Former Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is one of the best to ever play basketball, and his impact on both his former team and the league as a whole will be felt for years to come.
And while LeBron James is often credited as being the catalyst for the newfound player agency that’s given stars more awareness of their value and the level of power they can wield over teams, Bryant was also a pioneer in that respect.
Bryant teamed with Shaquille O’Neal to produce four NBA Finals appearances and three championships, but when Bryant was finally the better player and felt that the Lakers were his team, he didn’t shy away from using the threat of free agency to get the Lakers to ship O’Neal to Miami.
Kyrie Irving wasn’t in the same situation with LeBron James this summer, as James is clearly far-and-away still the superior player, but Irving wanted his own team, a wish the Cleveland Cavaliers granted when they dealt him to the Boston Celtics.
Irving told Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post that Bryant’s influence was a big part of his decision-making process:
“Despite what was going on from the outside influences and what everyone else felt was best for him, [Bryant] always did what was best for his career for himself,” Irving said. “He figured it out. At times throughout a professional career you’re going to be tested, and there are times where you’re going try to appease the media, you try to appease your teammates, you try to appease the coaching staff, whoever, whatever situation you are in, you try to kind of blend in.
“The best thing I learned from him is you don’t necessarily have to blend in. You can stand out.”
Irving has stood out this season, averaging 24.6 points and five assists on his way to the fringes of MVP consideration while leading the Celtics to the second-best record in the Eastern Conference and fourt-best record in the NBA.
The Duke product wouldn’t have had those kinds of opportunities on the Cavaliers, or at least not with James in town. And while some critics are always quick to suggest players should subject their own individual chance to shine in order to contribute to a winning team, Irving’s star has never been brighter than it is now that he’s out of LeBron’s shadow.
It’s a similar situation to Bryant after O’Neal was sent packing. That’s surely invaluable for Irving’s branding value and making him far more marketable and valuable than ever. It’s easy to say players shouldn’t care about that if they’re winning, but in a league with finite careers, sometimes the biggest wins are of the off-the-court, paycheck-cashing variety.
Bryant showed this better than anyone when he took a two-year, $48 million extension while recovering from Achilles surgery, and Irving is just the latest to demonstrate that NBA stars have to concern themselves with winning at the negotiating table as much as on a basketball court.
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