Kyrie Irving’s Light Shines on Cavaliers
As orange flames danced and rolled over replicas of his wine and gold number 23 jersey, the city of Cleveland had not only turned on LeBron James, it vilified him.
More so, it antagonized him.
Now, entering his third season, Kyrie Irving—the prodigy, the stalwart—seems poised to at least return the Cavaliers to NBA relevancy, even if not yet prominence.
With the stalwart, the Cavaliers are in good hands.
After just two seasons in the NBA, Irving has the look, polish and skill set of a franchise altering point guard. Today, he wears Cavaliers wine, but just as easily could have been wearing Los Angeles Clippers red.
Just hours before the 2011 trade deadline on February 24, the Cavaliers executed a trade with the Clippers, sending Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to Los Angeles for Baron Davis and an unprotected first-round draft pick in that year’s draft.
At the time, the 2011 draft was thought to be weak, and though Irving had captured the attention of many NBA scouts and general managers alike, his small sample size of college performances at Duke left many unanswered questions. So with his team sporting a 21-37 record that morning, former Clippers general manager Neil Olshey, believing his team did not have a realistic shot of winning the draft lottery, traded the unprotected first round pick for Williams and the $5 million in future payroll savings that the swap yielded.
Only, the impossible happened, just like it did in 2008. Back in 2008, the Chicago Bulls won the draft lottery despite only having a 1.7 percent chance of doing so. Lady Luck had similar plans for the Cavaliers. In 2011, the Clippers’ pick also defied the odds, winning after only having a 2.8 percent chance.
And now, after two years in the NBA, the retooled Cavaliers have surrounded Irving with a formidable cast of running mates. Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark are the major free agent signings, while number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett will join a compelling cast of youngsters that, along with Irving, includes Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson.
To top it all off, Anderson Varejao—one of the more underrated power forwards in the conference—is expected to return this season. According to head coach Mike Brown, despite the presence of Bennett and Thompson, Varejao may continue as the team’s starting power forward.
Obviously, health will play a major role in determining how the Cavaliers fare this season, but this season should be when the franchise makes its first playoff appearance since James led the team to a 61-21 record back in 2010.
Whether that happens, though, depends on Irving and if he continues to progress in his development as a floor general at the NBA level.
Irving is adept at scoring. He is an excellent mid-range shooter and excels at creating space with a quick first-step and lightning-quick shot release. Those attributes present a quandary for opposing defenders. Because Irving is also an above average three-point shooter, it is impossible to take everything away from him. His superb ball-handling completes his repertoire.
Whether from behind the three-point line, somewhere in mid-range territory or at the basket in traffic, Irving is an accomplished scorer. This is evidenced by the 20.6 points per game career scoring average he brings into his third season. He has converted on 46 percent of his shots over his career, including 39 percent from three-point territory.
For any guard in the NBA, those numbers are impressive. That Irving’s numbers have come from a point guard who played just 11 games at the NCAA level before becoming a professional and being asked to lead his team night-in, night-out? That is simply amazing.
In February 2013, two years after the Cavaliers pulled off the trade with the Clippers, Irving was the talk of NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston.
On the weekend’s Friday night, he dominated the Rising Stars Challenge, putting together an impressive reel of highlight plays en route to 32 points. The next night, on Saturday, he won the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest. And in Sunday’s main event, he held his own in an All-Star game featuring the giants of the NBA—Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Kevin Durant and, of course, James.
The most impressive thing about Irving’s ascent to household-name status is not that it has come so quickly, but that he has never, not once, seemed overwhelmed or phased by moments that seem like they should be too big for him.
He is, after all, just 21 years old.
Still, in conversations with Irving over the past two years, the confidence he has exuded has consistently had an underlying tone.
He knows that he rightfully belongs among the NBA elite. When he has found himself with an opportunity to seize headlines, he makes the most of it. After the fact, when impressed members of the media surround him and inquire, his quiet and confident aura is always the same.
Are you surprised? Why? I belong here. Don’t you know that? This is what I am supposed to be doing.
Although Irving has never spoken those words, that is exactly what his poise, in all situations, has said.
As the pride and joy of USA Basketball’s Select Team, Irving is expected to play for Team USA in 2014’s FIBA World Cup of Basketball tournament in Spain next summer. He will probably play in London’s 2016 Olympics, as well.
Without question, his future is bright.
And his light will inevitably shine on the Cavaliers.
Now entering his third season, armed with an appreciable array of talent, Irving’s game needs to take the next step. He must excel at making those around him better.
Thus far, of all that he has shown, Irving has not shown the ability to create passing lanes like future Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash or contemporary Rajon Rondo.
In any situation, either Nash or Rondo could decide which teammate needed a shot or was in the best position to score out of a particular offensive set, and either could beat their defender and put themselves in position to execute the pass they wanted to make.
Over the years, sharp shooters like Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Raja Bell and Channing Frye have benefited greatly from that skill.
Unlike future Hall-of-Famer Jason Kidd or contemporary Chris Paul, Irving has not consistently shown the ability to see into the future. Of all gifts, what Kidd and Paul possess is an instinct of knowing where, when and what their teammates would do before they actually did it. Grabbing a rebound, leading a fast break, stopping on a dime and waiting for a trailer before executing a perfectly timed alley-oop—that requires an ability to see into the future.
Kenyon Martin, Vince Carter, Tyson Chandler and Blake Griffin know this well.
Those attributes develop over time and if Irving’s progression in just two short seasons is any indication of where his trajectory may ultimately lead, the Cavaliers will be an afterthought in the Eastern Conference no longer.
Derrick Rose—the youngest winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award in history—made an impressive statistical leap from his second to third year in the NBA.
As a second-year player, Rose averaged 20.8 points, six assists and 3.8 rebounds per contest on 48.9 shooting from the field, including just 26.7 percent from three-point territory. In his third season, Rose averaged 25 points and grabbed 4.1 rebounds while dishing out 7.7 assists per game. His field goal percentage decreased from 48.9 percent to just 44.5 percent, but the major reason was because of his newfound confidence in his three-point shot and subsequent increase in attempts.
Still, statistical progression aside, Rose led the Bulls’ charge. After going 41-41 in his second season, it was his team’s 21-game turnaround and 62-20 record in the 2011-12 season that helped him capture the league’s MVP award.
The expectations for Irving probably should not be as high, but the point is this: a young point guard with a glaring weakness in his game will make strides to strengthen them if he has the will to fulfill his potential.
Irving’s 22.5 points, 5.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game are remarkably similar to Rose’s second-year averages.
Like Rose, Irving has shown a lot. Now, armed with a bevy of talent, he is poised for a leap.
In no particular order, on paper, the top-five playoff spots in the Eastern Conference seem destined to be claimed by the Miami HEAT, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.
If all breaks right, however, the Cavaliers may be the first of the Eastern Conference’s “other” teams to rise from the doldrums. And if all breaks right, who knows where they may end up?
In this Post-Decision Era, with a fan base and an owner hell bent on winning, the smoky flames of hatred that existed for James when he took his talents to South Beach still burn.
Only now, the fire is not fueled wholly by Cleveland’s disdain for one of its former superstars. Now, it is fueled by a hope for the future.
With Irving leading the charge, the Cavaliers hope to be great again. Still in the tunnel of darkness that the city has found itself in since James’ departure, now, after three years, there is a discernible light in the distance.
His name is Kyrie Irving.
For him and the city of Cleveland alike, the future is now, and it is bright.