Kyrie Irving’s journey back to the NBA Finals has been a long and tumultuous ride.

It feels like a lifetime ago when Kyrie Irving hit that game-winning shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Back then, Irving was a brash young point guard who had insane handles, the ability to score at will, along with the confidence to take and make shots no matter how much pressure there was on him.

The NBA world didn’t know then that Irving would be traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers a year later, or that he’d end up with the Boston Celtics at the beginning of their return to relevance. Irving would get hurt before the playoffs in 2018 and had to watch from the sidelines as then-youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown made a run all the way to the Conference Finals to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers in a seven-game series.

Irving would of course return the next year and seemed to say all the right things, promising the Celtics faithful that he’d re-sign with them before the 2018-19 season started. That did not last long, though, and as the season progressed, rumors began to swirl that he and Kevin Durant were looking to form their own superteam with the Brooklyn Nets.

The rumors became reality, which made Irving an easily dislikable villain in the eyes of not just Celtics fans, but many other NBA observers. It didn’t help that he had a few incidents with Celtics fans, like stomping on the Cetlics logo during a visit, and riling them up in Boston during a playoff game.

Irving’s time in Brooklyn was also plagued with controversy. His not being able to play due to not wanting to take a vaccine, which disqualified him due to pandemic-related laws put in place, drew a lot of ire. So did the inability to make a deep run with Durant and James Harden.

If we take a revisionist look at his time in Brooklyn, though, it’s clear that Irving wasn’t the only problem in that badly constructed Nets squad. Harden and Durant would both have injury problems during their time there, which made it difficult for them to find consistent success.

Harden would also play in Brooklyn for just a year, then another year with the Philadelphia 76ers before forcing his way to the LA Clippers – who Irving and Luka Doncic knocked out of the playoffs this year.

Durant didn’t find much success after forcing his way to the Phoenix Suns, either. After getting swept by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, Durant ensured that Irving would be the only one left from that fabled Brooklyn Big Three standing by the second round.

Irving, who arrived in Dallas via trade last year, was even maligned for his move to Texas. People asked how two ball-dominant players in Irving and Doncic could hope to succeed and many pundits felt vindicated when the Mavericks couldn’t even make it to the play-ins last year.

Oh what a difference a year makes. After drafting Dereck Lively II, then trading for Daniel Gafford and PJ Washington, the Mavericks have come out of the bloodbath known as the Western Conference and have made the NBA Finals for the first time in 13 years – when another European superstar carried them to their first Larry O’Brien trophy.

Doncic has been otherworldly in this playoff run with averages of 28.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game. The difference between 2011 and 2024, though, is that this time the Mavericks have a true second star on their roster.

Irving’s averages of 22.8 points and 5.2 assists may not call attention at first, but context matters. That’s because he’s often shown up in the most important moments of a series, helping swing games with anything from a big second half to a go-ahead shot in the clutch. His killer instinct has been on full display throughout the series, which Doncic has appreciated greatly.

He’s also proven to be a veteran presence that the Dallas squad looks up to, which has undoubtedly come from him also learning and understanding just how hard it is to find sustained success in a league that continues to grow more competitive each season.

Now, eight years after hitting that legendary shot over Steph Curry, Irving also finally has a chance to escape the ghost he played with in Cleveland. If he manages to win a ring as one of the main men in Dallas, he can shut all of his doubters up. I’m one of those doubters, but I’ve got to admit that without the distractions of the circus surrounding LeBron James, or the big media markets in Boston and New York, Irving has proven to me that when it comes to pure basketball talent, he is generational.

It’s even more fascinating that Irving will try to redefine his legacy by facing the Celtics, too. After leaving them behind, Tatum and Brown have dominated the Eastern Conference. If Irving wins a ring against a much deeper Celtics squad with two stars he once played with, his greatness will never be questioned again.