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NBA Sunday: The Kyrie Irving Quandary

Will Kyrie Irving be able to fulfill his promise playing as the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman?

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When Kobe Bryant began playing basketball at the ripe young age of three, what do you think he dreamed of?

When, at the age of 10 years old, he began dissecting film of some of his predecessors, what do you think he imagined for himself?

Do you think Bryant hoped to merely be renowned as the Robin to Shaquille O’Neal, one of the most dominant centers the league has even seen?

Or, do you think Bryant dreamed of one day being known as the greatest player that has ever lived?

What do you think Kyrie Irving dreams of?

Do you think, as a fourth grader living in New Jersey after Irving had fallen in love with the game, that his central aspiration was to one day serve as the sidekick to arguably the greatest player to ever play the game?

Or, do you think he himself dreamed of one day being the greatest player to ever play the game?

A better question may be whether Irving will ever get the respect that he hopes to earn and leave the legacy he wants to leave by being the Tony Parker to LeBron James’ Tim Duncan.

This is the Kyrie quandary, and this edition of the NBA Sunday is merely examining his potential and promise through the lens of the two aforementioned superstars who have lived similar situations already, though they have taken diverging routes.

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Back in the summer of 1996, with the Los Angeles Lakers wallowing in mediocrity, then general manager Jerry West effectively struck the basketball lottery jackpot. Amazingly, one year removed from a run to the 1995 NBA Finals, West convinced the already-established Shaquille O’Neal to accept a seven-year, $120 million contract to spurn the Orlando Magic and take his talents to Los Angeles.

This came on the heels of the Lakers acquiring an 18-year-old Kobe Bryant from the Charlotte Hornets.

Despite entering the league as the number one high school player in the nation, Bryant’s true potential on the NBA level was difficult to ascertain. He played all five positions during his high school years and was mostly regarded as a high-flying athletic wing upon his entry into the NBA.

It took Bryant two full years to become the team’s starting shooting guard, but after turning in some powerful performances and impressing the likes of West and coach Del Harris with his work ethic and confidence, Bryant would eventually supplant Eddie Jones.

Despite having copious amounts of talent, the Lakers were never seriously able to contend for an NBA championship until the arrival of Phil Jackson in July 1999.

With the implementation of the triangle offense, Jackson featured O’Neal as the primary offensive option with Bryant as his secondary. Operating out of the pinch-post and low box, O’Neal created looks and opportunities for his teammates, including Bryant. The formula was an obvious success, as the Lakers managed to win three straight NBA championships in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

That O’Neal would be named the NBA Finals MVP in all three series was not only unsurprising, it was both predictable and proper. O’Neal, the centi-millionaire, was West’s prized acquisition, the center of Jackson’s offense and the primary option.

He was, in a word, Batman. Kobe was Robin.

As the years progressed, egos clashed. For O’Neal, complacency set in. His work ethic deteriorated as his weight escalated. Bryant, who was probably a bit envious of the accolades and credit that O’Neal had gotten for his role as the centerpiece, quietly fumed.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and that fire ultimately led to Bryant making a decision that would completely alter the course of his career and his legacy.

In essence, in the summer of 2004, after O’Neal and Bryant played in their fourth NBA Finals in five years, Bryant chose the uncertainty of pursuing his own destiny over continuing to thrive as the Robin to O’Neal’s Batman.

Shaq had fallen out of favor with the Lakers’ front office and, wielding an immense amount of power by virtue of being a free agent, Bryant could have helped smooth things over between the Lakers and O’Neal. Instead, he sat by idly as O’Neal was traded to the Miami HEAT for Brian Grant, Caron Butler and Lamar Odom. He did so partially out of the want to be a good company man, but also because he believed that he was better than being second fiddle to anybody and he wanted to prove that he could win without O’Neal.

Bryant was correct, and his stubborn belief in himself has made all the difference in the world.

Now, two championships later, Bryant is regarded by most people as, at the very least, the second-best shooting guard to ever play the game. He is considered by many to be the best Laker of all-time and by some, one of the top 10 players in history.

There is no way Bryant would have ever been regarded in that light by us if he could not win without O’Neal. Whether to take the opportunity to do so was a quandary of his own, but it is a quandary that Kyrie Irving may one day face.

Ten years from now, even if Irving accomplishes great things alongside LeBron James as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, how do you think history will remember him?

For that answer, look no further than Tony Parker.

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It seems that since July 2003, Tony Parker has been searching for the respect he deserves, and 11 years later, his search still persists.

Even after admirably steering the San Antonio Spurs to the 2003 NBA championship, the Spurs, armed with cap space, attempted to sign Jason Kidd away from his New Jersey Nets. At the time, the decision to go after Kidd was questionable, to say the least.

In Parker, the Spurs seemed to have a neophyte who, at the young age of 21 years old, was already a championship contributor thanks to a decorated international career that began at the age of 16 for Paris Basket Racing.

Now, as the Spurs have accomplished some dynastic feats, Parker’s four championship rings are more than Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, John Wall and Damian Lillard combined.

Yet still, many, if not all of the aforementioned point guards would be mentioned among the game’s greatest before Parker.

Why is that? Is it because it’s true? Or is it because Parker’s greatness is hidden alongside the greatness of Tim Duncan?

Certainly, without Duncan, Parker would probably not have those four championship rings, but how many of the four that the duo won together would have been won if not for the Frenchman?

Parker is the quintessential inlier. One of this generation’s best point guards goes largely overlooked and unnoticed as he continues on about his business, secretly being one of the most consistent forces behind one of the league’s most consistent winners.

I have had multiple conversations with Parker about this very thing, the most recent being during the 2014 NBA Finals. In short, Parker is unconcerned with how history remembers him or the legacy that he leaves on the game. When it is all said and done, he will be considered, with Dirk Nowitzki, as one of the top European basketball players in history, but not one of the greatest point guards in history.

Parker is okay with that, though, because the fire that burned inside of Bryant to walk away and leave a legacy on the game, at large, simply isn’t there for Parker, and that is not a bad thing.

It’s just a fact.

But, deep down inside, if there is a raging inferno in the gut of a young superstar, that’s something that should be respected. All too often, though, as a collective culture, we view it as “selfish”—the worst thing you can call a basketball player.

What’s wrong with wanting to both win big and be the primary reason why your team does so? Why not strive to have your cake and eat it, too?

Kyrie’s quandary, and one that the Cavaliers will deal with at some point, is whether he, like Bryant, believes or will believe that he is better than being anyone’s Robin, or if he, like Parker, is willing to forgo an attempt at an independent legacy in pursuit of collecting rings.

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In today’s NBA, winning is quite difficult. It takes three to tango, at the very least, and the recent examples of the “No I in Team” 2008 Boston Celtics and the recently disbanded Miami HEAT attest to this.

The assembling of those 2008 Celtics was just the beginning of the modern NBA talent arms race and led to the culmination of it—James and Chris Bosh joining the HEAT.

Sacrifice is a thing that is so often discussed as it relates to winning, whether it be money, touches, shots or ego. All six of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, James, Wade and Bosh had to sacrifice for their teams to win, so they are shining examples.

But each of those examples were at different places in their career than Irving is now.

Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Bosh had never come close to winning a championship, despite multiple All-Star appearances and being renowned as top-notch players. But by the time those unions were formed, all six players had already tirelessly toiled in pursuit of a championship that hadn’t come, and pulling the plug on their own individual legacies and willingly joining forces was a last straw that made sense after countless fruitless pursuits.

That, at this point, is not Irving’s situation.

Irving, at just 22 years old, is one of the more impressive point guard prospects to enter the league in recent memory. Despite just having 11 games of college experience at Duke University, Irving has impressed everyone with his poise and skill set. That was never more apparent than this past summer when he helped the Americans win the gold medal at the FIBA World Cup in Spain and was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.

There are still some appreciable holes in his game, but before joining with James, it was far too early to know with any certainty that Irving was more Gilbert Arenas than he was Isiah Thomas.

Now, depending on how things play out, he may never get the opportunity to provide the answer.

Back in the summer of 2012, though, Irving certainly let everyone know how highly he thought of himself.

Back then, Irving had just completed his rookie year and was invited to Las Vegas by the U.S. Men’s National Basketball team. Irving was invited as a member of the Select Team—the junior varsity practice squad that was assembled in furtherance of creating a funnel for players to adapt and become integrated with the international basketball scene.

Famously, there, Irving was caught on camera, arrogantly challenging none other than Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one.

“This is not a high school kid coming up to you and saying ‘Oh my God, Kobe, Kobe,’ this is me, coming up to you, one-on-one,” Irving said as Bryant chuckled and Irving suggested the two wager $50,000 on the competition.

“You have to guard,” Irving said to Bryant after Kobe told the rookie that there was no way he could stop Bryant from scoring.

Irving’s response?

“You’re not gonna lock me up.”

And when Kobe reminded Irving that he was not far removed from being “a high school kid,” Irving responded by telling Bryant that some players need 30 games in college to get ready for the NBA.

But Irving? According to him, he only needed 11.

So back in 2012, when LeBron was coming off of his first championship as a member of the HEAT, Irving knew he was ready for a life of superstardom in the NBA and probably dreamed of one day knocking James off as the “it kid” of the league.

I wonder if, back then, he envisioned himself ever being subjugated to a role of second-fiddle to LeBron.

Now, two years later, we are wondering who Irving is.

Will he be a player who is ultimately okay with being the Robin to LeBron’s Batman? The journey of self-discovery, for Kyrie Irving, whether he recognizes it not, has already begun.

And the answer to that question, finding it and determining what do about it, with all of his potential and dreams—that is Kyrie’s quandary.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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