There he goes again, the ball miraculously still in his hands, blowing past a player that up until that very moment was a hero in his home country, and now has to settle for second place in the heart of his nation’s fans.
Only the replay will tell just how in the world he found the angle to flick that layup in, with dizzy, confused defenders only finding the ball as it drops to them after falling through the net. Kyrie Irving’s artistry can be ego-crashing to the opposition. He will pull the rug out from under you with the world watching, and he will do so with the most charming of smiles.
As we enjoy Irving doing his thing on the international stage with Team USA in the World-Cup, we can’t wait to see how he will do as a part of new and improved Cleveland Cavaliers. The three-headed monster will be unleashed in the supposedly ‘up-for-grabs’ Eastern Conference, led by the rookie coach David Blatt.
Kyrie Irving does not believe in karma. At least he shouldn’t. Kyrie’s career path seems to have no correlation with his actions whatsoever.
First he’s ditching the NBA draft combine (starting a trend for top picks), then he’s rewarded with being the No. 1 overall pick at the 2011 Draft. He’s being criticized for his lack of development as a player and a leader, and then gets a $90 million contract in return. This summer, Kyrie went from being the most questioned max-player in the most dysfunctional organization in the NBA, to suddenly holding the keys to the East’s shiniest contender. Even now, with Team USA, due to the uncertainty around Derrick Rose, Irving became a lock as a starter instead of having to fight for a roster spot. Basic cause-affect rules did not apply to Kyrie up until now, but he can’t ask for any more freebies with this Cleveland Cavaliers team.
Kyrie spent his first three years in the league being a one-man band for an awful team, doing as he pleased in the wasteland of Cleveland. Right now, Irving is the outlier to just how far natural talent can get you. What he does next is all about the intangibles defining that talent.
How does he fit with his new super-teammates? What will Coach Blatt will be asking of Irving, and how will he go about doing it?
Kyrie, The Player
It’s probably time to say this out loud: Kyrie Irving’s style of play is extremely inefficient to just about every player not named Kyrie Irving. He is a Harlem Globetrotter disguising as an NBA pro. For every “Kyrie” (and there aren’t too many of them) there are countless numbers of ‘wannabees’ that try and copy his flashy style, giving up playing the game right in the process.
But talent is talent. You don’t tell Magic Johnson, Lionel Messi or Diana Taurasi what to do – you move out their way and enjoy the show.
Kyrie doesn’t dribble the ball – he tangos with it. He doesn’t ‘use the backboard’ – he kisses it off the glass. I don’t know if he’s actually faster with the ball in hands than he is without it, but it sure feels that way when you watch him. Kyrie is why kids pick basketball over other sports. He’s also why coaches whine about the state of the game. No matter what side you are on in this endless old-school-new-school debate, you are not taking your eyes off of him when the ball is in his hands.
Getting a little deeper into Irving’s transition game, this can serve as a micro-cosmos to the Kyrie question. While still in the Cavs half-court, you will often see him dribble around and through defenders instead of passing ahead, or slowing it down. That’s considered a big no-no – coaches will tell you it is too risky to try and “show-up” this close to your own basket, they’ll insist that a pass ahead is faster than any dribble. My take on this is a bit different. Kyrie is not your typical ballhandler, the ball is drawn to his palms like a magnet, and when he splits two defenders he gets his team numbers in transition. It doesn’t matter what’s faster – a pass or a dribble, what matters is the advantage you can get over the defense in a full court set. It feels like Kyrie gets a kick out of it just much as the crowd, as that was the single most exciting thing in Cleveland games last year. So let Kevin Love feed LeBron with his full-court touch-down passes, I want Kyrie leading the break when the opportunity presents itself, with the King feeling the lanes.
While his game will have to adapt to the new roster situation and coaching (we’ll touch on both), he will be the point guard LeBron never had, and will get a lot of the responsibility of initiating the game-plan. It’s all about the balance they find between them, but don’t confuse him with Mario Chalmers.
The fit with new Cavs
With all the scrutiny Kyrie’s game is going through right now (whether negative or positive), he does possess one superpower that no one is talking about – Kyrie makes every game and every play worth watching. That counts for something when a team is new and expected to contend right from the get-go. The Cavs will be marked on every team’s calendar, and they will face everyone’s best punch. Kyrie will be the spark when legs are heavy on the end of yet another back-to-back. He keeps the opposing crowds on the edge of their seats, he makes the Cavs home crowd stand. Kyrie’s showmanship will no longer go to waste on a lottery team, and I can’t hide my excitement.
Kyrie is going to have to learn how to play without the ball, it’s clear he has a long way to go given that he never really had to do that. But I must say, for all the people doubting about his ability to adjust, that I’m very skeptical of their skepticism. By now, it’s seems that everyone knows by heart Kyrie’s below-average “spot-up” and “catch and shoot” numbers (shooting 38% and 35.6% respectively). What no one knows, is how tightly guarded he is on those shots compared to the rest of the players, being his team’s main (and sometimes only) real threat on the court. His teammates last year are also not known for their passing ability, to say the least.
Kyrie is one of those unique players that seem to be more focused and automatic when there’s a guy in their face, but his talent as a shooter should start to surface. His natural ability and flawless mechanics suggest that he will relish all the new wide-open looks coming his way, and he will eventually knock them down at more than decent rate. With that said, there’s no denying he has his work cut out for him, playing off the ball.
Kyrie is an amazing shot-creator, mostly for Kyrie, but he does have all the ingredients needed for being an adept passer. He has decent floor sense, his craftiness with the ball translates when feeding open teammates, and he intuitively understands timing and spacing at the highest levels.
Hopefully Kyrie can pick his spots when having the ball, he cannot pound it as much as he did until now. I think he gets it. When joined to same roster, really good players usually find a way to be really good together. The time it takes All-Stars to gel varies throughout the different situations, but it’s more often than not just a matter of time.
LeBron will use Kyrie to relive the pressure and vice versa. Only seven minutes away from reaching 40,000 minutes in his career, King James will be more than happy to see someone else handle the ball to initiate fast breaks and half-court sets. You could see him physically worn down by this burden in his last year in Miami.
Kevin Love is the big guy you dream of playing with in pick-up games. He’s an absolute force on the glass, his shooting ability provides chances for both driving lanes and easy assists, and when he screens for you, it’s like a brick-wall having your back.
An offense featuring those three is almost too good to worry about defense. However, I’m sure Coach Blatt will disagree with this assumption…
The relationship with Coach Blatt
David Blatt knows he’s the luckiest man alive right now, but if you think he’s going to be the bobblehead “yes-man” to the three superstars’ every whim – you haven’t done enough thinking.
Blatt, with his impressive non-NBA resume, is not known for being an easy guy to get along with. His broad rotations are also used as a weapon to keep players sharp – one mistake and you’re out. He’s extremely demanding on defense, and he knows what he wants on offense as well. “The ball has energy” he will tell them over and over in practice, preaching ball movement until they are all allergic to isolation plays. If there’s anything to learn about how his career has gave him this amazing opportunity, it is that he is not going to be awestruck by his new big three.
Kyrie and Blatt’s relationship is a huge key for the Cavs succeeding sooner rather than later. One thing is certain – Blatt was hired as coach, and coach he will.
Kyrie’s mental approach will be tested in-house, possibly for the first time. As a point guard, getting into Blatt’s circle of trust is not easy, but once you’re in – you get the freedom needed to maximize your abilities. Kyrie needs Blatt to let him make a few errors here and there, and Blatt needs Kyrie to be his voice on the court. The length and looseness of Blatt’s leash will directly be affected by how Kyrie defends his man and communicates the coach’s plan on the floor. Only once that’s established, Kyrie could take his man out dancing, with his thrilling ability to create from scratch.
Now, as a part of the USA team, Kyrie is proving that he’s a good defender when he chooses to be – at 6-3 he is strong and big enough to deal with most PGs, he also uses his feel for the game and quickness to generate steals and deflections, allowing for open-court opportunities, where there’s no stopping him. As far as taking on the very top tier of point guards, or in other words – could Kyrie Irving defend Kyrie Irving? The answer is no. But that is why he’s in that top tier, no one defender can check those guys.
Irving finds himself in the midst of a perfect storm. Playing with the world’s best player, alongside another top-10 guy, a new intriguing coach and the all expectations and excitement a twitter-feed can handle.
The Cleveland Cavaliers can do special things this upcoming season, and they have just the point guard to do it.
Oren Levi is an amateur scout, a professional writer and a diehard NBA fan. Follow him on Twitter.