For rescuing his career from the depths of the draft lottery and delivering him into the championship chase, Kyrie Irving will be forever grateful to LeBron James. Together they made history in Cleveland. Titles last forever, but history shows that partnerships are temporary arrangements.
As much as anything, James has taught everyone -- including Irving -- that the best players on the planet can influence, shape and even control their fates and futures. James is responsible for the empowerment of the modern basketball superstar, which speaks to an important lesson that's resonating with Irving: Dictate terms before they're dictated to you.
Irving has watched the way James has leveraged the Cavaliers for commissions on the contracts of his agency's clients, watched the way James' signing of short-term contracts has bent the will of an organization. James inspires a perpetual state of unrest and uncertainty, and everyone -- ownership and management, coaches and players -- is left scrambling to satisfy him. This strategy has been profitable in important ways, including winning at the highest level.
In so many ways, James has created the template for modern free agency, deal-making and profit-taking. From Cleveland to Miami and back again, James has taught an NBA generation to share the ball, the wealth and, maybe most of all, the ownership of self in a billion-dollar industry.
This is why Irving's declaration of independence isn't a betrayal of LeBron James but an honoring of him. James isn't committed to the Cavaliers' future, and now neither is Irving. James has educated his starry peers: Never lose your leverage. And now Irving gathers his on the way to the door.
In registering his preference for a trade, league sources said, Irving divulged to Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert that he's become increasingly uneasy about a future that includes a roster constructed to complement LeBron James -- a roster that could be devoid of James come free agency in 2018.
With James refusing to commit to Cleveland beyond the coming season, and with the growing verdict that James is intrigued with pursuing a Los Angeles Lakers exit plan, Irving has become proactive in controlling his own career arc. The Cavaliers are constructed to play a slow, half-court game around James, personnel ill-suited to transition into an up-tempo style with Irving as the centerpiece. The Cavs are paying Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith, James' Klutch Sports clients, for significant deals, and those contracts won't easily leave the Cavaliers' books.
The Cavaliers have a singular tradeable asset: Kyrie Irving. Which he knows because Cleveland had included him in trade talks around the NBA draft, league sources told ESPN. Long before Irving voiced his desire to be moved, Cleveland had considered the possibility, too -- and perhaps did so with a nod from James.
Irving has little, if any, voice on the franchise's present -- never mind its future. He has ideas, and he has come to understand: There's one voice. It's LeBron James. In a lot of ways, Irving understands it. James is the greatest player of his time, maybe ever, but everyone feels the end coming in Cleveland, and no one wants to be left to sort through the rubble. Dwyane Wade, a close friend, didn't know until the final hours that James was leaving Miami. So what chance does Irving have to find out James' plans before July 2018?
Why not wait until next year to request a trade? Why not wait until James leaves -- or perhaps decides to stay? Because now Irving has two seasons left until he can opt out of his deal, and it is harder to get traded with one season left on a contract. Paul George discovered this truth. Teams have to know they can re-sign you -- or believe they can sell a future -- or it shrinks the trade market. A dozen-plus teams are in hot pursuit of Irving, and those talks will only intensify over the next days and weeks.
Irving doesn't have a no-trade clause, but potential trade partners do need to know his long-term interest if a team is planning to unload assets to acquire him. Irving has his preferred list, and there's no coincidence that includes elite coaches: Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra and Tom Thibodeau. It includes home too: the New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden. Yet Irving is open to big ideas and big visions across the league. He isn't chasing a market as much as an environment.
The Cavaliers' championship season liberated James to leave Cleveland in free agency, if he so chooses. He can declare his job done and chase a closing act in Hollywood. Things change, though. Who knows how it all turns out? For one, Irving does not -- and that leaves his future in professional peril.
Irving had wanted to discuss the trade scenarios with the Cavs ownership and management at the end of the NBA Finals, league sources said, but that meeting was difficult to set since GM David Griffin was on the way out and Koby Altman has come into focus as GM in only the past seven to 10 days.
For now, Irving knows what's coming in the public arena, and it won't be pleasant. Perhaps James is unhappy with him, but better than anyone alive, he should understand: Irving isn't waiting on a tomorrow to be dictated to him; he's taking control himself.
The power belongs to the players now, a lasting legacy of LeBron James.