries often meet at the salacious middle: negotiating the high end. But Kevin Durant turned down more money to walk away from OKC and then did it again a year later. LeBron James has taken less money over and over again. Dirk Nowitzki took less money twice. These are Hall of Fame players unwilling to be seduced by what was easy. What they all had in common was their willingness to barter, to take less because they wanted to win a title. They wanted to help their team thrive in the playoffs. They wanted to be the last man standing.

But Kyrie Irving presents a problem owners have no answer for. The player who wants to be the centrifugal force of a team. It’s not about winning. It’s not about money. It’s not about small market or large market. Irving is willing to traffic in mediocrity in order to have his own team. Its like the two year old who demands his own toy, who refuses to share with others. There are two choices. I am the star. Or I don’t want to be here.

Removing money as a fetish means you have to appease ego. But at the same time, NBA reality requires talent accumulation. Players have to be surrounded by stars. So it is a conflict for the player who wants money and who wants to win and who also yearns to be the alpha dog. Its not always equal, having and getting. Players as gifted as Kyrie Irving is on offense still need dominant talents to partner with. But it is those partners that cause the grief.

What are owners to do? The NBA is increasingly about keeping star players happy which often means being financially permissive. But what if NBA stars can never really be happy. They want to win. Or they want money. Or they want to be the star of the team like Kyrie and get all the credit. They don’t want to be option 1A. Their wants are never static.

Greed is not singular, not just a money issue. You can be greedy for attention. You can want the world to only recognize you. You can ruin what you have because you want more credit and don’t really understand that with all the attention comes all of the blame. Greed is not just about wanting as many titles as you can get. It is not about winning year after year after year. Greed is not a financial issue. It is not a competitiveness issue.  Greed is a heart issue.  The inability to be happy with what you have even though what you have is greater than almost every NBA player.

Kyrie Irving has a heart issue. (Valerie Morales)

Cleveland Will Cave

When Kobe Bryant demanded a trade in the summer of 2007, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak tried to make a couple of deals work, couldn’t, and then said to Kobe figure out how to be here and be happy. Bryant was under contract. There was no reason to trade him other than to appease Bryant and why would the Lakers do that when he was their golden ticket? His departure would sink them. The same rule applies to Dan Gilbert.

Why trade Kyrie Irving when he is under contract. What is Irving going to do? Boycott games? Not play? Risk suspension? No. Kyrie will act like his mentor acted and suit up and play hard. If history repeats itself, one year after begging for a trade, Irving will be in the NBA Finals.

Under no circumstances should the Cavs trade Kyrie Irving. They have all the leverage and Irving has none. So what if he is unhappy. That’s part of the unwritten rule of 5 year deals. Sometimes things happen. Let him figure out how to be productive and how to mend fences with James, who he has dissed big time with this stunt, and how to be part of a team he has decided is holding him back from his true goal of _________. At this point, no one knows what Kyrie Irving wants. Dan Gilbert shouldn’t even try to fit the pieces together.

But if the Cavs are true to NBA form they will trade Irving by December 15th. They’ll try to work out a Miami Heat or New York Knicks deal or some third team no one expects while getting mismatched pieces in return that will sabotage their core. Yet the Cavs will still find a way to get to the Finals because the east is wretchedly weak and the Cavs have LeBron James. Temporarily.

LeBron James isn’t responsible for Irving burning the house down but he provided the blueprint with a twist. James wants to win. Irving wants to control the action. The difference hardly matters when Irving is gone.

LeBron made sure players saw themselves as powerful men who could create their own futures but he hardly expected he would be the victim of such a bold move.

One year after title euphoria, the Cleveland Cavaliers have no general manager and a star that is asking to be traded. Selfishly, Irving wants the show to be about him and he is packing up and moving because LeBron James will never back off the limelight, the person in charge. James leadership is suffocating Kyrie’s dreams. It seems petty and small and the opposite of winning and it is, but be careful what you wish for. This league is about how many wins you have, how many titles are in your pocket, how many players you make better. Kyrie is about to find out the hard way how easy it is to fall down the rabbit hole and struggle to get back up. When that happens, he and the Cavs will be in the same irrelevant place. Nowhere. (Mallory Wheat-Stith)


photo via llananba