Kyrie Irving faces an identity crisis in his fifth NBA season, as the two-time All-Star struggles to find the perfect role with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
When LeBron James came back to Cleveland in July 2014, he immediately began to caution fans to guard their expectations. More than once, James has indicated that his job to lead this Cleveland Cavaliers team is among his most difficult tasks he’s faced in his career. Being from northeast Ohio, James cited his desire to bring the city a championship, despite the difficulties he knew he would face. However, watching this Cavalier team and reading between the lines, it is hard to imagine that James could ever anticipate his task being this difficult.
On Sunday, the Cavaliers delivered yet another uninspired performance, this time in a blowout loss to the Washington Wizards. Certainly, being without James for the second time this season contributed to their struggles, but without question, there was something missing from the Cavaliers’ performance that cannot only be summed up by the absence of a single player. Kyrie Irving was supposed to carry the load for the Cavs. Irving had a decent statistical game with 28 points and six assists, but he was outplayed by counterpart John Wall.
Bruce Hooley of ESPN Cleveland posted article, the message of which was critical of the way Irving has shrunk in matchups with other elite point guards. Hooley argued Irving is not the table-setting-type player that constitutes a point guard, nor does Irving play enough defense to warrant being called one of the best in the league.
According to Hooley, “The problem is, just about every time the Cavaliers lose these days, it’s because Irving is played off his feet by the guy on the other team he’s supposed to be better than.”
Irving’s defensive liabilities are certainly a concern, as are his struggles to use his dribble to create for other players on offense. However, citing Irving as “the problem” in just about every Cavalier loss is irresponsible and fails to tell the whole tale.
In Hooley’s words, “This story shows how dire the situation has become, with the Cavs standing 22nd in the league in allowing opposing point guards an average of 22.7 points per-game, a number that’s even worse (26.8 points) since the All-Star break.” What Hooley failed to mention was that two of the teams who are worse than the Cavs in that statistical category—the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors—have Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry as their respective point guards. When the aforementioned guards went head-to-head in Oklahoma City on Saturday night, Curry had a record-setting night and Westbrook was most often guarded by members of the Warriors team not named Curry.
Many had similar criticisms of Irving in his younger years, but now a five-year NBA veteran, Irving was supposed to make strides in his “true” point guard skills, rather than just being a volume scorer. At times, Irving has demonstrated his ability to create for others, but not with the consistency necessary to be considered one of the game’s elite.
However, not all of this lies on shoulders of Irving himself.
While many point to Irving’s assist numbers compared to other elite point guards, it should be noted that Irving is not the main distributor and facilitator on his team. That distinction goes to LeBron James. Playing alongside James has put Irving in a difficult situation: In the middle of his development as a true point guard and face of a franchise, the best basketball player in the world returned with a mission in mind—to will his hometown team to an NBA championship.
Suddenly, three years into his career, Irving had to re-invent himself. Not only is Irving counted on to play off-the-ball and be on the receiving end of passes from James, but when James steps out of the lineup, it is often Irving’s responsibility to become the facilitator.
Irving has struggled with this. Suddenly, three years into his career, Irving had to re-invent himself. Not only is Irving counted on to play off the ball and be on the receiving end of passes from James, but when James steps out of the lineup, it is often Irving’s responsibility to become the facilitator.
Irving, 23, is being asked to wear two hats for the Cavaliers—one of which he has never worn before and the other which he was only just getting used to—all while being expected to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Curry, Westbrook, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, and Isaiah Thomas each night, just to name a few. One might call that task slightly overwhelming.
Along with Tristan Thompson, Irving was left over from a Cavalier team that was, at its best, lackluster in the years before LeBron came back to Cleveland. For that reason, many assume that Irving is the common denominator from what went wrong before to what is going wrong now. Amid losing seasons and struggles to develop his game, Irving was faced with constant “leaks” that he was unhappy in Cleveland and “wanted out.” Irving put those rumors to bed when he re-upped with the Cavs, reportedly before he had gotten any indication that he would soon be playing with LeBron James.
At 23, Irving is facing the same type of criticism again. While most 23-year-olds are working an entry-level job, Irving is a multimillionaire, facing the pressures of a city which demands a championship and demands it now. In fact, much like earlier in his career, Irving is reportedly frustrated in Cleveland and wants out, as was reported by ESPN’s Steven A. Smith on the “First Take” show. Smith said, Irving “ain’t too happy in Cleveland.”
While there may be some truth to the rumors of frustration, likely that is where it ends with Irving. The timing of the “leak” is too poor to have strategically come from someone in Irving’s corner, with the trade deadline having just passed. Certainly Irving must be frustrated. The situation would be more puzzling if he was satisfied.
While Irving is certainly not beyond criticism, neither are his teammates. When the Cavaliers lack energy, it comes from a well-rounded performance by all members involved.
For obvious reasons, the Cavaliers are often compared to the Miami Heat, as James created a similar situation when he signed in South Beach. However, Cleveland is not South Beach and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are not Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
Leaving Love out of the equation, when James joined the Heat, Wade was in a very different aspect of his career than Irving is currently. Wade had won a title already and was in a stable, consistent organization in the hands of Pat Riley. While the Heat struggled at times at the beginning of the “Big 3” era, scribes wrote the main problem with the Heat was having too many alpha personalities. It was true for the Heat and it is currently true for the Cavaliers.
The Heat began to take strides when Dwyane Wade began to step aside to James, something Wade himself has candidly admitted. Irving has yet to willingly step aside. Unlike Wade, Kyrie still has a legacy to develop and doubters to prove wrong. Until Irving realizes the specific role he needs to occupy, the Cavaliers will struggle.
Irving showed some glimpses of being able to occupy a lesser role and to sacrifice during last year’s NBA Playoffs, where he was hindered by a lingering knee injury.
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Knowing his capabilities were diminished, Irving stepped out of James’ way and accepted his role as a decoy and a spot-up shooter. Because of this, the Cavaliers flourished all the way to the NBA Finals, where Irving was lost and the Cavaliers ran out of gas. Perhaps the reason the Cavaliers stole two games from the Warriors was because everyone recognized their secondary role and allowed James to have free reign in a en effort to will his team to a title.
Now, Irving is back, he’s healthy, and he’s looking to establish his legacy once again. Some day in the not-too-distant future, if all parties remain in Cleveland, the Cavaliers will reach a point where Irving is the alpha dog and LeBron plays a secondary role. That is not happening this season or anytime soon.
For Irving, the choice is simple: Embrace a role as primarily an off-ball player who can be counted on to play formidable defense or miss an opportunity to be an NBA champion while LeBron James is still in his prime.
The clock is running out in Cleveland. Every year that passes where the Cavaliers do not hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy makes it that much more difficult to win a title. Time doesn’t wait for anyone, and it’s time for Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers to figure it out now.