Kyrie Irving is now 28 years old, and it seems the more his career progresses, the more of a rollercoaster ride it becomes.
He's gone through several stages of his career already, from a beloved young star, to LeBron James' right-hand man, to "The Shot," then his trade request, his befuddling time with the Boston Celtics and now, as a member of the Brooklyn Nets alongside Kevin Durant.
It's been a confounding journey to this point, and how things will play out is more uncertain than ever.
Fans fell in love with Irving immediately, and what's not to love? A cold-blooded scorer with ball-on-a-string-type handles and a wizardly magical touch around the rim that the league has never seen before. He was dribbling circles around NBA defenders as a 19-year-old, knocking down challenging fadeaways and finishing amongst the trees in the craftiest of ways.
By the time he was 22, Irving had two All-Star appearances under his belt. His team wasn't winning a lot of games, but it was clear the Cleveland Cavaliers had a franchise cornerstone in their locker room.
To this point in his career, Irving was adored. With back-to-back All-Star appearances while playing for the rebuilding team that LeBron had left behind, nothing fell on his shoulders. He was one of the most promising young talents in the league and it was evident he showcased a bright future, as James believed he could be a wingman or a Robin to his Batman.
When LeBron signed with the Cavaliers in the 2014 offseason to make good on his promise of bringing a title to the city of Cleveland, Irving would ride shotgun on the mission. From today's point of view, these would be considered "the good ol' days" of Kyrie's career.
The majority of responsibility was on James, with All-Star forward Kevin Love often taking the remainder of the criticism, and Irving was still the golden boy who could do no wrong.
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He'd eventually hit arguably the biggest shot in the history of basketball that led to Cleveland's 2016 NBA title over the 73-9 Golden State Warriors, which was the peak of Irving's praise from a fan standpoint.
He'd take his game to another level that next season, but after the Cavaliers fell short to the Warriors and newly-signed superstar Durant in 2017, Irving made the decision that he's done being a Robin. He wanted to be Batman.
After requesting a trade from Cleveland, Irving would embark upon his confusing time with the Celtics as he wanted to be the focal point of a team, not a player under the wing of his mentor.
His leadership seemed to be fine in the first season, as he led Boston to the second-best record in the East despite losing Gordon Hayward a few minutes into the first game of the regular season. The familiar injury bug would come back to bite Irving, who required a corrective knee surgery that would prevent him from competing in the 2018 NBA Playoffs.
Down two All-Stars, Boston's young core of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier would step up immensely alongside veterans like Al Horford and Marcus Smart, and the team would go all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Falling one game short of The Finals, the future was bright in Boston with Irving and Hayward expected to return to full strength the next season. That's when the more tumultuous times began.
The expectations were insurmountable. The Celtics were projected to win nearly 60 games, even with their two stars coming off of injuries and a number of players having to take a back seat from their playoff run.
Who's stopping them?- Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 24, 2018
(via @NBA) pic.twitter.com/fxQ5sQn7VO
Things got off to an interesting start as Irving got ahead of himself at Boston's preseason fan event, telling a roaring TD Garden crowd, "If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here."
"If you guys will have me back, I plan on re-signing here." - @KyrieIrving pic.twitter.com/0wDLzuv5WL- Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 4, 2018
With no contract extension in place any time after that, it was a lingering question all season. It was just one of the many things that went wrong with that team. When the All-Star guard couldn't lead the Celtics past the second round of the playoffs, it seemed that trying to lead a young team to a title may have been an aggressive leap for Irving.
There were plenty of other instances that could be singled out, but at the end of the day, the fit between the Celtics and Irving didn't work.
By electing to sign with the Nets this past offseason, Irving paired with two-time Finals MVP Durant, falling back to being the Robin to someone's Batman. The Brooklyn team they joined was coming off of a successful season in which it unexpectedly qualified for the playoffs behind the play of first-time All-Star D'Angelo Russell. With Russell heading to the Warriors and Durant expected to miss the entire 2019-20 season due to an Achilles injury suffered in the previous NBA Finals, this was another chance for Irving to prove he can hold down a team until the Nets returned to full strength the following season.
He started his tenure in Brooklyn with a bang, scoring 50 points in his debut in a one-point loss. Irving was stellar through his first 11 games with the Nets, but the team's 4-7 record wasn't reflective of that. A sudden shoulder injury would sideline Kyrie for the next 26 games, leaving Spencer Dinwiddie to take over the reins and lead the team to just two games under .500 - a better record than the superstar guard had left it with.
Three games into Irving's return from his shoulder injury, he had a Celtics-like outburst that left NBA stakeholders baffled, drawing plenty of criticism to himself.
"I mean, it's transparent. It's out there. It's glaring, in terms of the pieces that we need in order to be at that next level," Irving said. "I'm going to continue to reiterate it. We're going to do the best with the guys that we have in our locker room now, and we'll worry about all the other stuff, in terms of moving pieces and everything else, as an organization down the line in the summer. It's just something that we signed up for."
He went on to list certain players on his team that "complement" himself and Durant, but failed to mention several names on the roster. Not exactly a move out of "How to be a great leader 101."
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But then he gave NBA fans another moment that served as a reminder as to why he can be so likable. Just days after his close friend and mentor Kobe Bryant passed away, Irving dropped 54 points in a win, dedicating the performance to the Black Mamba.
Kyrie Irving tonight 🔥- Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) February 1, 2020
19/23 from the field
7/9 from three
9/10 from the line
Only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have ever scored over 50 points and had a higher field goal percentage in NBA history. What a historic night for Kyrie.
One game later, Irving would be shut down for the remainder of the 2019-20 season, electing to undergo an arthroscopic procedure on his right shoulder. Since then, the Nets and head coach Kenny Atkinson have "mutually agreed to part ways" in a move that shocked the NBA world. Atkinson had brought the franchise from the bottom of the East to a playoff team in what would have been consecutive seasons this year, but he clearly wasn't in the long-term plan for the Nets, Irving and Durant.
Now by no means is Irving solely to blame for this decision, but interim head coach Jacque Vaughn marks Kyrie's seventh (!) different head coach in nine seasons in the NBA. Should Brooklyn hire someone new to replace Vaughn in the offseason - which it is expected to - that will make eight different head coaches in 10 seasons for Irving.
There is no doubt that Irving is still one of the most talented players in the NBA. We saw that in the small 20-game sample size from this season, and he'll only get better playing alongside someone of KD's calibre.
But turning over a new year, at 28 years old, can Kyrie iron out the off-court antics from the past two seasons to make a championship push next year?
Only time will tell.
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