Those concerns largely centered on how Irving, as a high-usage point guard who often looked for his own shot rather than setting up teammates, would fit with James, another ball-dominant player, albeit one renowned for his passing abilities from the forward position. Yet an overlooked concern focused on the personal chemistry between the two players, both No. 1 overall picks by the Cavs eight years apart.
In a report Thursday, ahead of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, Irving revealed that he got invaluable advice from another superstar player who knew a thing or two about the possibility of a high-profile feud disrupting a championship-caliber squad: Kobe Bryant. The Lakers great, of course, had a much-publicized falling-out with Shaquille O’Neal in the early 2000s that led to the latter’s eventual banishment from Los Angeles after the two had led that franchise to three titles.
Of learning how to share a locker room, let alone the ball, with another top-tier player, particularly one seven years older, the 25-year-old Irving told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, “It’s a tough balance.”
“Because everyone knows, Shaq was really dominant and [had] a lot of the individual accolades … unbelievable. And that’s who he was,” Irving said. “And Kobe was just consistently working on his game and consistently trying to prove [himself to] everyone all the time. And you got to commend somebody for that.
“That just shows the true testament of their will and what they’re willing to do and what they’re willing to sacrifice, but I know I don’t want to look back and say that I let my selfishness get in the way of us winning championships, because we have unbelievable talent on this team and unbelievable players, and so I don’t want to ever take that for granted.”
Irving’s most indelible moment en route to helping the Cavs win their first championship last year came on a shot attempt, when he hit a critical three-pointer late in Game 7 of the Finals, but he has gained praise from James, among others, for becoming more adept at using his skills to create opportunities for others. “Kyrie can score on anybody he wants,” James told ESPN earlier this month, after Cleveland ousted Toronto from the playoffs. “ … His next growth, which I believe is going to make him a great, an all-time great, is when he can also consistently make other guys around him better. Which he is doing now.
“This is great to see. It’s always great to be a part of somebody’s maturation process.
Statistics tell some of that tale. In this year’s postseason compared with 2016, Irving has upped his average assists, to 5.6 from 4.7 (he averaged 3.8 in 2015) while lowering his shots per game from 20.1 to 19.0.
In terms of avoiding a poisonous atmosphere á la Shaq and Kobe, it likely helps that Irving and James don’t seem to have such diametrically opposed personalities. O’Neal was fun-loving and gregarious, but also used to being a dominant force while not necessarily the most intent on honing his craft (as evidenced by his .527 career free throw percentage). Bryant, seven years younger, was famously aloof, intense, sober-minded and headstrong in his own right.
Irving appears to have accepted the status of the 32-year-old James, who came back to the Cavs after winning two titles in four Finals trips in as many years with the Heat, as Cleveland’s unquestioned leader. “Whenever that time comes and it’s my time to be the leader of the franchise, then I’ll be well-prepared,” Irving told ESPN. “But for now, I’m cool with just being — I’m very, very cool with being — a great guy on a great team.”
“First of all, I don’t know how Kobe and Shaq managed their partnership. All I can know, from the outside looking in, [is] that it didn’t work out,” James said. “For me, I see Kyrie growing every single day and wanting to be great. …
“You know, no matter if we’re teammates for the rest of his career or for the rest of my career, listen, it won’t be because we didn’t want to play with each other no more. It will never be that.”