When Kyrie Irving announced that he wanted to be traded, the basketball world couldn't believe why someone would want to leave LeBron James.
For me, it was a different reaction.
I applauded Irving's decision, simply because he is willing to travel down a tough road in an era where the Finals MVP joined a team that won 73-games the year prior.
While I applaud Irving's decision, I am not a huge fan of the trade for a number of reasons. First, I want to criticize the Celtics organization for trading away a player that earned and deserved their loyalty. Isaiah Thomas lost his tooth for the Celtics and played the best game of his life after the death of his sister. Thomas along with Jae Crowder was the reason why the Celtics are back in the conversation for the top team in the Eastern Conference. This decision by the Celtics front office was based on greed and should leave a black eye on an organization that prides themselves on taking care of their top players.
Thomas and Crowder are casualties, but this trade is going to be about Irving and his growth.
According to the odds, Irving is expected to hit career highs in points per game, usage rate, and PER. We can break down the numbers all day, but if they don't translate to titles it won't matter.
This reminds me of Kobe's decision to part ways with Shaq at the end of their dynasty together. Shaq, like James, was the best player in the Association and basically guaranteed whatever team his was on a chance at making the Finals. Kobe and the Lakers were under scrutiny for relinquishing the most dominant player in league history, much like Irving is being criticized for wanting to leave the best player of this era. But without Shaq, Kobe turned into the best player of a generation and a 2x champion.
While the circumstances are different, the mentality is the same.
Irving wants to be recognized for his talents, much like Kobe did. The 25-year old point guard has done everything in the NBA except win a Finals MVP and regular season MVP. He has put himself in the conversation for top-five points guards in the NBA and outplayed the unanimous MVP in the Finals while hitting the game winning shot two years ago.
The respect still isn't there for Irving though. Many think that his success comes from playing alongside Lebron James. Some NBA fans do not see Irving as a player that can lead a team because of the 4-13 record he has when James was not on the floor last season. The numbers show that the Cavs and Kyrie were worse without James on the floor. In Irving's defense, 13 of those 17 teams were above .500 and the team is built around James's talent, not Irving's.
With the Celtics, Irving will get a chance to be the man again. At 21, his last season as the go-to-player without James, Irving averaged 20.8 points and 6.1 assists and was voted to his second All-Star game. The Cavaliers only won 33 games that season, a 22-year old Dion Waiters was the second leading scorer.
This time around, Irving is wiser and has a better unit around him and the Celtics are going to commit to his talents first. Gordon Hayward will be his new sidekick, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown as his young gunners. The success of this team solely relies on the growth of Irving as a leader.
Irving's critics love bringing up how much he is an "iso player" that doesn't pass the ball. To that, I say Irving is a bucket-getter, and playmaker. It's a reason why LeBron James left his good friend Dwayne Wade to go play with Irving, who was 22 at the time. The most important area for Irving to excel at is his defensive intensity. What helped Kobe become a 2x champion without Shaq, was his ability to play the best players on the floor when the team needed him to. Irving will never be as good as Bryant on the defensive side (or any side for that matter), but to be a champion, he will have to do it on both ends.
This will be a process that I hope everyone will be patient with. Kyrie will not come out and win a title in his first season with the Celtics and he will not win an MVP. He will still be a ball-dominant guard. This season will be about growth for Uncle Drew.