For every twist and turn, every scoop and reverse lay-up, every step-back jumper and silky dribble-move that makes Kyrie Irving a menace on the court, comes a story off the court that paints him as a troublesome presence in the locker room.
For all the accolades and highlights that prop up the former number one pick, come personality concerns.
For all his talent, comes a tale.
Irving has long been regarded as one of the best point guards in the game, with All-NBA talent spread all over his popular image. But after a trade to the Boston Celtics in 2017, the idea he was ever a good teammate seemed to evaporate.
Rumours constantly swirled Irving did not get on with anyone at the organisation, from general manager Danny Ainge to backup point guard Brad Wanamaker, mainly due to his dislike of the city of Boston. The hopes he would transform into an empowering leader on a playoff team after years of being a sidekick to LeBron James flew right out the door.
It does not make him a bad person, or a bad teammate, instead just someone who did not suit the environment he was in, and from there tensions rose. After all, Irving was traded to the Celtics, he did not sign there as a free agent by choice. O.J. Simpson never liked living and playing in Buffalo, and eventually he left for the sunny California sun.
The Celtics have been able to patch up their revered culture since Irving left, and the Brooklyn Nets now have a championship team to build around with him and fellow superstar Kevin Durant leading the charge. Both parties won.
But while debate will exist around his off-court presence, nothing can be denied about Irving’s work on the court. Ever since he was drafted in 2011 the 28-year-old’s draw card has long been his incredible skills with the basketball, which make him one of the NBA’s very best on the offensive side of the ball. Despite just 11 games at Duke, a lot pointed towards Irving as one of the most exciting offensive players of the 21st century coming out of college, one the Cavaliers needed to select with the number one pick. Thankfully, they did.
Irving is an artist with the ball, with mesmerising dribbles allowing him to zig-zag his way through defences and score, whether taking the ball inside for an acrobatic reverse lay-up, or stepping back for an outside jumper. Spins and fakes are second nature and defenders are left looking foolish. He also has no trouble extending his range and a lot of the time gets streaky from behind the arc.
It all combines to make Irving one of the most talented players in today’s game, and arguably the league’s greatest ever ball handler alongside Allen Iverson. Even then, Iverson has a bit of catching up to do.
Kyrie Irving has the greatest handles of all time and you can’t tell me otherwise pic.twitter.com/ykcMMNfmJD
— 𝗘𝗶𝘁𝗵𝗲𝗻 ❄️🦄 (@IcyPorzingis) May 18, 2020
The numbers do not do him full justice. Dressing for playoff contenders and Eastern conference bottom dwellers throughout his nine year career, Irving has averaged 20 or more points in seven seasons including the 2019-20 campaign (prior to its suspension), three of which have seen him post 24.4 points or more. Add to the mix two All-NBA nominations, six All-Star selections, an All-Star game MVP and a championship ring.
He ‘offically’ burst onto the scene with an incredible performance in the 2014 NBA All-Star game. Irving led the way with 31 points and 14 assists, helping the East to an eight-point win. But within his high-scoring outing was an array of sweet moves that made his night as entertaining as anyone could have been expected. Side by side with the game’s very best for the first time, Irving showed his worth at the pinnacle of the NBA.
Kyrie’s layup package in the 2014 All-Star Game was just ridiculous. pic.twitter.com/oQFRQZz58Q
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 17, 2019
In Cleveland, Irving was the Robin to James’ Batman from 2014 until 2017, but enjoyed a gradual rise in production in all three trips to the NBA playoffs, and developed a reputation as a big performer on the biggest of stages. He averaged 19, 25.2 and 25.9 points a game, which included 12 games of 30+ points and three of 40+ points. Two of those three 40-point games came when the Cavs were on the verge of elimination, in game five of the 2016 NBA finals and game four of the 2017 finals, both against the juggernaut that was the Golden State Warriors.
After what turned out to be a tumultuous stint with Boston, which still delivered high-scoring campaigns, two All-Star selections and an All-NBA second team honour, Irving’s skillset was on full display despite another change of scenery in 2019. He was on track to have his best season yet, quietly averaging 27.4 points a game, which included two games of 50 or more points – one of which was his Nets franchise debut. He was posting career highs in rebounds, free throw percentage and a career second-best in assists.
So what is the problem?
Irving did not feature much on court for the Nets in the suspended season, thanks to his ongoing shoulder troubles. However successful surgery in March suggests the pain that has bothered him for some time is over, and he can return to his best. But other injuries have hampered the guard’s career as well. If everyone is honest with themselves, there is not much of a concrete future planned out.
Health aside the Nets were 8-12 when Irving played, and 22-22 without him in the lineup. Not a major improvement, but sitting at .500 without your star player is impressive. For Irving, it is alarming.
That comes down to the next step he needs to take in his career. The late Kobe Bryant (boy that is a sentence that hurts to type), who was a mentor to Irving, said in 2019 the former Duke guard was the modern day version of him, adding “Kyrie’s the one I’m closest to”. Similarly to Bryant and differing from James, Irving emulates an attack-the-basket style that is personally empowering, rather than one that elevates his teammates as much as himself.
Interestingly Bryant said Irving needs to find a way to get the most out of what is around him, off the court more than on the court. “How do you find an emotional connection with each player, figure out what those fears are and help turn those fears into strengths,” Bryant added. It is something the Black Mamba did in 2008 after losing in the finals to the Celtics, and he and the Los Angeles Lakers came back to win the next two championships.
There is not a situation Irving has been in with so much comfort and independence, than he is in now. Arriving in Cleveland was courtesy of the Cavs, moving to Boston was thanks to two organisations. Having grown up in New Jersey, the guard gave himself a sort of homecoming by signing with Brooklyn, and doing so with Durant, one of the all-time greats, offers he and the franchise more than enough to succeed from a roster standpoint.
There is a platform there, with every necessary box checked for Irving to personally evolve and succeed. It is all about, as coach Phil Jackson often said, going from ‘Me to We’.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.