A comparison of Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers to Kobe Bryant and the 2004 Lakers.
Stop me if you've heard this before: drama amongst a contending team, the two stars not getting along, one demands a trade, both could possibly leave, etc. Kyrie Irving asked the Cavaliers to trade him, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst, and one big part of the report was that the star guard wants to be more of a "focal point" and doesn't want to "play alongside LeBron James." This brings up old memories of a young Kobe Bryant who feuded with Shaquille O'Neal towards the end of the latter's tenure in Los Angeles back in 2004. Bryant was a young 25-year-old and arguably the best guard in the league while O'Neal was 32 years old and towards the end of one of the best primes in NBA history. Kyrie Irving is 25 years old and one of the most dynamic guards in a guard-heavy league while LeBron James is 32 years old and still the best player in the league. Sounds striking similar doesn't it?
Back in 2004, O'Neal's future with the Lakers was very uncertain. Dr. Jerry Buss was hesitant to pay him what he wanted. The Lakers just lost in the finals 4-1. Shaq was battling toe problems. Kobe dealt with his rape trial early in the season and battled a shoulder problem throughout the rest of the year. Blood was boiling between the two superstars. In the end, O'Neal was traded to Miami so he could get his money and get away from Bryant. The Lakers re-signed Kobe to a big contract despite him flirting with the Clippers and the rest of his career is one for the ages.
Now, LeBron James is going into a contract year with a lot of buzz about him leaving for the Lakers next summer. Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and LeBron James have not been on good terms since probably ever. Cleveland has very little cap room to sign free agents and just got beaten down 4-1 in the finals (like the 2004 Lakers) against Golden State. With the team potentially plateauing, LeBron James will probably not wait for management to make moves and go to a team that gives him a better chance to win. Heck, the Cavaliers did not hire a general manager until today, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, so they went through all of the draft and most of free agency without an official one. This should give James little trust in the organization.
In addition, the relationship with Kyrie Irving and LeBron James is not nearly ideal. According to an ESPN report, Kyrie did like how much LeBron "dominated the ball" and both had "long, intense conversations" throughout the playoffs, which translates to shouting matches. This is very reminiscent with Kobe and Shaq, both of whom argued intensely resulting in a literally divided locker room. Bryant had grown tired of O'Neal being out of shape and not working hard enough. Irving is tired of LeBron dominating the ball and the organization treating him like a king, pun intended.
Irving, unlike Bryant, is nowhere near a top 5 player in the league. He is arguably not a top 5 guard with Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook all definitely better and John Wall, Isaiah Thomas, Mike Conley, and Damian Lillard all arguably better than him. LeBron James, unlike Shaquille O'Neal, has never been out of shape and his work ethic has never been questioned. LeBron also passes the ball like a point guard looking to make guys better, even if does use the rock a lot. What separates Kobe from Kyrie is the former was great at moving without the ball. Kyrie is a pure isolation scorer who wants to dance. Kobe could attack quicker off the catch and make instant decisions that would not stall the offense. He did not always do that, but he would mix it up by having several gears. Kyrie has one gear and it is to get the ball, dance with it, and try to score. That is not cohesive to a team offense, which is part of the reason the Cavs' offense has never been good with Irving in and LeBron out. Add to the fact that Kobe has been selected 12 times to an All-NBA defensive team and Kyrie is allergic to that end of the floor. Irving is a great player and teammates should have disputes every once in awhile, but him beefing with LeBron is more of his fault, while the Kobe and Shaq beef was triggered by Shaq. This is not to say Kobe and LeBron are 100 percent innocent in their respective cases, but their opposite sides shoulder more of the blame.
Like Kobe did in 2004, Irving has a chance to leave his team this offseason with him demanding a trade. According to Brian Windhorst on Zach Lowe's podcast, Kyrie and the Cavaliers' management went through tough negotiations back in 2013 and 2014 when Irving wanted a new max contract. It is safe to say he is not content with the organization. That team has been dysfunctional in Dan Gilbert's tenure so it makes sense not to stay with LeBron possibly leaving. Irving could play for a better organization with a better-constructed roster ready to contend. That reason to leave is absolutely justified. Unlike Kyrie, Kobe was a part of arguably the best franchise in the league back then along with the best owner in team sports history in Dr. Jerry Buss. Los Angeles is also a much bigger city than Cleveland and is more attractive to free agents. It made sense for him to stay while it does not for Kyrie.
With one of Kobe's disciples in a similar situation as the master was at the same age, the NBA's landscape might change again like it did back in 2004. Depending on the return the Cavs get in a seemingly imminent Kyrie Irving trade, LeBron James could be more or less likely to leave. Shaq latched himself onto a rising young superstar in Dwyane Wade. Maybe LeBron does that with Lonzo Ball. What Kobe Bryant did as the lead dog is one that Laker fans will remember forever. It is highly unlikely Kyrie Irving will do that for any franchise. If he can join another superstar like Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis and be a great second option as he was for LeBron, that might be the best for him. Kyrie will need self-awareness in this process because as we have learned, the Viper is poisonous, but not nearly as lethal as the Black Mamba.