On the other hand, almost every legendary player had a top-level sidekick. Jordan had Pippen. Bird had McHale. And, in what I think may be the most interesting parallel, Kareem Abdul Jabbar had Kyrie Irving.
We remember the 1980s Showtime Lakers as a pinnacle of teamwork and harmony, but as the 30 for 30 documentary reminded us, it wasn't always this way. In the 1982 season, Magic complained that he wasn't having any fun, may have gotten his coach fired, and was resented by his teammates.
As we all know now, Magic was able to put this behind him, and lead the Lakers to four more championships, with the baton of leadership slowly passing from Kareem to Magic as the decade progressed.
And now, Magic Johnson is remembered as fondly as any player in NBA history. His reputation is exceeded only by that of Michael Jordan, and he ended up eclipsing even Kareem, whose accomplishments are unparalleled.
Some similarities between Kyrie's situation and Magic's situation in 1982:
- Both are playing in the shadow of one of the best players in history who appeared to be nearing the end of his prime, but seems to keep going indefinitely.
- Both had played key roles in the decisive game of their championship -- Magic's 42 points with Kareem injured in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, Irving's game winner with a minute left in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals.
- In both cases, this was followed by a disappointing playoff performance.
- Both are blocked from their natural roles.
And some differences:
- Kareem was the incumbent star of the Lakers, and Magic was drafted in. In Cleveland, Irving was in place before James made his return.
- Kareem was never the marketable star that LeBron is. Ironically, Kareem's sullenness may have allowed this to work, since it left space for Magic to be a star even while being on the same team is Kareem.
- On the Lakers, it was Magic who was rumored to have the ear of management and unduly influencing team decisions, while in Cleveland, it is LeBron.
- Players have much more power now than they did before. Trade requests tend to be honored rather than brushed off.
- The Magic-Kareem situation was managed by Pat Riley, one of the best coaches in the history of the NBA, I'm not sure Tyronn Lue is in that class, or if any modern coach could be.
- Magic and Kareem's skills and positions were much more complementary than rivalrous.
Irving may be looking at the league, watching fans explode over the individual accomplishments of Ruseell Westbrook and James Harden, and be thinking to himself, "I could do that."
But it might be wise for him to also look at history. If Magic had been able to force himself to be traded from the Lakers, would we look at him the same way? Or would he be in the class of players like George Gervin, Alex English, Dominique Wilkins, and others who put up gaudy stats on mediocre-to-good teams? Which path will lead to a better ultimate legacy? Yes, it currently looks like LeBron will play forever, but is it possible that there could be a passing of the baton?
I'm not sure it can work. I'm beginning to think that Magic's personality and disposition is unique enough that it can't be replicated. But if I were in the Cavs and trying to sell Kyrie on staying, I'd be pointing to 1982 Magic as a path forward.