In a way, Cleveland Cavaliers fans should thank LeBron James. I’m being 100 percent serious when I say this for one simple reason: Kyrie Irving. If LeBron James had not taken his talents to South Beach in the summer of 2010, the Cavs would never had been awful in 2010-11, and then they never would have been able to take Irving No. 1 overall in the 2011 NBA Draft. Taking Irving out of Duke (where he only played one injury-shortened season) was a risky move at the time, but look how it has turned out – Irving has quickly become a budding NBA star, and is coming off a season where he won Rookie of the Year and MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge. He is by far the best player to come out of his draft class – and most importantly- the only one who is able to carry and lead a team.
To Cavs fans, Irving is the messiah, the prophet, the one who is supposed to take them to Promised Land that LeBron never could. The lone NBA Finals appearance against the San Antonio Spurs was nice and all, but the Cavs were swept. They were soundly defeated, and they never reached those heights again. The LeBron-era Cavaliers were always good, but not quite great. The mix of a true superstar (LeBron) and average, role-playing veterans was not the proper mixture.
Now, with the Kyrie Irving era in full swing, the Cavs look to be building by acquiring young talent and avoiding over paying veterans like Donyell Marshall, Wally Szcerbiak and Larry Hughes like the Cavs did in the LeBron years. They can start fresh and build from the ground up (a la the Oklahoma City Thunder).
Irving is a special talent. The newly-minted young point guard has all the makings of a star. He is charismatic off the court, dynamic on it, and has already shown that he has a clutch gene. Consider his stat line from last season: 51 games played while averaging 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and 1.1 steals, as well as shooting 46.9 percent from the field. That stat line compares pretty favorably with the rookie seasons of Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, the two point guards who, along with Irving, will be the elite of the elite at point guard in the near future. His play over the summer against the Olympic team impressed many in the media, as well as several players. By some, including myself, he is seen as the next great NBA star and a likely starter for Team USA in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
This season, the Cavs go as Irving goes. Much like the LeBron era, the Cavs are a much different team without their superstar. With Irving, the Cavs have a leader on both ends of the court, a skilled distributor, and a player who essentially is a coach on the floor. Without, him the Cavaliers have no one to lead them up and down the floor, no one to set the offense, and no one to set the pace they want to play. The other point guards on the Cavs roster (Daniel Gibson and Jeremy Pargo) are not able to do those things. Gibson, who may be the only one on the roster when the season starts, is especially incapable. He is a shooter first and foremost, and running a controlled, planned offense is something Gibson is not able to do. The Cavs need Irving to be on the floor as much as possible if they want to be a solid team this season. It wouldn’t shock me to see Irving plays 40+ minutes a game this season, assuming he’s healthy.
Last season, the Cavaliers were 16-25 before the trade deadline and 5-20 after it. Irving was gone for many of the games after the break, and considering that Anderson Varejao was also injured, it’s understandable that the Cavs were so bad at the end of the season. Things got interesting again when Irving broke his hand over the summer, but he appears set to go after playing in five-on-five scrimmages. That’s a great sign for a player that hasn’t played a full season since his senior year in high school.
With Irving ready to go, we can start to look at what the Cavs will look like over the next five years. A core of Irving, Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller is in place, it’ll be interesting to watch them grow. At the helm of that core is Irving, Cleveland’s one true hope. He has a chance to do what LeBron couldn’t, and that’s erase the sting of years of sports hardship in Cleveland. Irving has the power to help erase The Drive, Red Right 88, The Shot, The Catch, and the Decision, just to name a few. LeBron had that power too, but did nothing with it except break the hearts of Cavs fans everywhere. That’s a lot of pressure for him to handle, but he seems ready to take on that task. Irving’s time is now – let’s see what he can do with it.