It's still a little weird adjusting to the new NBA reality created by all of the free agency movement and trades that took place this past summer. During the upcoming NBA season, Chris Paul and James Harden will team up in Houston, Paul George will help Russell Westbrook shoulder the load in Oklahoma City, and in the most shocking move of all, Kyrie Irving will help lead the Celtics and try to knock off his former team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, for the Eastern Conference crown.
The question for the last two months has been one of motivation: Why would Irving want to leave a situation where he could play with the league's best player LeBron James? Though he spent most of his time on ESPN's First Take on Monday dodging Cleveland questions like crazy, Irving stressed that moving on was driven by a desire for personal growth, rather than any sort of serious issue between he and his Cavaliers teammates. He said:
"I have nothing but love for the times I spent there. There’s nothing about that. It just comes a time where you mature as an individual. It’s time to make that decision, and there’s no looking back from that standpoint. There’s no time to figure out how to save someone’s feelings when ultimately you have to be selfish in figuring out what you want to do. It wasn’t about me not wanting to win. It wasn’t about that. I want to be extremely, extremely happy in perfecting my craft. And that was the only intent I had in all of this."
This explanation makes total sense, though the bit about saving someone's feelings is enough to raise a few eyebrows. That seems like a pretty clear swipe at LeBron, who has spent most of the summer posting cryptic Instagram stories alluding to his distaste for the situation. And Irving dug the knife a little deeper during the interview when he offered up this explanation for why he didn't keep LeBron in the loop on his trade demands.
Although fans probably oversell the degree to which teammates are friends with one another—there are split friend groups just like any other office—not communicating with guys you have gone to three consecutive NBA Finals with feels strange. Irving doesn't owe anyone anything here, but it's the sort of common courtesy you usually see from someone leaving a high-achieving team. This isn't a journeyman guard leaving the Sacramento Kings, it's a player who hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history fleeing from a perennial contender.
Despite this, Irving told Stephen A. Smith and Max Kellerman he doesn't really understand why people are so confused or angry about his decision.
"I think it got a lot more attention because everything else started coming out from who would think that their important opinion mattered most. I saw previous players, I saw past players, I saw current players speaking on something that had absolutely nothing to do with them," Irving said. "I’m appreciative of their comments, but at the same time, it’s ultimately my decision."
Yes, it has nothing to do with them, but Irving is (hopefully) smart enough to realize this happens every single time a notable story in sports happens. Irving is trying to change the framing to avoid the question. No one has ever said he doesn't have a right to do what he wants and pursue a goal that matters most to him, they've simply questioned the merit of his thought process, which is not really a controversial thing to do.
And just in case you thought he could make it through the full interview without throwing any more shade at LeBron, Irving answered one last question before he departed First Take: LeBron or Kobe?
Kyrie answers the "Kobe or LeBron?" question. pic.twitter.com/c4DZO8qFZS— joseph sherman (@SHERMYSZN) September 18, 2017
You probably could have guessed that answer already, because the path Irving seemingly wants to take mirrors the sort of path Kobe Bryant once sought for himself. Irving's new setup will probably work a lot better than Kobe's did in the immediate post-Shaq era—the Celtics are much, much better than the 2005-06 Lakers—but life as the alpha dog is not always what it's cracked up to be, and Irving may find that out the hard way.
An official response from LeBron to all of this is probably not ever going to come, but if you want to read into his Instagram stories, James posted a video of him working out with Kevin Love as the First Take interview was ongoing. This could mean absolutely nothing, or it could be James shading his former teammate by showing himself working out with the star who didn't force his way out of Cleveland, depending on how you view it.
Regardless of LeBron's intent, if Irving isn't prepared mentally and physically for being the center of attention and a major NBA talking point, he better figure it out soon. There's just a week to go before most NBA training camps open up, and he's in for a rude awakening if he thinks the scrutiny he has faced is anywhere close to ending.