Is Kyrie Irving Escaping a Sinking Ship?
July 26, 2017

Some of the sports world's most shocking news of the month surfaced last Friday, when it was reported and quickly confirmed that Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving had requested to be traded. The news came as a genuine surprise, even with this offseason's uptick in bold moves by players and teams.

Irving was selected first overall by the Cavaliers in 2011, becoming one of the league's brightest young players immediately and being named the 2011-12 Rookie of the Year. He was the face of the franchise in Cleveland for three years, though that didn't mean much - the Cavaliers' highest win total in Irving's first three seasons was 33. Granted, he was just 22 years old when LeBron James returned to the team in 2014.

In the three seasons of the LeBron Part II era, Irving has reached the NBA Finals each June and was a critical part of the Cavaliers' title-winning team in 2016.

Before news of his request became public, there were no obvious signs of discord between Irving and LeBron James, Kevin Love, or any coaches or staff. Perhaps, however, we could look toward the Cavaliers' second half struggles as a hint that something was wrong.

The Cavaliers legitimately struggled for a stretch in the second half of the season, and not just for their own high standards. Cleveland went 11-15 over its final 26 games, as the team's defense was picked apart and ground was lost in the Eastern Conference. The Cavaliers finished 51-31, with the East's No. 2 seed and the same record as the Utah Jazz, who obviously garnered far less attention.

Why didn't anyone pay much attention to this extended rough stretch? Because it simply wasn't worthwhile. Everyone knew the Cavaliers had too much talent to not run away with the Eastern Conference. That was true. Cleveland lost just one game en route to the Eastern Conference title. Yet, the team's 51-31 mark was clearly short of where it should've been, given the talent advantage.

Some would suggest that the Cavaliers simply weren't trying too hard, and that probably is somewhat true. Still, Cleveland's performance, particularly their defensive performance, would just make you shake your head plenty of times late in the season and even early in the playoffs. Perhaps those issues went beyond a lack of effort. Perhaps that was a window into a new lack of cohesiveness within the group.

The obvious conclusion many made when news of Irving's trade request came to light was that he wanted to get out of LeBron James' shadow and taken the reins of his own team, but I'm not entirely convinced Kyrie Irving is fixated on being the face of a franchise. If his short list of preferred destinations is accurate, Irving wouldn't be the "main guy" on two of the four teams (Spurs, Timberwolves).

If Irving truly needed to be the face of a franchise, this is a strange time to say so. The possibility of LeBron James leaving next summer appears to be extremely realistic, at which point Irving could again take the reins of the team which he committed to in 2014.

Why not wait it out, while competing for a title in 2018? There is no clear-cut answer, but it seems to me that Irving's reasoning has less to do with a fixation on being the face of a franchise and more to do with what he considers a need to get away from the Cavaliers and their personnel as quickly as possible.

This could start with LeBron James, who was forced on Irving in 2014. While that sounds like a dream scenario, it's entirely possible the two never clicked. Could front office dysfunction be another reason? Owner Dan Gilbert forced out general manager David Griffin in June, a move which seemed to rub LeBron James and other players the wrong way.

From what has been reported, it seems there had been discord between Gilbert and Griffin for some time. Since taking over in 2005, no general manager who has worked under Gilbert has finished out his contract. Why? The owner-GM relationship seems to be the common denominator.

Even beyond the Kyrie Irving situation, there seems to be a toxic culture within the Cavaliers' organization. LeBron James, an all-time great sub-tweeter, tweeted on June 30, "no one wins when the Family Feuds." While that was before Irving's trade request, perhaps the tweet was a window into the dysfunction of the franchise.

The Cavaliers' title run has never seemed to distant. Nobody seems willing to deny that there is and has been serious discord between Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, and it's become overwhelmingly clear over the last decade that Dan Gilbert is not capable of sustaining a winning franchise.

Rather than berate Irving for wanting out of what many players would consider the league's best situation from afar, it might be time to consider that he has the insight to escape a sinking ship before the disaster sets into motion. 

 

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