By now, every basketball fan in the world has heard about the blockbuster trade that was announced this week:
The Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers swapped superstar point guards, Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. (The full package Cleveland receives also includes forward Jae Crowder, center Ante Zizic and the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round draft pick.)
This is the culmination of weeks of speculation, after it was widely reported that Irving, a key player in the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2016 championship run and three previous NBA finals appearances, requested out of Cleveland.
Irving's request was seen by many as bad form, evidence of his inability to sacrifice for the good of the team.
But I'd argue that this trade was the best thing possible for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, for a single, very important reason:
It provides LeBron James with perfect motivation.
Emotional Intelligence at Work
The Cavs finished last season as the runner-up in the NBA finals. Just one year earlier, they were NBA champions.
But this (very good) Cavaliers team was no match for last season's Golden State Warriors, who boasted a starting five that included two league MVPs, a defensive player of the year, four NBA All-Stars and brilliant team chemistry.
If you watched last year's NBA finals, you saw the Warriors not only defeat an amazing Cavs team four games to one, but look unstoppable doing it. And you couldn't help but notice that LeBron--and the rest of the Cavs, Irving included--looked worn out. They had given the Warriors their best shot, and came up utterly defeated.
If Cleveland was going to challenge Golden State next year, something needed to change.
Kyrie Irving gave the team that opportunity.
Many saw Irving's trade request as a slight to LeBron James and the rest of his teammates. The truth is, Kyrie's decision must have been extremely complex, influenced by multiple factors that only Irving himself is aware of, and was probably years in the making.
But a player like LeBron James knows how to make a situation like this work for him.
When we experience intense emotions, there are two things you can do with those feelings. You can be distracted by it, in a way that makes you lose focus and under-perform. This is why some athletes often engage in trash talk, in an effort to "get into the head" of another player. ("I like to get a man mad, because when a man's mad, he wants ya so bad, he can't think," Muhammed Ali famously told a reporter.)
But there's also a second way to handle emotion.
Strong emotion excites us, it invigorates us. The key is to find a way to channel that feeling into focused, positive action--so it can actually raise the level of our performance. This is part of what we call emotional intelligence--that ability to make emotions work for you instead of against you.
Observe the very best players and teams and you'll see evidence of this. The trash-talking and physical play of the Detroit Pistons in the late 80s and early 90s angered Michael Jordan. But the basketball great used that anger to play with more focus than ever before, leading the Chicago Bulls to their first NBA championship--and eventually build a dynasty.
And, of course, who could forget last year, when Kevin Durant used the negative comments thrown at him (after he left the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Warriors) as motivation to keep him focused--en route to winning his first championship.
In fact, James has been here before, too.
Back in 2010, LeBron announced that he was leaving Cleveland to join the Miami heat, teaming up with friends Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh as he chased his first championship. In doing so, James left Cleveland reeling, as they saw this as the hometown superstar turned traitor.
People were literally burning LeBron James jerseys in the streets.
How would you feel if millions of people you never met were slandering you for a career decision you made, without understanding all the reasons and context that went into that decision? How would you react?
True, James could have handled "The Decision" better--the television special where he broke the hearts of millions of fans by announcing he was leaving Cleveland.
But emotional intelligence isn't about never making a mistake; it's about learning from them.
And learn he did. James learned to take all that he was feeling and channel it into basketball greatness. In his first season with the Heat, he managed to get to the NBA finals. By the next year, he had won his first championship.
James showed further what he had learned a few years later, when he returned home to Cleveland, older and wiser. He promised an entire city to do all he could to deliver what he couldn't previously: the franchise's first NBA championship.
Two years later, he made good on that promise.
It's no coincidence that Lebron James's teams have appeared in the NBA finals for the past seven seasons, winning the championship three times. James isn't just one of the best basketball players we've ever seen, he's someone who knows how to use the raw power of emotion and utilize it to achieve a goal.
Now, James has a chance to do it again.
James insists he's not angry with Irving, and he shouldn't be.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers chose Kyrie Irving as the first overall pick back in the 2011 NBA draft, they were getting a first-rate player who was ready and willing to lead a young team in the midst of rebuilding. But everyone knew Irving would have to take a back seat when James returned as Cleveland's prodigal son in 2014.
So, in many ways, Irving's request shouldn't be surprising. He may have co-existed with "big brother" LeBron for the past three seasons, and no doubt he learned a lot from the experience. But the truth was obvious: Irving was never going to be the go-to guy as long as James was there.
Of course, the situation is much bigger than whatever happened behind closed doors in Cleveland, much more complex than a single trade request. Only Kyrie knows all the reasons behind his move, and I predict it'll be good for him, too. Change is a catalyst for growth if you allow it to be.
But it's that very change that will also gave the undisputed leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers exactly what he needed:
An emotionally charged situation, a reason to push even harder--and the motivation to come back stronger than ever before.