The 2014-2017 Cleveland Cavaliers won their lone championship in dramatic fashion. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving led the Cavs to the 2016 title against the Golden State Warriors, overcoming a 3-1 seres deficit in the process. A big part of that team, and Kyrie Irving’s development, was noted coach/trainer Phil Handy.
Handy joined the Cavaliers organization with Mike Brown during the 2013-14 season. Brown, who hired Handy ahead of the 2011-12 season as part of his coaching staff with the Los Angeles Lakers, gave Handy the reigns to a 21-year-old Irving, who has been putting up great individual numbers, but wasn’t contributing to winning as much as critics expected him to.
Handy, a winner of both the 2016 and 2019 NBA championships, recently joined ClutchPoints’ Battle for LA Podcast with Tomer Azarly and Ryan Ward to talk about the development of Kyrie Irving, his relationship with LeBron James, and so much more.
“He wanted to be a winner,” Phil Handy told ClutchPoints. “I think it bothered him that people looked at him as an elite player that just really cared about numbers. You got to take a look at their team. Yeah, they were a young, talented team, but they weren’t ready to compete for a championship or anything like that. He was a young kid that just came into the league after playing one year of college basketball and he was trying to figure it out.”
Irving was certainly talented, but needed the proper basketball mentorship to elevate his NBA game. Handy embraced the mentorship role, but also went back to his first NBA coaching stop and enlisted the help of one Kobe Bryant to get through to Irving.
“When I got to Cleveland, Mike Brown gave me my responsibility like, ‘Hey, you’re here to mentor Kyrie. We need to teach him how to work and help him try to take his game to another level,'” Handy continued. “Kobe played a big part of that as well because after I left L.A., I reached out to Kobe and asked him if he would mentor Kyrie and help the kid as a peer. He was very receptive to that and Kyrie was very receptive to reaching out to Kobe.”
Irving has always come off as one of the more complex and misunderstood players in the NBA.
“There was a lot of things about him that people just didn’t know. He wanted to be a winner. He wanted to put himself in a different category in terms of what his legacy would look like down the road. He’s put in the work. He’s willing to be a student. He studied the game. LeBron came back to Cleveland and that really helped him take that next step as well.”
A year after Phil Handy’s arrival to Cleveland, LeBron James followed suit, completely changing the roster construction and timetable for the Cavaliers. After four straight years in the lottery, a rebuilding team was suddenly expected to compete for a championship now that they had added the best player in the world and just traded Andrew Wiggins for three-time All-Star Kevin Love.
The sudden shift in plans didn’t start as well as everyone hoped. The Cavs dropped three of their first four games of the season, suffered a four-game losing streak two weeks later, and saw a 10-game stretch with only one win from late December to early January. James taking time off to heal a back injury was also a factor, but once he returned, things started clicking.
At 19-20, Cleveland ran off 12 straight wins. Among those was a 55-point masterpiece by Kyrie Irving against the Portland Trail Blazers, a game in which James sat out. Their chemistry grew stronger, trades were made to bring in pieces that complemented James as well as Irving, and before they knew it, they were back in the NBA Finals.
The duo led the Cavs to three NBA Finals appearances, including a championship in 2016. Irving requested a trade following the 2017 Finals in which they fell to the Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors. Talks of James’ impending departure from Cleveland became the headline every other day, and Irving eventually requested a trade out of Cleveland.
Irving and James’ relationship was rocky at times, largely due to the media circus that revolved around LeBron. Handy also touched on the relationship between the two.
“People always have to have something to write about,” Phil Handy responded when asked about reports of issues between the two. “We came back that first year and we went to the NBA Finals. Kyrie was injured and banged up, but man, them two are one of the top duos of all time, in my opinion. Just the way that they played together, with the relationship that they figured it out. They’re both two guys that needed the ball in their hands and they figured out how to play with each other and not let that affect them. Ty Lue did a good job of managing that as well and put those guys in a position to be successful. Them two dudes got along and they got along great.
“I think people always try to come up with some narratives, trying to pit one elite player against another upcoming elite player. But when Bron came in, he was in the mindset of, ‘Man, I’m here to help all of my teammates.’ That was the attitude that he came in with him and Ky was receptive to it and they found ways to be successful together. I wish we could’ve did it for a few more years.”
Although the pairing of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving only won one title in their three years together, that 2016 championship, and the fashion in which they won it, is one for the history books.
You can listen to the full podcast with Phil Handy on:
Apple: Battle for LA Podcast
Spotify: Battle for LA Podcast