When LeBron James made it official that he was returning to Cleveland, there was never a second thought about an issue that is clichéd, but certainly can be prickly.
Whose team is it?
When your team includes the best player in the world, that would seem to be a no-brainer.
But when your team also has a player who has led it for three consecutive years in scoring – including a rookie season when he was 19 years old – and arrived as the franchise player, the process of assimilating is not without complications.
James and Kyrie Irving are still getting to know one another on the court, but on Thursday night, they did not make a lot of progress. In a 102-100 loss at Utah, the Cavaliers managed six assists, demonstrating what the Alternate Universe San Antonio Spurs might look like.
Coaches always talk about making the extra pass. In the Cavs’ case, the message from new coach David Blatt is simpler:
Make the first pass.
“No way you’re going to win a basketball game like that, just having six assists,” James said. “I think we had two in first half and four in second half. We had actually four until the last minute and a half of the game. We just can’t win like that. We’ve got to figure out a way to help each other and not make it so tough.”
Unselfishness has long been a fundamental part of James’ game. As the best player on his team, he always takes the most shots. He led the Heat in field goal attempts each of the four years he played in Miami.
But he’s always shared the ball. During those four years with the Heat, James led the team in assists each season. He’s always gotten his teammates involved, but that seems to be something Irving is still in the process of learning.
Of the six assists against the Jazz, Irving – in what would not be described as classic point guard play – had a grand total of zero. He did, however, manage to get up 23 shots in 45 minutes.
A day after the loss to Utah, there was a report that James and Irving had a sharp exchange after a loss in Portland on Wednesday.
In the big picture, however, that is not a big deal. It is, in fact the fulfillment of James’ prophecy in training camp.
“You’ve got to go through something to create a bond; that means for the worse,” James said. “We’ve got to lose ballgames that we think we should’ve won. We’ve got to get into an argument every now and then just to test each other out.”
Winning, of course, softens all arguments and after the Cavs rebounded with a 110-101 victory Friday in Denver, the furrowed brows had relaxed. The Cavs had 25 assists and James had 11. Irving chipped in with six.
‘We stressed (ball movement),” James said. ”We were like, `Let’s get the ball moving from side to side. Let’s get the best shot, not a good shot, the best shot.’ ”
James has consistently said that it will take time for the Cavs to become an elite team and it is evident that, as the best player on the team and the leader, he has a unique challenge.
Now in his 12th season, James has continuously evolved as a player, fulfilling every expectation that has been created for him since he first dunked in the eighth grade.
When he led the Heat to the NBA title in 2011-12, the last group of critics was silenced. He was finally an NBA champion. He is firmly established as the best player in the world and right now, there isn’t even an argument.
What has also become evident, however, is that his leadership skills equal his basketball skills. His return to Cleveland was dramatic and grand and whatever blips there had been when he departed four years earlier were forgotten.
Now only seven weeks away from his 30th birthday, James has become the savvy veteran, the wise leader, the voice of experience and reason.
There is little doubt that since deciding to return to Cleveland, James has said all the right things.
So the question is: Will Irving listen and respond?
It is important not only to remember that Irving is just 22 years old, but also that he has thus far, like James, fulfilled every expectation. He was the No.1 pick in the draft, he was rookie of the year, he has been an All-Star MVP and was the MVP of the U.S. national team that won the gold medal at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. There is little doubt he will be on the 2016 Olympic team.
A player doesn’t have those accomplishments without a healthy dose of confidence, and Irving has it. But he also backs it up. At the 2012 Olympic training camp, Irving earned rave reviews, perhaps most importantly from Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo.
“Kyrie Irving is a player that literally you could move from one court to the other court,” Colangelo said, referring to shooting drills that have the Olympic team and the select team on adjacent courts. He’s that far advanced in terms of his talent.”
The question facing Irving is does he understand that it is just as important to create points for others as it is for him to score himself? Spectacular one-on-one moves are breathtaking, but so is well-executed team play. James can attest to that.
What everyone on the Cavs, including Irving, needs to realize that although it is James’ team, history shows that, like the ball, he willing to share — because he knows that is what is needed when a team goes from possibly good to definitely great.
CHECK OUT JAN HUBBARD’S ARCHIVE FROM SHERIDAN HOOPS.COM. TERRIFIC STUFF ON THE NBA, PAST AND PRESENT.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.