Kyrie Irving is a bona fide star in the National Basketball Association. The man can shoot, finish in traffic and has some of the craftiest ball handling skills the sport has ever seen. With every sensational performance Irving puts on, it becomes clear the West Orange, New Jersey, native is a special talent.
Irving is the man — but just how good is he? That question is pivotal in trying to predict the outcome of Irving’s career moving forward. Will he succeed? Will he fail? The duo of Irving and James appeared to be one of the most formidable one-two punches in league history, so why would Irving leave that?
A look into the past may give us clarity into when a star is suddenly yearning for a new beginning.
By now we all know the story of NBA greats Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s tumultuous relationship and ultimate breakup. As gifted a player Bryant was, there was no chance of escaping his Robin manicure standing next to the most dominant force possibly the game has ever seen in O’Neal. Bryant played that role well, averaging 21.8ppg, 5rpg, and 4.3apg in the eight seasons they were a duo.
But Bryant knew the talent he possessed would never reach its full manifestation playing next to a superstar of Shaq’s stature. What transpired in the aftermath of O’Neal leaving the Lakers in a deal to the Miami Heat for small forward Lamar Odom, Caron Butler, Brian Grant, and a future first-round draft pick is simply one of the more incredible stretches of basketball by an individual in the league’s history.
Bryant would go on to average 28.9ppg, 5.6rpg, and 5.1apg after Shaq’s departure while winning a Most Valuable Player award and two NBA championships. There were doubts as to whether Bryant would ever lead a team to championships without Shaq, he proved everyone wrong, ultimately spearheading his way into many “Top 10 All Time” lists.
Bryant is now celebrated over a decade after taking a chance on himself and deservedly so. But we need to be clear about one thing — everyone isn’t Bryant and many have failed to reach the accomplishment of winning an NBA Championship after chasing the acclaim of being “The Man.”
Irving recently went through a similar situation as Bryant did years ago. The now Boston Celtic, clearly feels he is a franchise cornerstone capable of being the best player on a championship team. He’s also a close mentee of Bryant’s and looks up to him in many respects.
Irving is big time, no doubt. However, he may want to tread lightly in trying to do something that more often than not leads to an uptick in personal statistics, but more frustration and disappointing postseason results.
From 1997 – 1999 recently inducted Hall of Fame shooting guard Tracy McGrady was just another guy on the Toronto Raptors. McGrady had made the daunting jump from high school to the pros and the Raptors knew he had immense ability but it would take some time to fully come to fruition.
McGrady certainly knew what he possessed inside and was tired of living in the shadows of his cousin, at the time, one of the most electrifying players in the game Vince Carter. Carter was an offensive juggernaut and McGrady didn’t embrace serving as a role player to his cousins rising star. McGrady, a native of Bartow, Florida would eventually bolt out of Toronto to play for his home states Orlando Magic where he became a sensation, instantly seeing his points per game average skyrocket from 15.4 to 26.8 in a single season.
McGrady is hands down one of the best to pick up a basketball, but it can’t go unsaid that he was another talented guy that rarely found postseason success. In 10 years as “The Man” for Orlando and the Houston Rockets, he never advanced past the first round of the playoffs.
Had McGrady played with Carter in their primes, the two forces would’ve undoubtedly made several runs at a championship. Raptors fans knew at the time that McGrady had great potential and supported him with “Come Back T-Mac!” shirts during games. But McGrady yearned for more, wanting to be the man. Even now he wishes things would have been different.
“In hindsight, looking back, obviously I wish I had stayed in Toronto,” McGrady stated in a recent telephone with reporters. “There’s no doubt we could have contended for a championship. I think about that often. But if ‘if’ was a fifth, you know?”
Before NBA great Kevin Garnett was traded to the Celtics and delivered Bean Town a championship, he was a star who wasted many of his prime years stuck on a Minnesota Timberwolves roster devoid of talent. It wasn’t always that way. In 1996, with Garnett entering into his sophomore season with the Timberwolves, the franchise made a draft night trade which landed them super talented point guard from New York City, Stephon Marbury.
Marbury was a rare breed at the lead guard position. He was fast, strong, athletic and could get to the rim with ease. It appeared the Timberwolves would have their duo for the next 15 years who would compete with the Lakers, Kings, and Spurs for Western Conference supremacy. With back to back playoff appearances under their belt, year three of the marriage appeared to be the time they would take the next leap forward.
Then egos and contracts hindered everything.
Similar to Bryant’s feelings toward Shaq, Marbury had long been rumored to be somewhat jealous of Garnett being regarded as the Batman to his Robin. Marbury wanted the extra acclaim and respect. Garnett receiving a larger contract extension, basically cementing in Steph’s mind that he would always be Robin. Sadly, he would’ve received his respect in due time playing with one of the most selfless superstars in the history of the game.
To make a long story short, Marbury forced his way out of town, ultimately landing with the New Jersey Nets. Although Marbury would go on to have an excellent career statistically also making stops with the Suns, Knicks, and Celtics, it didn’t lead to postseason success, making the playoffs just three times in the decade since departing Minnesota.
Marbury is respected among his peers. He was a baller. But the acclaim and admiration he would’ve likely received had he stayed put in Minnesota was something he may not have understood at the time.
As the story is told, it didn’t take Marbury long to realize the struggles and frustration that builds quickly when trying to man the ship by yourself. The late Flip Saunders, former head coach of the Timberwolves described a phone call with Marbury the year following his trade out of Minnesota. As Saunders put it, Marbury dialed him one night, stating that he never should have forced his way out of Minnesota.
“I always told those two, ‘I hope we’re not at an All-Star Game in 20 years, when you’re retired and we’re saying, “What if?” And we’re not looking at mistakes we made,” Saunders told reporter Mitch Lawrence.
This is what I fear for Irving. Sure, people will bark “Irving is better than Stephon” or “He has more of a killer instinct than McGrady.” Maybe so, but Irving is far from perfect and has never averaged eight assists a game during any point of his six-year career. That’s not going to cut it without a LeBron James on your team. Irving’s Cavaliers were a disastrous 78-152 before the return of James.
Irving did luck up to some degree. He is heading to Boston, on a Celtics team that looks to have a promising young core for years to come. The future should be bright, but Irving must prove he can lead a team — and that goes far beyond being able to score 30 plus on any given night. It is meshing with teammates, handling pressure (which shouldn’t be difficult for Irving) and PASSING THE BALL.
Should Irving follow these rules he may have a chance to pick up where Bryant left off. But then again, does anyone really believe Irving to be on that level?
If there’s one thing I HOPE Kyrie doesn’t have to live with is the phrase: sometimes life without another superstar isn’t what you hoped it would be.
Because if he does, well, then that means his plan didn’t work, and he’s less like Kobe and more like the field.
Tread lightly, Kyrie. Life without LeBron may not be what you expected.