Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Cleveland's new star on the block

- Akshay Manwani / @akshaymanwani


"I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER 'KING' WINS ONE"
-- Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s letter to fans immediately after LeBron James announced his decision to play in Miami in the summer of 2010. --

It wasn’t that long ago that LBJ announced his decision to part ways with the Cavaliers franchise. It wasn’t that long ago that the Cavaliers stumbled to 26 defeats in a row, marking a new low for any team in NBA history, in the aftermath of LeBron’s exit. It wasn’t that long ago that the Cavs finished the 2010-11 campaign 19-63, second worst only to the Minnesota Timberwolves (17-65).

And yet all of it seems from an earlier era. Not from a year ago, but from a time in the distant past.

Why?

Because the Cleveland Cavaliers are 8-11 already in the first 19 games of the 2011-12 regular season and look very much a side that could make good on owner Dan Gilbert’s words in the next few years.

Because Cleveland has already won five games on the road this season, an accomplishment the ball-club managed only in the month of March in the 2010-11 season, in their 33rd game away from home.

Because they have Kyrie Irving.

Yes, make a note of that name, because Irving, just 19 games into his professional NBA career, is making heads turn with his mature ball play.

Check out Cleveland’s last game against the Boston Celtics, where the Cavaliers stunned the Cs at TD Garden. Irving hit a go-ahead layup with 2.7 seconds remaining to cap a 12-0 run by the Cavaliers to close the game and eke out an 88-87 win over the Celtics. Besides his last-second heroics, Irving scored a game-high 23 points and was an awesome 10-of-14 from the field.

In an article on Cleveland.com, Tom Reed put Irving’s play in those dying seconds against Boston in proper perspective saying, “Kyrie Irving seems drawn to these moments, the kind that make some players look for open teammates or fade into the corners of the court. Not the Cavaliers new star. He wants to decide outcomes. There is no fear of failure. It’s a trait that cannot be taught.”

Reed went on to add, “His [Irving’s] spinning, twisting layup with 2.6 seconds left served as his first game-winner on the court where the club’s last superstar played his final game as a Cavalier. LeBron James hit some big shots in his seven seasons in Cleveland, but none came so early in his career.”

Tall praise for the 19-year-old No. 1 draft pick from Duke, but Irving does stand above the rookie class of 2011-12 by some distance. At 17.9 PPG, he is three points clear of the next best rookie, MarShon Brooks (New Jersey Nets), who averages 14.8 PPG. The more fancied Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Bobcats and Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves, similarly, average a distant 12.2 PPG and 11.4 PPG respectively. Irving also stands second behind Rubio in the rookie class for assists (4.8 APG) and player efficiency rating (16.9). And while Rubio has All-Star Kevin Love on the Timberwolves roster to help him out with all those assists, Irving is pretty much the heart and soul of the Cleveland franchise, never mind Anderson Varejao.

But all the compliments haven’t gone to Irving’s head. He remains remarkably grounded, like in the immediate aftermath of the win against Boston.

“It was just a shot. It's behind me now. It was a good shot. It was a great team win for us,” Irving is reported to have said in an article by Mary Schmitt Boyer again on Cleveland.com.

Also, unlike some of the other younger superstars in the league, who believe in making all the big plays by themselves, Irving likes to get his teammates involved. Sam Amico, writing for foxsportsohio.com, summarized Irving’s style of play by writing, “Anyone who has seen Irving play understands that he is extremely skilled with a thorough understanding of the point guard position. He can go one-on-one and take over if he has to, but as Cavs radio analyst Jim Chones pointed out, it’s not something Irving is inclined to do.

“His preference seems to be getting others involved first — a characteristic owned by greats such as Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Tony Parker. Chones defined Irving’s style as ‘probing,’ or looking at all his options when he brings the ball down the floor and sets up the offense. If nothing is there, he has the ability to take it himself,” wrote Amico.

NBA.com’s Shaun Powell has been equally effusive about Irving. Powell wrote, “For someone who only played 11 games at Duke [Irving suffered a severe toe injury in Duke’s eighth game of the season], and didn't put in a full summer of work because of rehab, and was deprived of a normal NBA training camp, his transition has been just shy of remarkable. With a killer dribble and a pull-up jumper that's textbook and poise you don't see from 19 year olds, Irving leads all rookies with numbers that would be greater if his minutes [Irving plays only 28.3 MPG, whereas Rubio leads all rookies with 34.4 MPG] weren't being rationed. He's also playing the toughest position on the floor to master and doing it for a team that lost 63 games last year. Something special is developing in Cleveland, eight years after LeBron arrived and was immediately placed on a throne.”

And so it is that nineteen months after James headed out of Cleveland, Irving is giving the once distraught franchise much to cheer about. Owner Gilbert, once the author of a vitriolic letter directed towards James, summarized the positive vibe in Cleveland with regard to Irving best on his Twitter account after the win against Boston by tweeting:

“I think I am pretty pleased with the 1st pick, how about you?!”

All stats and regular season standings are after games played on January 31, 2012 (IST)