Sunday, May 26, 2024

Kyrie Irving is focused on future with Luka Dončić, not past with LeBron James

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Kyrie Irving had just routed the LA Clippers by 30 points. His Dallas Mavericks were one win away from the Western Conference semifinals. But the question made him momentarily ponder an alternate reality. 

Did he seriously consider reuniting with LeBron James in this very building last season?

“Everything was considered,” Irving told FOX Sports after Game 5 on Wednesday in Los Angeles, flashing a smile.

James is currently watching the playoffs from his couch after his Los Angeles Lakers were eliminated by the Denver Nuggets in their first-round playoff series Monday. Surely, he could have used Irving’s help.

“He’s a great friend of mine, a great brother of mine,” Irving told FOX Sports. “We obviously played together [in Cleveland]. Everybody knows our history. But there were so many different factors in between. When it comes to business decisions, you have to ask the GMs, the presidents why certain things didn’t work out.” 

After Irving requested to be traded by the floundering Brooklyn Nets in February 2023, James made his pitch.

James called it a “duh” question when asked if Irving could help transform the Lakers into a championship contender. For the four-time NBA champion, who’s as media savvy as they come, that was as close as he could get to publicly lobbying for a reunion with his former Cavaliers teammate, with whom he won a championship in 2016.

The day after James made that comment, Irving was dealt to the Mavericks in a blockbuster deal, a situation that’s seemingly working out for the 32-year-old guard this season, but not so much for the 39-year-old face of the league, who has been unable to claw his way back to the Finals in four years. 

“I know I can speak for myself that I’m grateful someone took a chance on me,” Irving told FOX Sports. “Dallas welcomed me with open arms. For me, it wasn’t time to think about the ‘what ifs.’ It was time for me to put my best foot forward. That’s what I did. It’s hard to think of the ‘what ifs,’ the allure, the thoughts of it.”

James and Irving played together for three seasons, leading the Cavaliers to their first and only championship in franchise history. And they did it in a remarkable fashion, becoming the only team in NBA history to recover from a 3-1 series deficit in the Finals against a Golden State Warriors team that won four championships in eight years.

There was clearly something magical about the James and Irving partnership, which paired finesse and brute force, making defenders need to do advanced calculus in their heads to figure out how to take away shots. 

But after the Cavaliers fell to the Warriors in five games in their third straight Finals appearance in 2017, Irving stunned James by requesting to be traded, a decision he explained on “I Am Athlete” as him simply “looking for something different.”

It always seemed as though James’ and Irving’s time together was unnaturally abbreviated, leaving questions about what could’ve happened had they remained together. 

Apparently, the superstars have engaged in similar hypothesizing. 

But when Irving was traded to the Mavericks, he wholeheartedly embraced the opportunity. Irving was tantalized by Luka Dončić, whom he had long admired but hardly knew, a dynamically opposed reality than he would’ve had if he had joined the Lakers and slid back into his well-established rapport with James. 

“Initially, I knew that [me and Luka] were going to have some growing pains,” Irving told FOX Sports. “But I just came with the best intentions. It was the first time for me getting traded midseason and having to pick my family up, transition. But I’ve alway respected Luka.

“We had different times that we got a chance to talk at All-Star weekend. He was a younger player, so I knew of him. But I also knew he was a killer on the court. And I knew what I could expect when we were both healthy. I went in with a great belief that this could really work.”

The Mavericks superstars struggled to find a rhythm last season, and the team went from making the Western Conference finals in 2022 to missing the playoffs altogether in 2023, with both Irving and Dončić struggling with injuries.

Irving, who was about to become a free agent, then caused a stir when he showed up for Game 6 of the Lakers’ first-round playoff series against Memphis last April. He sat courtside, making his presence well-known. It seemed as though he was making a statement, silently shouting where he wanted to be. He showed up again two rounds later for Game 4 against the Nuggets.

But after the Lakers had gone from 10th place in the West to reaching the Western Conference finals, general manager Rob Pelinka opted to bring back his core instead of making a blockbuster trade. Irving, meanwhile, re-signed with Dallas on a three-year, $126 million deal hours after free agency began.

Irving and Dončić began to soar this season, especially when they won 16 of their final 18 regular-season games before both sitting for the final two contests, helping their team climb from eighth place in the West to fifth with a record of 50-32.

Over that stretch, they established themselves as one of the most dominant duos in the NBA, with Dončić averaging 31.3 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.9 assists, and Irving averaging 25.5 points and 5.4 assists, while often shepherding the team in late-game situations.

Both Dončić and James are transcendent superstars, with the former credited for helping reshape how the current game is played and the latter widely considered one of the greatest players of all-time. 

So, for Irving, how does playing with Dončić compare with James?

“Comparison is the thief of joy,” Irving told FOX Sports. “I try my best to enjoy all of them for their individual skill sets. And what they always taught me was to strive to be better and work on my game. They are superstars in categories, scoring, passing, rebounding. They’re 6-8 and they do different things than I do.

“For me, as the off-guard or the 1 or the 2, whatever you want to call me, my job is to give them support and continue to make them better and push them as they do for me.”

Irving tries not to look back at what could’ve been with James had they reunited. But it’s undoubtedly a titillating exercise of the imagination, considering they once made history and both remain two of the top players in the league eight years later. 

But ultimately, it’s nothing more than a mirage, just one of the millions of ‘what if’ scenarios around the league that will long be discussed in barbershops.

Irving’s focus is now on the Mavericks, who have a shot at accomplishing something great. And he confirmed he’s at peace with how things turned out.

“I’m 32 years old,” Irving told FOX Sports. “I’m not a 19-year-old kid coming in trying to figure out the NBA and the business. I’ve been around, I’ve been around teams. It just showed me you just have to be patient. give other human beings grace, yourself grace when things are new. If it seems like I have good energy, it really just comes from the people around me impacting me positively, and vice versa.”

But that doesn’t mean every once in a while, his mind won’t drift to what could’ve been had he and James gotten a second chance.

“Yeah,” he said, “It was fun to think about it.”

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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