By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com
Posted Oct 16, 2013 8:15 AM
First Kyrie Irving was a godsend, a potential star who was good enough to get some Cleveland Cavaliers fans' minds off the guy who left.
Then Irving became precocious, racing along his learning curve after just one quickie college season at Duke to reach all sorts of milestones before some heavy NBA legends had.
For some, Irving morphed next into a tease, the 110 games he played in his first two NBA seasons undercut by the 38 he did not due to various injuries. It's hard to lead a team anywhere from the treatment table.
Now Irving, the Cavaliers' budding young point guard, truly is a man (he turned 21 in March, thus beginning 2013-14 fully legal). More than that, he's eager and allegedly ready to be the man.
"It's my third year in Cleveland. I feel like I've grown from a little guy, a 19-year-old, into a young man here," Irving said on the team's Media Day. "It starts with me. I only want to accomplish what we can accomplish as a group."
Cavs coach Mike Brown called Irving "the Pied Piper" of the Cavs, as in the player others want to follow and play alongside. Plenty of people consider him the LeBron Solution, the basketball gods' payback for the hurt and anger of LeBron James' 2010 decision to leave Cleveland for Miami.
But within the Cavs' locker room and the confines of the front office, Irving supposedly craves only to max out his potential and build a reputation for winning, which should be plenty.
Cleveland, in trying to make good on its promise to fans of a postseason berth by next spring, added significant help. Guard Jarrett Jack and forward Earl Clark were the sort of surgical strikes more often reserved for contending teams. The Cavs drafted aggressively, rounding up Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev and Carrick Felix as rookie help. The Andrew Bynum experiment is underway, if still off the court, in a low-risk, potentially high-reward move that stoked expectations.
There was talent on hand last year, through the losing (24-58), with key pieces getting a little older, a little wiser and hungrier rather than bruised for their experiences. "You have a team that has a lot of guys who are a year older," backup guard C.J. Miles said. "Kyrie's a year older, Dion [Waiters], Ty [Zeller], Tristan [Thompson]. That makes us better alone."
Brown is back to patch holes defensively, which gets easier the longer Anderson Varejao stays healthy.
Still, the Cavs' greatest improvement will be embodied by Irving, who has been working on his game, working on his frame and pushing himself into the alpha-dog role that will define both his team and Irving's eventual legacy.
Since so much around the Cavs is counted in LeBron time -- before vs. after, whether his arrival in 2003 or his departure seven years later -- we can make this comparison: James was named Rookie of the Year in his first season, became an All-Star in his second and had Cleveland in the playoffs by the end of his third. The MVP trophy came for the first time three years later, six seasons in.
Irving is on pace with the ROY award and the All-Star honor. He talks now of driving himself to be the best player in the league, but real measure will be made in postseason berths. It's time.
"A lot of winning, a lot of consistency," was Irving's answer when asked how he'd earn the status as the NBA's best player. "Great players are on great teams."
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound point guard's days of gaining acclaim as the "youngest" to do this or that are ending. He'll need to take on all comers of any size to crack the game's super-elite level.
And as talent around him in Cleveland improves, the need to do it through coaching, in a team framework, will grow. Freelancing is fine for the so-called stars on teams that lost 50 or 60 games, but sublimating his own game for the good of teammates is where some of them get exposed.
Irving said he made it a priority this summer to work out with other Cavs, spending a good chunk of time in the market. "I love being here and I love being here with my teammates," he said. "We had work and play, and met each other everywhere, and we built a brotherhood here.
"We've all been working hard. Just building new chemistry and starting to focus in, it starts with me. A lot of the changes I did, I did it for my teammates coming into the season."
How much better? Miles was a teammate of Brooklyn's Deron Williams, another All-Star point guard, when the two were in Utah. He already sees similarities (and truth be told, a lot of NBA insiders would opt for Irving right now over the Nets' guard).
"I saw Deron at the same stage where Kyrie is now," Miles told reporters, "and he's just about to really explode into just really learning to take over. [Where] he can do what he wants to on a basketball court. It's scary when a guy reaches that."
Irving is reach, all right, and so far he hasn't exceeded his grasp.
1. October isn't the time yet, but there will come a point in 2013-14 when center Andrew Bynum will need to be on the floor, helping Cleveland win games, or the roll-of-the-dice transaction to sign him will be written off as a flop. When is that point, to get specific? Take your pick: Either the All-Star break or the day after Anderson Varejao suffers an injury serious enough to put him out for weeks rather than days.
2. Dion Waiters showed up for camp looking leaner and stronger, and is said to have devoted as much time and effort to studying his game as he did honing his physique. There was no particular progression in his stats last season as his rookie year played out; the No. 4 pick in the 2012 Draft just felt he was playing catch-up all season. He's more confident now, so we'll see how that translates.
3. There's no immediate pressure on Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 draft pick from UNLV. Tristan Thompson continues to man the power forward spot -- in fact, Thompson is an interesting story, switching his shooting hand in mid-career from his left to his right. Bennett still is only 20, missed the summer league with a shoulder injury and, despite speculation, won't be dropped into the small forward spot as his introduction to the NBA (he's more comfortable at PF). His defensive coming in from UNLV isn't Mike Brown-worthy, either.
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LAST YEAR: 24-58, 5th in Central
FINISH: Missed playoffs
2012-13 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2012-13 Stats|
KYRIE IRVING, POINT GUARD
22.5 PPG | 3.7 RPG | 5.9 APG
His fast track (ROY, All-Star) continues. Joined only LeBron James, Allen Iverson and Oscar Robertson in averaging 20 points and five assists through first two years.
DION WAITERS, SHOOTING GUARD
14.7 PPG | 2.4 RPG | 3.0 APG
Averaged 16.1 points and boosted FG% to .458 (from .396) after All-Star break. Extreme confidence is a plus, but better judgment and defensive focus must follow.
ALONZO GEE, SMALL FORWARD
10.3 PPG | 3.9 RPG | 1.6 APG
More place-holding for Gee -- if it's not visions of LeBron James returning, it's the new kid Anthony Bennett who might take over at SF some day. Overachiever played all 82.
TRISTAN THOMPSON, POWER FORWARD
11.7 PPG | 9.4 RPG | 1.3 APG
Reliable double-double man -- he had 31 last year, 26 in the final 56 games. With 306 offensive rebounds, Thompson ranked second to Memphis' Zach Randolph (310).
ANDERSON VAREJAO, CENTER
14.1 PPG | 14.4 RPG | 3.4 APG
Put up career numbers across the board, except for playing in only 25 games. Varejao needs an outlier year of good health, given the other gimpy big man on board.
|Jarrett Jack||6-3||197||G||Respected third-guard addition.|
|Earl Clark||6- 10||225||SF||Rare Lakers plus in 2012-13.|
|C.J. Miles||6-6||222||G||Led team with 126 3-point FGs.|
ADDED: G Jarrett Jack, G Carrick Felix, F Anthony Bennett, F Sergey Karasev, F Earl Clark, C Andrew Bynum
LOST: G Shaun Livingston, G Wayne Ellington, G Chris Quinn, F Omri Casspi, F Luke Walton, F Kevin Jones, F Marreese Speights
ANDREW BYNUM, CENTER
Few men in the entire league are on the spot the way Bynum is. Just covering the Cavs contractually if he's hurt again isn't enough; at 25, his career is on the line after his phantom Philly season.