LeBron James: Kyrie Irving trade was 'the beginning of the end' for the Cavs

On Wednesday, LeBron James will return to Cleveland as a player for the first time since signing a four-year deal with the Los Angeles Lakers. In an interview with Joe Vardon of The Athletic, James reflected on the situation that paved the way for him to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers. In fact, he called it “the beginning of the end of everything”: the Kyrie Irving trade.

The last couple years of James’ second stint with the Cavaliers were fraught with leadership struggles and personnel issues. And they all converged when Irving was traded from the Cavs to the Boston Celtics on August 22, 2017. On that day, Vardon said James was signing jerseys in Santa Monica, California when then-coach Tyronn Lue came to see him. Lue had found out that the Cavs were about to trade Irving, and so he drove to see James with the intent of putting him and new GM Koby Altman on the phone.

James was adamant on the call — do not trade Irving, especially to the Celtics. By the end of the call, according to four separate accounts of people present for the conversation, Altman told James the trade would not occur.

But just a few minutes later, news of the Irving trade broke. The Cavs had gone through with it despite James’ strong desire for Irving to stay in Cleveland.

James’ close friend, Randy Mims, and bodyguard Rob Brown came to him with their phones to show him the news. James, who was still signing jerseys, dropped the pen and slumped in his chair.

“Everyone knows that when Kyrie got traded it was the beginning of the end for everything. It’s not a secret,” James said in an interview with The Athletic.

As he told Vardon, James wasn’t angry and he didn’t feel like he was lied to. It seems like he mostly felt defeated. He believed Irving was necessary for the Cavs to compete at the highest level, but the team traded him away.

See the two superstars together through the years: 

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Kyrie Irving and LeBron James' relationship through the years
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Kyrie Irving and LeBron James' relationship through the years
Miami Heat forward LeBron James (L) tries to get past Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving in the first quarter of their NBA basketball game in Miami, Florida, February 7, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Skipper (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving, left, and Miami Heat forward LeBron James stand near one another during the fourth quarter at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida, Sunday, February 24, 2013. The Heat defeated the Cavaliers 109-105. (David Santiago/El Nuevo Herald/MCT via Getty Images)
INDEPENDENCE, OH - SEPTEMBER 26: Kevin Love #0, Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers poses for a photo during media day on September 26, 2014 at the Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NBAE via Getty Images)
Dec 2, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (right) and guard Kyrie Irving (2) react in the fourth quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
January 16, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) and guard Kyrie Irving (2) react during the 126-121 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers in the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
NEW YORK, NY - December 4: Tristan Thompson #13, LeBron James #23 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the national anthem before the game against the New York Knicks on December 4, 2014 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 26: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate during the first half against the Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on February 26, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - MAY 10: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers hugs Kyrie Irving #2 after a win against the Chicago Bulls in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 10, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cavaliers defeated the Bulls 86-84. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agress that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 28: Kevin Love #0 Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the Cleveland Cavaliers media day at Cleveland Clinic Courts on September 28, 2015 in Independence, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JANUARY 2: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers talk on the court during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on January 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 1: LeBron James #23 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after the game against the Indiana Pacers on February 1, 2016 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 17: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers speak at a post game press conference after the game against the Toronto Raptors in Game One of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 17, 2016 at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images)
TORONTO, CANADA - MAY 27: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after a victory in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 27, 2016 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 01: LeBron James #23 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers laugh during a conversation at practice for the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 1, 2016 in Oakland, California. The Warriors will take on the Cavaliers on June 2, 2016. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 13: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers react during the fourth quarter against the Golden State Warriors in Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 13, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after winning Game Seven of the 2016 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors on June 19, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 13: NBA players LeBron James (L) and Kyrie Irving attend the 2016 ESPYS at Microsoft Theater on July 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 15: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates a second half dunk with Kyrie Irving #2 while playing the Indiana Pacers in Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2017 NBA Playoffs at Quicken Loans Arena on April 15, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland won the game 109-108 to take a 1-0 series lead. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 04: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers laugh during a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on March 4, 2017 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 09: Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers high five against the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the 2017 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 9, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 17: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers goes to greet Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics prior to playing at at Quicken Loans Arena on October 17, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 17: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics shake hands after a Cavaliers 102-99 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on October 17, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 17: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving #11 of the Boston Celtics embrace after a Cavaliers 102-99 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on October 17, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Of course, the main issue was the relationship between Irving and James — or the lack thereof. Irving was disgruntled and didn’t want to play with James anymore, so he requested a trade in August 2017.

Irving, in fact, told the Cavs he wanted out so badly he’d go ahead with knee surgery and miss a large portion of the year if he wasn’t traded. James, who did little to try to bridge the divide with Irving, told the Cavs to keep Irving in spite of his threats.

If Irving hadn’t wanted to stop playing with James so badly, things could have been entirely different. In the end, Irving wanted out of Cleveland, and not even LeBron James himself could keep him there.

Vardon reached out to the Cavs’ front office, and got a little of their perspective on James’ involvement in the Irving trade.

Cavs front-office officials declined to be quoted for this story but disputed that Altman gave James any indication the trade would not occur. They also said Altman asked James whether he would commit to the Cavs long-term if Irving were not traded, and James said no.

There are plenty of other issues tied up with the trade of Irving. James was close with former Cavs GM David Griffin, who parted ways with the team in June 2017, a month before his contract was set to expire. James wasn’t consulted about that decision, which was made by team owner Dan Gilbert. In fact, James suspects that Gilbert simply overruled Altman on the Irving trade, and the ability to overrule the GM and run the team his way is why Gilbert replaced Griffin and hired Altman — someone who wasn’t close to James.

The Cavs team James will play on Wednesday is dramatically different than the one he left in July. Coach Tyronn Lue was fired. Kevin Love is out for at least six weeks after toe surgery. J.R. Smith practically begged the Cavs to trade him. The team is 2-12 and has the worst record in the NBA.

It’s tough to know if James’ departure set off that cascade of events, or if some of it would have happened even with James there. Regardless, he’s at peace with the decisions he’s made, and with returning to a place that’s so vitally important to the person and player he is.

“I’m returning to a place where I’ve spent 11 years of my career,” James said. “I had some great moments, had some not so great moments, but, all in all, when you give everything to whatever, the franchise, a teammate, a coaching staff, anything, that’s all that matters.”

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Liz Roscher is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at lizroscher@yahoo.com or follow her on Twitter at @lizroscher.

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