The Kyrie Irving Trade and the Pursuit of Happiness

The space available to a point guard wanting to dart between two defenders and get to the rim in basketball is often just a sliver. By comparison, how big or small was the say/feel gap during Kyrie Irving’s answers on ESPN’s “First Take” program the other day when asked about the trade he sought, the one that has now taken him from The Cleveland Cavaliers to the Boston Celtics? The show’s main host Stephen A. Smith remarked afterwards that you have to go to the non-verbals in situations like this, situations where the answers given are cryptic. So let’s do that, using facial coding to judge the amount of space between what Irving said on the air and how he actually felt.

Here is arguably the key passage from the on-air interview, as Irving denies that his being the second best player on a team with the NBA’s best player, LeBron James, was a big factor in seeking a trade: “It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have anything to do with not wanting to be the second fiddle . . . being a second-class citizen, I have no idea what that is. Or being a second banana, I don’t have any idea what that is.”

Reality check: The first detail is that Irving signed his previous, five-year contract extension believing the Cleveland squad would be built around him. Then 10 days later, James let it be known he would like to return to his hometown. Second, who sold the second-most Nike sneakers in the NBA last season? That would be Irving. Guess who came in first? At the same time, however, it’s hard to see how Irving was stunted given that with a steady diet of passes from James last season, Irving sets career highs for shots taken and points scored. Moreover, Irving averaged more touches of the ball than any member of the championship-winning Golden State Warriors, including their star Stephen Curry; held the ball more often than James and shot more often than James, too.

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Now, let’s replay the passage and add in the emoting that is going on simultaneously: “It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile) anything to do with not wanting (eyes narrowed, anger) to play with the best player on the planet. It didn’t have (eyes closed, skeptical smile, upper lip flares slightly in disgust) anything to do with not wanting to be the (lip suck followed by lips tightened in anger, plus again eyes close) second (outer eyebrow arches in surprise and fear, skeptical smile, another upper lip flair) fiddle . . .

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being a second-class citizen (eyebrows knit in anger, anxiety and sadness), I have no idea (head tilts back, outer eyebrow arches) what that is (eyes narrow in anger). Or being a second banana, I don’t have (eyes close, lips tighten in anger) any idea what (lower lip stretches slightly down and out in a sign of disgust) that is.”

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In short, has Irving made a dispassionate decision to move on to Boston, and away from James? Hardly. There’s far too much emoting going on, despite the innocuous language being used here. Is Irving being less than straightforward? Certainly. Here’s his dilemma. Irving is rightfully pursuing his dreams (and probably making a shrewd bet that the Cavaliers aren’t likely to win another championship anytime soon), but he also doesn’t want to come across as too selfish in what is, after all, a team sport. For people trying “to square a circle,” there is no lying muscle in the face that gives away their struggle to make palatable what isn’t going to be fully palatable to everybody else. But among the items to look for is whether somebody dissembling is, in effect, disappointed in him or herself for doing so by showing sadness. In this case, the repeated instances of either a downcast look or Irving’s eyes closing entirely for a moment could easily be interpreted as clues that he’s choosing “to be blind” as to the less than candid nature of his remarks. How about the signs of anger and disgust? Surely, they could be seen as clues to Irving resisting the idea of, in fact, being the second best player when matched with James on court (anger) as well as rejecting that situation (disgust) as he, in fact, did by asking for a trade.

Moreover, have we seen this situation before? Yes, we did just last year when Kevin Durant jumped from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Golden State Warriors.  Then, Durant like Irving, here, said all the right things about wanting to develop as a player and also as a man. Only what did Durant tweet over the past weekend? Referring to himself in the third person, he wrote: “He didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan [the team’s coach]. His roster wasn’t that good. It was just him and Russ [Russell Westbrook].” A second tweet added: “KD can’t win with those cats.” Caught, at least Durant was honest in saying at a conference days later: “I happened to take it a little too far.”

Can we expect something similar, someday, from Irving? I suspect so. The Cavaliers have all sorts of issues to content with, ranging from good odds that James will leave after next season for the Los Angeles Lakers, or somewhere else; that the roster didn’t strengthen this off-season, leaving the Cavaliers no match for a Warriors squad that upgraded during the off-season (a likely, attempted trade of Irving by the Cavaliers may have been the final straw for Irving in deciding to leave on his own terms); to an organization in plenty of disarray. Is it easy playing with James? Surely, no easier than playing with Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant was, to name but two super-stars with hyper-competitive personalities. Like Durant as well as San Antonio Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich, James tends to pout some and is rarely satisfied with anything short of stellar, on-court performances.

Several times during his on-air interview, Irving returned to this theme: a desire to be “extremely, extremely happy in perfecting my craft” (a big happiness smile). But then when the point guard said he “had nothing but love for Cleveland,” an equally big show of happiness was accompanied by a flaring upper lip betraying disgust. In other words, Irving was being on-message but only partially on-emotion. More disgust and anger was shown in Irving saying he wanted a “truthful environment, and I wasn’t getting that.” With James as the Cavalier’s star, and de facto coach if not also the team’s general manager, yes, anybody else is second fiddle there. Now in Boston, Irving can show everybody just how well he can or can’t play first fiddle instead.