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.  Almost four 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 was exhausted in the LeBron shadow even with winning a title but he wasn’t willing to burn the house down until after the season was over, a change from Isaiah Thomas. Does that mean he was a better teammate?

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.

Isaiah Thomas’ unwillingness to fit in with a team, do his part, not be the star, just see where he needs to fit in and be the best he can be, is a different brand of selfishness, not Kyrie self-absorption but not becoming either.

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 had it, he was 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 still be great; he is talented. But he wouldn’t have been in three NBA Finals in a row

Kyrie wanted a team to himself. Isaiah wants $100 million for himself. It’s the same thing but upside down. The Disease of Me.

I miss Tim Duncan. (Brendan Gillespie)

Greed Kills Joy

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 encompassed both. The greed of a max player flexing his power. And the ego of a man who doesn’t care about what he had. It is all easy math with narcissism at the center.

Isaiah falls from the same greedy tree. He needed the ball in his hands. LeBron needs the ball in his hands. Someone had to defer. The better player never does. But Isaiah didn’t know he wasn’t the better player.

This time of year, players salaries often meet at the salacious middle: have you lived up to your salary? Are you playing for a huge increase and damn your teammates for getting in your way?

Isaiah Thomas 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. Thomas 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. For the latter, Isaiah doesn’t have to go that far. He only has a contract through June 30th. With all of his whining, that was the point.

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 and Isaiah Thomas are 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 Isaiah 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.

Lao Tzu had clarity when he said “there is no greater disaster than greed”. (Valerie Morales)

Cleveland Will Prosper

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 applied to Dan Gilbert.

But he panicked and traded Kyrie Irving when he was under contract. What was Irving going to do? Follow up on his threat to go under the knife and miss games? That’s farfetched and frankly ridiculous. The Cavs underestimated what most of us knew from the jump. You can’t replace Kyrie.

They found that out but a little too late. Is it too late for this reboot?

Probably not. All the players the Cavs took on are complimentary players who will look up to James and follow his leadershp. The only question mark is that Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson have never been in the playoffs. No one knows how they will react under pressure.  But their chemistry with LeBron will be what Kyrie’s chemistry used to be in those wonder years. It helps immensely that James wants to win and he doesn’t have a defiant enemy trying to control the action and yank something away from him.

LeBron James will never back off the limelight, the person in charge. James leadership suffocated Kyrie and Isaiah but not Jordan Clarkson or Rodney Hood, perimeter threats who will fall in line.  With a magic trick, the Cavs cut out the bleeding, wrapped the sore in a bandage and now it is play on.

This league is about how many wins you have, how many titles are in your pocket, how many players you make better. The Cavs are in sink or swim mood. Their head is above water. It is a change. Two days ago, they were drowning. (Mallory Wheat-Stith)


photo via llananba