Kyrie Irving’s path to greatness was already laid out in Cleveland when LeBron James returned.
After a successful internship with Pat Riley in Miami where he collected his first two NBA rings, James fulfilled his legacy in Cleveland making true to his promise of winning a championship for his home state.
Under James’ leadership, Irving grew into an All-NBA guard. In the grand scheme of things, the endgame of James’ second act in Cleveland was supposed to play out with Irving succeeding him in the leadership role.
But Irving couldn’t wait any longer. He’d grown tired of being Robin: he was young and wanted to be free from James’ large shadow. At 25, he rushed himself to become Batman.
He got what he wished for when he was traded to his conference rival Boston Celtics, a great, young team that came up short against him and James in the Eastern Conference Finals the year before.
His arrival in Boston was met with high expectations: with his championship pedigree, the ownership and the community saw him as the leader who would galvanize the up-and-coming Celtics team.
“I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt like I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential. I wanted to see how far I can go,” Irving said during his introductory press conference in Boston.
Two seasons later, Irving saw how far he could go in a starring role. His abrasive leadership and unpredictable mood swings have torn apart a once-solid Celtics team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals twice without him.
Having missed all of last year’s playoffs due to injury, this represented Irving’s first trip to the playoffs without James, and it ended in a tragic five-game loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round. It was a disappointing exit considering the Celtics beat the Bucks in seven games without him and Gordon Hayward last season.
The Playoff Kyrie that the Celtics traded for didn’t show up in the games that mattered. Irving’s hero-ball style often clashed with the Celtics’ egalitarian brand of basketball under coach Brad Stevens. This was entirely at odds with his stated goal upon arrival in Boston.
“I’m just looking forward to playing my position. I’m looking forward to becoming something that I’ve always envisioned myself being, and that’s being a complete point guard on a great team,” Irving said at that time. When push came to shove, Irving completely abandoned that.
Facing elimination in Game Five, he was a dreadful 6-for-21 from the field and had only one assist against three turnovers. In their ill-fated Celtics’ postseason run, he shot a career-worst 38.5 percent, with his last four losses the worst stretch of his career. His -3.7 +/- per 100 possession when he’s on the court was also his worst. He was never lower than +5.4 in his three playoff runs with James and the Cavaliers.
During the Cavs’ 2016 championship run, Irving netted a career-best +9.7 in the playoffs. He also averaged 25.2 points on 20 shots while James had 26.3 on slightly fewer shots (19.9). Without a teammate of James’ caliber in the Boston lineup, Irving became the main target of the Bucks’ defense, and instead of making good reads of the Bucks’ defensive schemes, Irving crumbled under pressure.
The most telling sign came in their Game 4 loss when Irving’s shot selections was questioned after a 7-for-22 stinker that came on the heels of an 8-for-22 Game 3 ugly shooting night. “Who cares? The expectations on me are going to be sky-high. I’m trying to do it all. For me, the 22 shots? I should have shot 30. I’m that great of a shooter,” he said in the postgame.
Stevens tried his best to deflect the criticism towards him and took all the blame when he told the press he did a ‘bad job’ managing the team’s egos in what he referred to be ‘the most trying season of his coaching career’. It was obvious, though, that Irving played a large role in that lingering problem that fractured Boston’s locker room.
In retrospect, he fell victim to his own ambition. His self-worth had been - reasonably - inflated by a career season and an iconic championship-winning shot over back-to-back league MVP Stephen Curry in the 2016 NBA Finals. He felt he was more than ready to become a leader. But the cold hard truth slapped him on the face in this playoffs.
Not even a phone call to apologize to James in January could turn him into one overnight. "The responsibility of being the best player in the world and leading a team is something that's not meant for many people. And 'Bron was one of those guys that came to Cleveland and tried to really show us what it's like to win a championship. And it was hard for him. Sometimes getting the most out of the group is not the easiest thing in the world. Fewer are meant for it or chosen for it. And I felt like the best person to call was him,” Irving said.
As he grapples with his failures, Irving still has a chance to right the ship and reach his destiny. And this summer will be critical in shaping his future legacy. Boston can offer him to stay with the promise of redemption and maybe an Anthony Davis as a potential partner who can match up against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Then there will always be the lure of playing near home in New York or Brooklyn and a chance to play alongside his friend Kevin Durant, who also wants to make his own legacy.
But the pull towards Hollywood may offer him the best chance to make peace with his own past and make things right.
Irving could not live with his own failure. Where could that bring him? Back to LeBron.