Kyrie, LeBron, and the question of leadership

Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images /

We all have people we would like to make amends with, people who we fight the urge to call and apologize to out of fear of reopening old wounds or having our kind gesture being rejected due to past pain that is still present weeks or years or decades later. Reconciliation is then an act of courage. It requires us to put our pride aside in order to make space for healing, hopefully inaugurating a new sense of relational peace and wholeness. At the very least, there is the knowledge that one has done what is right. And if a bridge cannot be rebuilt, perhaps one can more easily learn to live with themselves. Kyrie Irving took such a step recently when he called his former teammate LeBron James in order to apologize for “being that young player that wanted to have everything at his fingertips,” that young player who “wanted everything to be at [his] threshold.”

The relationship between Kyrie Irving and LeBron James was always a bit forced. LeBron did not seek Kyrie’s consent before rejoining the Cavaliers in 2014, and while the organization and all of Northeast Ohio was thrilled when he decided to return to the team after four years in Miami, Kyrie greeted his arrival with a bit more ambivalence. He was a 22-year-old who had just finished his third season in the NBA, was already a two-time All-Star, and looked like a potential franchise centerpiece for a team that was still recovering from James’ initial 2010 departure. With James returning, along with the trade for Kevin Love, Kyrie was shunted aside, becoming part of an ensemble when he was supposed to be the leading man.

They made it work for three seasons, making three trips to the Finals, and winning a title in 2016, which showcased — especially in the transcendent Game 5 when James and Irving combined for 82 points to stave off elimination — just how well the two could work together at their best. And of course, there was Irving following James’ iconic block of Andre Iguodala near the end of Game 7 with an equally iconic step back 3-pointer in the face of Stephen Curry which gave the Cavaliers a lead they would not relinquish. Whatever feelings Irving and James may have had about their uneasy union, there had to be at least a tacit awareness, however unacknowledged, that neither one would have won a title in Cleveland without the other.

Yet even throughout their three years as teammates, Irving and James never quite reached the level of synchronicity that had been hoped for when they joined forces. They were two players with agendas that overlapped on a night-to-night basis but diverged when taking a wider view. While James’ relationship with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in Miami was undergirded by deep friendship and a sort of hierarchy with James at the top, Irving wanted to be the star himself, to carve out his own legacy as a great player himself and not just as James’ sidekick.

In a move that was both shocking — for why would one want to leave the shadow of James? — while also making sense — of course Irving wanted to prove he could do it on his own — Kyrie asked for a trade after the Cavaliers’ loss in the 2017 Finals, which led to him joining the Celtics and becoming the team’s de facto leader. Even with other veterans such as Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, Irving was the one who the team’s face. Injuries kept the team from fulfilling its potential last season, yet now, as the Celtics sit at fifth in the East, it’s less clear what has kept them from doing so this year.

When trying to make amends, merely apologizing and acknowledging one’s past mistakes is not enough. There must also be a sincere desire or promise to make things right, to change one’s behavior so that the future is truly different from the past. Without such a change, the apology may not be insincere, but it is ultimately empty — an apology that will have to recur over and over if no concurrent shift in action accompanies it. While Kyrie cannot go back and rescind his trade request and try to win a championship alongside LeBron in the 2018 season, what will be more interesting than his apology to James will be seeing what concrete changes he makes as a player and as a teammate moving forward, now that he claims to be more cognizant of what true leadership demands.

However, it may not be a good thing if Kyrie took leadership lessons from LeBron, who is an undisputedly great player but has a tendency to sometimes rub teammates the wrong way, to condescend or get frustrated when they are unable to reach the standards he hopes for. Sometimes it’s understandable — see the much-memed moment from the end of regulation in Game 1 of the 2017 Finals — and sometimes it’s just a weird, and unseemly (though entertaining) form of passive-aggressiveness. There was his imploring of Kevin Love to “just FIT-IN” on Twitter, and a ton of other posts on social media that seem like vague inspirational aphorisms out of context, but appeared like digs at teammates at the time. Kyrie has seemingly taken LeBron’s lead though, saying that his teammates “don’t know what it takes to be a championship-level team.” There’s a fine line between intentionally taking on the mantle of leadership and annoying the hell out of everyone with your presumptuousness.

While Kyrie is still only 26 years old, he is already in his eighth NBA season. It would be foolish to assume that no improvement or refinement will occur in his game or style as he moves forward, but it also seems fair to assume that, for the most part, we already know who Kyrie Irving is — a marvelously gifted scorer who is skilled as anyone in NBA history at taking a defender off the dribble and creating space for himself for either a jumper or a clear lane to the basket. While most of the other Celtics players thrive by putting their particular skill set to the service of the collective, Kyrie excels by doing his own thing, isolating on the perimeter or pulling up for an unexpected three to secure the win as he did against the Raptors on Wednesday night.

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While the Celtics thrived last year in large part due to their egalitarian nature — especially in the playoffs — it appears that this year, the team needs a definite leader to help provide shape and structure to the team as it fails to meet expectations. Kyrie wants to be that man, though whether or not he is capable of being that for the long haul — and whether or not his young teammates, with their own individual aspirations, will accept his leadership or treat him the way he treated LeBron in Cleveland — is yet to be seen.

Of course, time and winning may not heal all wounds, but they’ll take care of a lot of them. Boston has won its last four games and Kyrie has averaged 30 points and 11 assists in those games, showing a stronger inclination to intentionally distribute the ball than ever before. If the Celtics continue to win, then all is likely to be well in Boston, but if they don’t, with Kyrie now vocally willing to shoulder more responsibility than before, it would not be surprising to see the already latent discontent boil over. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.