Kyrie Irving, the Wolves and their reflections

8

A one-act play: Pondering a boneless existence and the terrible irony of it all.

Go ahead and dust off your adage of choice: The grass is always greener. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. Chances are, one of them applies to Kyrie Irving.

It seems Irving, the Cavaliers’ seminally skilled point guard and former No. 1 pick, wants out of Cleveland. This wouldn’t be noteworthy for 98 percent of Clevelanders, but Irving, you’ll recall, has an especially sweet gig at the intersection of Ontario and Huron: riding shotgun with LeBron James.

Now, you and I might jump at the chance to compete for multiple NBA championships and (co-)own the hearts and minds of a city while earning many, many millions of dollars. But because you and I get winded lurching for the TV remote, we can’t exactly walk a mile in Irving’s eponymous Nike shoe line. As the Buddha (probably) said, all existence is relative.

Irving wants his own team. Craves a franchise built in his own image. Demands his independence. And that’s all well and good. When Kevin Durant departed Oklahoma City to choose alternative employment in Oakland, I was firmly in the Fuck-It-Let-the-Dude-Do-What-He-Wants Camp. We get only a short time on this Earth, so catering to the whims of a fickle—and often bitterly envious—public rather than chasing your muse is a sucker’s game. You gotta do you. (Also, undoubtedly, from The Buddha.)

What I can’t abide, however, is Irving gumming up the works of my pet NBA franchise. Reports/leaks/potentially spurious bullshit claims that the Minnesota Timberwolves—whom I adopted as my ride-or-die squad when 20-points-per-game-scorer Tony Campbell was a thing—are interested in Irving. This makes a certain amount of sense. The Wolves are an embryonic, edgily talented group that appears ready to ride the lightning to whichever tier of greatness coach/warlock Tom Thibodeau chooses to spirit them off to. They are the mid-’60s Yardbirds, able to plug in random guitar gods to achieve semi-sonic splendor. Why wouldn’t a 25-year-old four-time All-Star with a peerless combination of shooting touch, dribble penetration skills and finishing ability interest them?

Here’s why: Irving and Minnesota go together like peanut butter and jellyfish. Whether Andrew Wiggins (the centerpiece of any rumored Timberwolves trade for Irving) goes or somehow stays in Minneapolis, I see no visible path for this team into the league’s upper-upper crust—call it the NBA’s One Percent—with Kyrie in a Wolves uniform. Consider:

  1. Defense. Irving is bad at it. Like, super-bad. And after trending toward an acceptable level of mediocrity through his first five years as a pro, Irving bottomed out in 2016-17 with a 112 defensive rating and -2.3 DBPM. Not to get too deep in the weeds with advanced metrics jargon, but those figures suck eggs. Irving too often goes tits up trying to stay in front of his man, and Minnesota would find itself in a lot of untenable screen-and-roll switches with Irving and Karl-Anthony Towns, Justin Patton and Nemanja Bjelica. The Wolves showed incremental improvement on defense under Thibodeau last season, but selling its virtue to a young team and then actually achieving the sort of night-is-dark-and-full-of-terrors defensive nirvana that Thibs so cherishes would be near impossible with Irving on board.
  2. Misallocation of funds. The Wolves need perimeter shooting and interior defense in the worst way. Anticipated progress from KAT and, in a perfect world, Patton’s instal-shot-blocking should help with the latter. But Irving’s presence not only wouldn’t address that problem, but exacerbates it. As for the former problem, Kyrie can fill it up from outside (40.1 percent on 3s last season). And coupled with his off-the-bounce scoring, he can both provide and take advantage of improved spacing in the offense. Still, Irving is a ball-stopper. Wiggins, KAT and All-NBA addition Jimmy Butler are all iso operators. Minnesota doesn’t need another. Matter of fact, with free-agent signees Jeff Teague and Jamal Crawford now in the mix (and Tyus Jones, if you’re a true head), the Wolves would be foolishly lead-guard-heavy. It’s been proven time and again in the modern game: Roster-building beats asset accumulation every time.
  3. This isn’t the droid we’re looking for. It’s simple: To make honey, you’ve gotta have some worker bees. The Wolves already have one top dog and two burgeoning alphas—and that already may be one too many (to say nothing of dopey animal kingdom metaphors). If Irving couldn’t co-exist with LeBron, who is widely considered to be an all-time-great teammate among NBA superstars, how will he react to Butler’s occasional bouts of surliness? To Wiggins’ off-the-reservation stretches of hero ball? To the waves of local affection that routinely find their way to Towns? If you can remember the Three J’s in Dallas, you’ll also remember that it didn’t end well. Sometimes less really is more. Give me Shaun Livingston, Dewayne Dedmon and Tony Allen, and let’s frigging ride.
  4. No addition by extraction. Notice anything about the above Irving-to-Minnesota scenarios? They all include Wiggins with the Wolves. But here’s the thing: That ain’t gonna happen. Cleveland won’t move Kyrie to Minnesota for less than Wiggins, and the Wolves won’t dare give the Cavs more (read: KAT), so it’s an either/or proposition. Still, Wiggins’ departure doesn’t solve for the issues we just covered. One fewer cook in the kitchen? Sure. But believe it or not, Irving’s usage rate last season (30.8) was higher than Wiggins’ (29.0). And the (legitimate) beefs about Wiggins’ ball-dominant style and damn-the-torpeoes shooting will just be replaced by a different version of the same with Irving. As for defense: Would you rather go to war with Kyrie “The Human Colander” or a 6-foot-8 explosivo still filling out his 22-year-old body (and brain)? That parenthetical is important. NBA defense takes time to learn—particularly the brand of draconian death machine Thibs has in mind. A Wiggins-for-Irving swap sabotages much of last year’s work and sets back the clock for the franchise. Nobody in Minnesota wants that.
  5. Kyrie wants that Kobe Life. Did we all just forget that Irving wants his own team? Did he? Does Kyrie even know precisely what it is he wants, aside from both having and eating his cake? Irving and Kobe Bryant are boys, and one doesn’t have to strain to imagine little brother trying like hell to fit into big brother’s clothes, doubling down on his self-belief and shifting into I’ll-show-everyone-dammit Mamba mode in the name of searing his personal brand into the hide of a franchise. On another team, that’d be fine. In another city, Irving would average 30 a night, own NBA Highlights YouTube and annually lead his team to a bottom-tier playoff seed. But it wouldn’t work that way in Minnesota. And, besides, the Wolves have set the bar much higher.

Look, Irving is good. Really, really good. He is not, however, canonically great. He is not an irresistible force, a mover of mountains, a lifter of all boats. Kyrie can go it alone or perhaps win more titles. But, put simply, he cannot do both at once.

In fact, both Irving and the Timberwolves would do well to take a cue from another old parable. Aesop turned us on to the dog and its reflection—a fable about a mutt, a bone, a pond and a failure to count one’s blessings. Irving can, and should, do what makes him happy. And the Timberwolves will most certainly do what they think is best for their franchise. But if they aren’t careful, they’re gonna mess around, get together and lose their own good things.

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