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Disrupting the Well-Oiled Machine: Kyrie Irving’s Infamous Trade

By Whitney Johnson

Kyrie Irving changed high schools his junior year.

He hadn’t changed domiciles; he didn’t have to change schools. He was a high-scoring wunderkind, playing basketball at an impressive level, with the friends and classmates he’d played with for years. His team might have been described as the proverbial ‘well-oiled machine.’ The reasons for a change weren’t obvious; in fact, the reasons not to make the move were myriad. After all, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is a mantra tried and true, often applied to well-oiled machines.

Being ‘not broke’ is not the same thing as being as good as you can be, something Irving seems to have intuited at an early age.

He was a disruptor, even as an adolescent.

His new high school, St. Patrick, was a national contender in basketball, with a top-ranked coach who’d mentored athletes who’d gone on to successful careers in the NBA—Irving’s goal since early childhood. At St. Patrick the competition was tougher—both to earn a top spot on the team and the schedule of opponents. A new challenge, and an opportunity for Irving to see how he measured up against the best players in the high school game.

Personal disruption is competitive, but it’s at least as much about competing with oneself and the urge for personal growth and potential development as it is about measuring oneself against the stature of others.

Fast forward through the highlight reel of Irving’s stellar basketball career: he did his college one-and-done with the perennially high-powered Duke Blue Devils and was the overall number one draft pick, a distinction he backed-up by being named Rookie of the Year. He’s been an Olympian. A multi-year All Star. The All-Star Game MVP. There are more awards and selections to specialty teams and games—too many to mention. And we can’t forget the NBA Championship, where his three-point shot in the final minute of the Game 7 sealed the Cavalier’s victory over arch-nemesis Golden State. Swish.

He’s 25. Where do you go from here, if you’re Kyrie Irving, king of the basketball court?

Irving’s choice to change in high school foreshadows his push to leave the Cavaliers—the team that drafted him and for whom he had played his entire professional career—and make a fresh start somewhere else. Of course, he was actually traded, and the destination of Boston was the Cavalier’s choice, not his own, but he was the catalyst. He was the disruptor who forced the move.

You don’t have to be a professional basketball aficionado—I’m not one—to know that Irving isn’t really the king. King James is the king; Lebron that is. Has been, is, and will be, for a few more seasons at least. He was also Irving’s teammate, the engine in the well-oiled machine that is the Cleveland Cavaliers. Why would Irving want to leave a championship-caliber team that includes the reigning monarch in the game?

There are plenty of opinions, as the controversy surrounding the trade attests. Disruptors, especially high-profile ones, often generate controversy, as I’ve pointed out previously. Doubtless the situation is extremely complex: tens of millions of dollars, enormous egos, bragging rights for the ages. But also a simple human desire, widely shared even by commoners, to learn, grow, be challenged and discover just exactly how much can be made of one’s gifts, if there is enough space available to develop them.

Mike ‘Coach K’ Krzyzewski, who mentored Irving during his one season with Duke University, says, “People want to talk about all these ‘facts’ as to why Kyrie did this, but it’s not personal, it’s not against anybody.”

“It’s just a young man at 25 saying, ‘I know I can do more, and I’m not afraid to see.” — Coach K

Basketball is evolving, as most things do. The traditional positions are still acknowledged roles on the floor but they are filled much more fluidly than in times past. Many players are constantly shape-shifting between them; Lebron James is certainly one of these. And one of the several positions he plays extraordinarily well is point guard—the One. The ball-handler. The floor general. Often the shortest player on the floor in a sport that celebrates height, the point guard is nonetheless the decision-making team leader while the game is being played.

Kyrie Irving is a point guard. Two super-star athletes trying to fill the same role on the same team. That was never going to work for very long.

Irving has a curve of potential he is trying to scale, to see how high he can rise; James is a logjam on that curve.

One of the principles of personal disruption is the need for a unique learning curve. In business workplaces of all sorts, as well as athletic teams, having a multiplicity of talent congregating on the same curve—filling the same roles—is going to shortchange somebody. In this case, it was Kyrie Irving, who disrupted himself to find a new, less congested curve.

On January 3, 2018, the Boston Celtics beat the Cleveland Cavaliers by a fairly handy 14 points. Sports fans attach undo significance to the outcome of such meetings, as though one game can decide whether Irving’s move was right or wrong.

Here’s what Irving said of the moment: “In order to be in the same sentences with the great teams, you’ve got to play against the best and beat the best.”It goes without saying that you can’t be standing in the shadow of the best. If you can be the engine in the well-oiled machine, chances are you won’t be satisfied with less.

Wondering if it’s time for you to pivot, this free PDF will give you 10 questions to ask yourself as you’re contemplating a career change

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Whitney Johnson is one of the world’s leading management thinkers (Thinkers50), author of the critically acclaimed Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and host of the Disrupt Yourself Podcast.

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