The two teammates, one already great in his sport by any measure of the word and the other aspiring to be identified as such, made their way off the court after the first of the four wins they would need to bring the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship in 52 years, and they shared a moment of mutual admiration.
“Way to be special tonight,” LeBron James said.
“Yessir,” Kyrie Irving said. “You, too, baby.”
Irving had just recorded 30 points and eight assists. James had 32 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. Their efforts helped the Cleveland Cavaliers, who opened the 2016 NBA Finals by dropping Games 1 and 2 to the Golden State Warriors by a combined 48 points, win Game 3 by 30 points.
After the duo had two big performances in Games 5 and 6, the stage was set for history to be made.
In Game 7, Irving had 26 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute over Stephen Curry, a play that will be remembered as an impossibly clutch shot and mimicked on driveway courts. James had 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and a chase-down block just as remarkable as Irving’s ice-in-his-veins triple. And the Cavs took the title as the best basketball team in the world. James was named Finals MVP, becoming the first player in a Finals series to lead all players from either team in all five major statistical categories. Yet on some sports talk shows and in certain corners of the internet, Irving’s performance — from the clinching 3 to outshining back-to-back league MVP Curry over the course of the series — was heralded as more valuable.
A year later, the Cavs are four wins from the championship again, and the partnership between Irving and James remains strong.
However, both players acknowledge that a shift in power from James to Irving is inevitable, and they are bracing themselves to make it as smooth as possible.
Things started anything but smooth between James and Irving.
First, there was James’ arrival just weeks after Irving signed a $ 90 million, five-year max contract extension, presumably to remain the face of the franchise.
When free agency officially began July 1, 2014, the Cavs brass — including owner Dan Gilbert, general manager David Griffin and coaches David Blatt and Tyronn Lue — held a midnight meeting with Irving; his father, Drederick; and agent, Jeff Wechsler, in a private room in a New York City restaurant. James’ name never came up at the meeting.
“When Kyrie made the decision to stay with us, we didn’t present LeBron as a free-agent option,” Griffin told ESPN this week. “We were concerned what would it look like for him because Kyrie had been really active with us in recruiting everybody that was going to come if LeBron didn’t come. And was very successful as a recruiter.
“[Gordon] Hayward wanted to come, Chandler Parsons would have come, Channing Frye would have come, Trevor Ariza would have come. Like, we had an opportunity to get everybody, and he had done a great job for us. So there was a little bit of trepidation on our part of, ‘Is he going to feel like we’ve asked him to go backwards?’ And from the very beginning, it was like, ‘Griff, all I want to do is win.’ So he’s been very receptive to it.”
While Irving might have warmed to the idea of playing alongside James after averaging just 26 wins a season in his first three years in the league, there was still the issue of meshing his game as a scoring point guard with that of a ball-dominant point forward.
“For me, I see Kyrie growing every single day and wanting to be great. And so me, I just try to give him the blueprint, as much as I can.”
“I think at first I was trying to prove to him who I want to be, and he was continuing to be who he is,” Irving told ESPN after Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals. “So now we’re just constantly just growing with one another, and the open dialogue between us, too, it’s been great. I mean, when you’re around someone every single day and you get to know them and you get to know their weaknesses, their strengths, you get to appreciate all that about one person.”
“It was understanding,” he said. “It’s like a deep understanding because of how great he is and how great I want to be. And that’s a hard balance to figure out with two people. And especially the difference in age and what he’s doing and what I’m trying to do. But I think that just understanding how great it is for both of us to be on the team at the same time and us not trying to get in each other’s ways.”
Irving made the comments after scoring a playoff career-high 42 points to help the Cavs go up 3-1 on the Boston Celtics. Half of those points came in a surreal 21-point third quarter when he shot 9-for-10 from the field and capped the period with a 26-foot, step-back 3-pointer.
“It was one of those moments for everyone,” Kevin Love said of Irving’s quarter-closing shot. “When he sized it up and let it go and it was in the air, you know, we knew.”
Irving knew it was his time to step up after James followed up a troubling 11-point performance in a Game 3 loss to the Celtics by picking up four fouls in the first half of Game 4. Before Irving went off, the Cavs trailed by as many as 16 in the first half and faced the possibility of going back to Boston to play a Game 5 with the series tied 2-2.
“When you build a championship team, you got to have guys that are willing to step up, and obviously we got a special guy in Kyrie who was just like, ‘All right,'” James said. “They kept it at bay. That’s all I was thinking, like, ‘Just don’t let it get out of control.’ That’s all I ask, and I’m going to redeem myself in the second half.”
James was brilliant in the second half, scoring 24 points after the break while managing those four fouls and avoiding being whistled for a fifth. But he was complementing Irving at that point, not the other way around. It was brief, bred out of circumstance and necessity, but Irving took back control of the franchise for a spell.
These May-December relationships don’t always go so well in the NBA. In a team sport that’s marketed with individuals, things can become mighty cramped when egos are involved.
The most infamous tandem gone awry was Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers. Seven years apart in age, they played eight seasons together, winning three championships and playing in four Finals before it fell apart and O’Neal was traded to Miami.
While their success was undeniable, there will always be a feeling that the pair left championships on the table by not figuring out a way to coexist.
Irving counts Bryant as a mentor and has talked to him about O’Neal in order to avoid the same mistakes with James.
“It’s a tough balance,” Irving told ESPN. “Because everyone knows, Shaq was really dominant and [had] a lot of the individual accolades … unbelievable. And that’s who he was. And Kobe was just consistently working on his game and consistently trying to prove everyone all the time. And you got to commend somebody for that. That just shows the true testament of their will and what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to sacrifice, but I know I don’t want to look back and say that I let my selfishness get in the way of us winning championships, because we have unbelievable talent on this team and unbelievable players, and so I don’t want to ever take that for granted.
“Whenever that time comes and it’s my time to be the leader of the franchise, then I’ll be well-prepared. But for now, I’m cool with just being — I’m very, very cool with being — a great guy on a great team.”
James and Irving are also seven years apart in age.
A four-time MVP and three-time champion, James wants to set Irving up for multiple championships and MVP trophies of his own.
James, 32, strategically picks his spots to prop Irving up. Last season, after Kyle Lowry beat Irving out for a spot on the All-Star team, James said Irving was destined to be named league MVP someday. And James told ESPN earlier in these playoffs that Irving, 25, is on the path to becoming an “all-time great” for the way he has mastered his offensive skills to set up others to score.
Cavs management is tickled by how Irving has taken to James’ tutelage.
“I think the one thought we had was that if he embraced it, it would be a great way for him to be around a true alpha and learn how to lead,” Griffin told ESPN. “He had leadership kind of thrust upon him very early because he was our best player, but he wasn’t really emotionally evolved enough to lead. He didn’t want that mantle. He didn’t want that responsibility. Nor should he have.
“So what’s happened now, I think he’s grown into that, and as he’s growing as a player and as a leader, LeBron becomes much more important to him because having that sounding board there and having that actual example set for you is a really valuable thing. So we hoped that LeBron would be the one. The dream scenario is that he raises the next great player here.”
While Irving bides his time, riding out the rest of James’ prime that doesn’t seem to be ending soon, he seeks incremental breakthroughs.
Aside from consulting with Bryant and living with James, Irving has made a habit of studying Michael Jordan.
“All I do is … I read a s— ton of books on him,” Irving told ESPN of Jordan. “And a lot of their … footwork compilations on YouTube.”
Irving, who played at Duke, has crossed paths more than once with Jordan, who played at North Carolina, but he is reluctant to approach the basketball Buddha until he knows he is ready for all the knowledge that is in store.
“I would rather save that for a different time,” Irving said. “Almost when I feel like I’m at that level to really reach out to him. So it takes time, and we have very unique journeys and very different journeys. So I know I’m very appreciative of that. So I have the luxury of having an open-door policy with all those guys. It’s just, choose when. When and where.”
While Irving plays the game with an urgency that has him constantly pushing the pace at Lue’s behest, patience has become one of his strongest character traits.
“It hasn’t been anything short of difficult, trying to figure out when will it be my time,” Irving said after Game 4 against Boston. “And the honest answer from me is that I cannot give any energy to anything that [outside] people say would be best for the team or even sometimes what I think would be best.
“My job is to be in the moment, especially with an unbelievable player like him,” Irving said of James. “You have to just enjoy the ride just as much. You know, individual goals that you have, to just push to the side, because this team, nothing is promised, and who knows what would happen down the line, and this is probably hands down the best team that I’ve ever played with and probably will play with if we all stay together.
“But you know, you just have to be really confident in who you are as a person and stay true, and then make decisions from there and be able to apply basketball at a very high level, and you can’t cheat the game. … I’ve learned from some of the best that have played this game, and you can’t cheat it. I’ve become more of an observer as well as a leader at the same time, which I’m super proud of. So it all comes with the great veteran leadership we have on this team that allows me to do that.”
Irving’s teammates recognize what he is going through. Love says Irving could “easily” lead the league in scoring, but for this Cavs team, it’s more important for him to score in spurts and set others up.
“I think towards the end of season he was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to go score the basketball and I’m going to dictate what their defense is going to do,'” Love said of Irving. “And then it opened it up for him to getting into the lane and finding guys with assists. I don’t know what his assists numbers say, but he’s become, I’m not sure if it’s a better playmaker, but a more willing playmaker.”
Iman Shumpert, Irving’s closest confidant in the locker room, helps Irving keep his edge.
“I tell him who he is,” Shumpert said. “If he ever has a [bad stretch] or he’s playing like a certain way where I feel like he needs a battery in him, I remind him what’s going on, you know what I’m saying? But other than that, all you can do is sort of keep him in an aggressive mind state. The stuff that he’s doing, that’s just in him. There’s no other way to describe it. That’s just who he is.
“I wouldn’t know how to coach him if I was the coach. I mean, I would know how to put him in position to be successful, but the stuff that he’s doing? Winding the shot clock down, making sure we get a bucket at the basket? Keeping it in spots and timing and the three-second rule to where nobody can help?”
When asked about the right way to hand the torch from James to Irving, Shumpert said, “I don’t know. That’s a T-Lue question.”
Lue conceded to ESPN that Irving’s sometimes-low assists totals “could be my fault, because we need him to be aggressive scoring the basketball.” As talented as the Cavs’ roster is, Lue asks a lot of Irving in terms of individual scoring and always keeping Cleveland on the attack.
Lue wouldn’t ask so much of him if he didn’t think Irving could handle it.
“I just think he’s grown as a player since I’ve been here,” Lue said. “Each year he’s grown”
James, of course, has nurtured that growth.
“All the other stuff — about being a professional, taking care of your body, eating right, training — I think LeBron has done a good job of just showing him that way,” Lue said.
Griffin hears Irving being more vocal these days in practices, in shootarounds, in huddles, and marvels at Irving’s development.
“I think it was difficult for him to just accept, ‘Look, LeBron already accepts you. LeBron already knows you’re great. You were a huge part of the reason he wanted to come back,'” Griffin said. “And once I think he got comfortable with that, I think it started to become a much more natural thing. There’s still moments where you can tell there’s still some trepidation, like, ‘Am I supposed to go be the alpha now? Am I supposed to go get one? Or is he supposed to go get one?’ I think that’s difficult at times, because they’re both good dudes and they want to be received well by their teammates. And so I think finding how to pick his spots on the court has been a big deal, but he’s learning all of the right things to do off the court. So it’s great.”
James feels sort of like the Hollywood director who plucks an actor from an off-Broadway play and inserts him into a summer blockbuster as the star.
“He basically was just waiting for an opportunity to be able to blossom, and I’m just happy and blessed that when I decided to come back that I was able to help him blossom, I guess, because he gets to play in games that he’s always been built for,” James said after Game 4 of the Boston series. “He was already built for it. His game was built for it, and I’m happy, like I said, to be able to, I guess, sit back with four fouls and see him do what he’s always been built to do. He was born for these moments.”
Call them partners. Call them mentor and protégé. Call them big brother and little brother. But don’t call them destined to be together forever.
James is aware that Irving’s time is quickly approaching.
“First of all, I don’t know how Kobe and Shaq managed their partnership. All I can know, from the outside looking in, [is] that it didn’t work out,” James told ESPN. “For me, I see Kyrie growing every single day and wanting to be great. And so me, I just try to give him the blueprint, as much as I can. You know, his experiences, he’s going to learn on his own as well, and that’s what he should do, but all I can do is give him the blueprint, and that’s it. Because he’s going to be around a lot longer than me.
“He’s 25. He’s got at least 10 more years. I don’t. So I want to give him the blueprint and see what he [can] do with it. You know, no matter if we’re teammates for the rest of his career or for the rest of my career, listen, it won’t be because we didn’t want to play with each other no more. It will never be that.”