“To be the man, you gotta beat the man”. Those are the words of 16 time World Heavyweight Champion “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. Flair was known for many things throughout his illustrious career including custom made shoes, Armani suits, Rolex watches, legendary promos, and being one of the greatest in-ring performers of all time. When Flair told opponents they had to beat the man to become the man it was a reminder to them that all of their career accomplishments were meaningless until they could beat him. To be the man, you have to beat the man.
Kyrie Irving wants to be the man. He’s made no secret of that over the past month. Tired of living in the large shadow of LeBron James, Irving has decided that his considerable talent is great enough that he can lead a team to a title as opposed to playing second fiddle. Kyrie and LeBron were teammates for 3 seasons (2015-2017). In that time the Cleveland Cavaliers appeared in 3 consecutive NBA Finals including a 2016 championship which saw the Cavs erase a 3-1 deficit en route to the franchise’s first and only title. LeBron James was MVP of that year's Finals and deservedly so. James averaged 29.7 ppg, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.9 assists for the Finals. His 41 points in game 5 of that series helped saved the season when Cleveland was on the brink of elimination. In a game 7 LeBron's chase-down block on Andre Iguodala and late free throw helped seal the victory and a long-awaited title for Cleveland. LeBron's 3rd Finals MVP was well deserved.
With that being said, Kyrie Irving was no slouch in that year's Finals himself. Kyrie averaged 27.1 ppg to go with 3.9 assists and rebounds per game. Kyrie matched LeBron's 41 point effort in game 5 with 41 of his own. Never known for his defensive prowess Kyrie showed what he is capable of defensively by stifling Stephen Curry in games 6 and 7. Irving was sensational in game 7 showing his full repertoire of moves in a dazzling 26 point performance. Uncle Drew torched Golden State with runners in the paint, step-back jumpers, off-balance finishes at the rim, and of course the soul snatching 3 he hit with 54 seconds left. As great as James was there’s no question that Cleveland doesn’t win without Kyrie Irving.
Then came the 2017 NBA Finals and it was a much different story. Old, slow, unathletic, and defensively inept the Cleveland Cavaliers were sent to another galaxy by a Golden State Warriors team that could also be the Western Conference All-Stars. Cleveland never stood a chance against a team who had won 73 games the year before and added Kevin Durant to a roster that already had Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. Soon after the Finals, defeat came talk of dissent in the Cavs organization. General Manager David Griffin stepped down as Cavs GM on June 20th amidst a difference of opinion with Cavs owner Dan Gilbert. And then seemingly out of nowhere, Irving announced that he wanted to be traded. A move that stunned many in the basketball culture.
This whole situation conjured up memories of Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett. The dynamic duo of the flashy point guard from Brooklyn and the dominating 6'11 big man had the potential to run the NBA and bring a title to Minnesota. Garnett was the cornerstone of the franchise which irked Marbury who was tired of being Robin to Garnetts Batman. So Marbury much like Kyrie asked for and eventually received a trade. Coney Islands Finest had individual success in his career (2 times All-Star, 2 times All NBA, and 96-97 All rookie team) but he never achieved team success among stops in New Jersey, Phoenix, and New York. Those late 90s T-Wolves teams will always be one of the NBA's many “what could have been” stories.
Kyrie Irving was traded on Tuesday in a blockbuster deal that sent him to the Boston Celtics in exchange for Isiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and Ante Zizic. Diminutive in size but prodigious in talent, Isiah Thomas is a supremely gifted offensive player. Thomas is coming off a career year where he averaged 29.2 ppg and was top 5 in MVP voting. Thomas leads the Celtics to the number one seed in the East and a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals where they would eventually lose in 5 games to Cleveland. Only time will tell which team won or lost this unique trade between the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. Me personally I don’t like the practice of grading trades, free agency pickups, or draft picks in the moment. We will all find out during the 2017-2018 season who got the better of this deal in the short term and the two teams open the season against each other on opening night.
Kyrie got what he wanted. In Boston, he is the best player on the team and has a chance to prove he’s the man. Kyrie along with Gordon Heyward, Al Horford, and rookie Jayson Tatum will comprise the Boston Celtics version of the Four Horsemen. Playing alongside LeBron James has meant a guaranteed spot in the NBA Finals since 2011. Throughout LeBron's tenure in Miami and his return to Cleveland he has decimated the Eastern Conference on an annual basis on his way to playing basketball in June the last 7 seasons. It’s almost inevitable that Boston and Cleveland will meet each other in this year’s Eastern Conference Finals. In that series, Kyrie Irving will have the chance to style and profile, wheel and deal, and show LeBron James that he’s the dirtiest player in the game. If Kyrie Irving wants to be the man, he has to beat the man.
— Dion Gordon