When Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving was asked about LeBron James last season, he generally looked like he would rather chug sour milk than answer the question. Irving had requested and been granted a trade out of Cleveland — despite the fact that the Cavaliers had reached the NBA Finals in three consecutive seasons and won one title — in large part because he wanted to escape James’s shadow.
Irving usually would respond to questions by being terse or sounding irritated or just not answering at all. But this year, he seems to be comfortable in his current surroundings and more comfortable being candid about his old ones.
When he was asked Tuesday what he learned about being the face of the franchise when he was selected by the Cavaliers with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, he disputed that notion.
“I wasn’t the face of the franchise,” he said. “They made that very clear. I was just a great piece in Cleveland, which I gratefully accepted.”
It sounded as if Irving were referring to James’s return to Cleveland in 2014, and it sounded as if he might be prepared to let out some bitterness about the situation. He was asked why he didn’t view himself as the organization’s primary piece during his early years there, but his retort was softened.
“They weren’t giving me the keys to the franchise,” he said. “They weren’t. I was too young, man. I didn’t deserve them. But after I while, I felt like I earned it and I took a lot of that responsibility on myself. Still wasn’t ready to do it, but learned a lot from that point to be at this position now.”
When James went back to the Cavaliers at the start of the 2014-15 season, Irving had yet to lead the team to the playoffs. James was the best player in the world and he had won two championships with the Miami Heat. Anyone in Irving’s position would have become the second banana.
But Irving didn’t really view himself as James’s lieutenant. He just viewed it as an opportunity to learn and to grow, and he was thankful that he was able to do that, and he was thankful for James.
“Whether it was the lieutenant, sergeant, whatever you want to call it to Bron, I think that being around him and his basketball knowledge, as well as all the other veterans that complemented us at that time, was something I needed,” Irving said.
“I was just, I was the fourth year in, just signed a $90 million contract. I’m thirsty for everything, and for the most part I’ve just been taught to roll out the ball and go play.”
Irving said that James helped him realize how much of a competitor he really was, and he said that was important. Now, on a team that includes three players who are 21 or younger, as well as a deep stash of future draft picks, Irving seems eager to be the one to pass on his knowledge.
Now he is the face of this franchise, and that is something he was seeking, and that is part of the reason he escaped James’s shadow. But he seems to also be acknowledging that James’s shadow actually helped him reach this point, too.
“That was the first time I actually had to watch film and get ready for the playoffs and learn what it’s like to be competed against rather than competing,” Irving said. “We became the hunted.
“And I think that’s the biggest change you’re going to see [with the Celtics], that our effort has to surpass other teams’ talent and effort at times. That’s going to distinguish us from other teams.”