By: Marcus Lamar
Gordon Hayward’s injury will prove to be a blessing in disguise for Kyrie Irving this season.
Opening night of the NBA season saw Kyrie Irving return to Cleveland for the first time since being traded this past summer. The stage was set. The new look Boston Celtics led by Irving versus the new look Cleveland Cavaliers led by LeBron James.
What was supposed to be a drama filled night took a sudden plot twist just 5:15 seconds into the game. Newly acquired free agent Gordon Hayward suffered a fractured tibia and dislocated ankle after landing awkwardly on an alley-oop attempt, effectively ending his season.
All eyes turned to Irving, the 25-year-old who made shockwaves this offseason when it was reported that he wanted out of Cleveland. According to reports, he no longer wished to play alongside LeBron James.
The timing of the news was uncanny, seeing as how Irving was abroad on a business trip in China. Irving had just played in his third straight NBA Finals, one of which culminated in an NBA championship in which he hit one of the biggest shots in the franchise’s history to help win.
Why would he want to leave what appeared to be an ideal situation?
Unless, that situation wasn’t as picture-perfect as it seemed. Irving’s inability to respond immediately to the story of his trade request left many to do what they do best: speculate.
Did he leave because of James? Did he leave because he wanted to be ‘the man’? Did he leave because of the coach? His teammates? Regardless of Irving’s motivation to leave Cleveland it was always going to be viewed as a slight against James. It’s not everyday someone wants to walk away from the best player in the world and a guaranteed trip to the NBA Finals.
Irving’s decision left many puzzled and in pursuit of answers. The media and fans did what they always do when an ugly divorce happens. They chose a side. They did it with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. They did it with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And right on par they did it with James and Irving.
Blind loyalists of James scoffed at the idea that ‘the kid’ could flourish on his own. Prior to James’ arrival in Cleveland Irving had three consecutive losing seasons as the de facto leader of the team.
But that was then. This is now.
After James’ return to Cleveland we saw Irving’s game blossom on the highest of stages right before our very eyes. Advocates of Irving’s departure believed Irving was a legitimate top five player in the league at his position and he deserved a second opportunity to lead his own team — free from the massive shadow that was James.
Or, at least they respected his desire to do so.
Irving deserves credit in this respect. He pulled a LeBron on LeBron before LeBron could pull a LeBron on him. James has shown before he won’t hesitate to leave, having jilted both Cleveland and Miami respectively. When James has an idea in his head he is looking out for one person and one person only: LeBron James.
As he should.
With James’ 2018 free agency looming like an ominous cloud over the franchise and the city of Cleveland, I believe Irving saw the writing on the wall. An old roster, a system with players not conducive to his strengths and a superstar player in James who perpetually holds the future of the franchise hostage, as he operates in dual roles as the team’s unofficial head coach and general manager.
Irving has never publicly stated any of the aforementioned reasons for his exodus out of Cleveland. However, it is my belief that he had to have factored those things into his thought process when he requested a trade.
Many had the Celtics making the Eastern Conference Finals with the additions of Irving and Hayward before the season started. Most believed they would ultimately fall short to James and the Cavaliers and that prediction gained some unexpected assistance the minute Hayward went down. After Hayward’s injury, many questioned if the Celtics would be able to rebound emotionally and maintain their status as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference.
That was until Irving stepped up and answered the challenge.
It’s still early, but Irving has led the Celtics to one of the best records in the NBA and has positioned them as a legitimate force in the Eastern Conference. Hayward’s injury will prove to be a blessing in disguise as it will force Irving to learn, grow, and mature quicker than expected in his new role as leader of one of the most storied franchises in the NBA.