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Irving changes lanes to get Cavs closer to their dream

Once the face of the franchise, the All-Star point guard has taken on a supporting role of sorts as Cleveland tries to win it all

POSTED: Jun 10, 2016 12:10 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Kyrie Irving's breakout performance in Game 3 sparked Cleveland and renewed its confidence in The Finals.

To see Kyrie Irving unleash his dazzling array of offensive skills, to see him put Stephen Curry or some other defender from the Golden State Warriors on wheels with his handle before bursting to the rim or draining a jumper is to see the player around whom the Cleveland Cavaliers decided to rebuild their franchise in 2011.

To see that version of Irving, though, displaying that talent in spurts on the NBA's grandest stage through three games of The 2016 Finals also is to wonder whether he and the Cavaliers ever would have gotten this far, following the original blueprint.

Irving came to Cleveland to fill the void opened when LeBron James left, a tumbling of draft lottery balls so fortuitous as to enflame the never-quite-doused conspiracy theories. The slight but quicksilver fast point guard whose potential bubbled through a small sample size at Duke (11 games) would be the No. 1 pick in 2011, not quite a full year after James' departure.

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Little Nick Gilbert in his bow tie and glasses, son of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, delivered to his dad's team its next perennial All-Star, the guy who would ... well, maybe not make good on Gilbert's outlandish angry boast the Cleveland would win a championship before Miami but at least give the city's NBA fans a replacement superstar, a younger vessel for their hoops hopes and dreams.

In short, Irving would give the Cavs their Derrick Rose, back when Rose was an archetype for explosive scoring point guards, young winners and precocious Most Valuable Players (rather than the poster guy for career-altering injuries).

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That's what Irving was, or tried to be, for three seasons. He was the Kia Rookie of the Year in 2012, won a couple player-of-the-week awards and twice went to the All-Star Game, earning its MVP trophy in New Orleans in 2014.

Irving averaged 20.7 points and 5.8 assists those three seasons. And the Cavaliers stunk. He missed 49 of a possible 230 games due to injuries in that stretch but it barely mattered; with him Cleveland was 64-117, without him 78-152.

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"If Kyrie scored 15, we lost by 20," a team staffer recalled this week, recalling -- not reminiscing -- the many nights when opponents would swarm Irving, trapping him (or at least trying to) a few steps inside midcourt to force the ball to teammates such as Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters, C.J. Miles, Anderson Varejao, Alonzo Gee and others.

The Cavaliers were bad and lucky enough to land the draft's No. 1 picks again in 2013 (Anthony Bennett) and 2014 (Andrew Wiggins). Those two probably would be part of the group still building toward something -- a playoff berth, maybe in the next couple years -- with Irving as their catalyst, David Blatt as coach and a distant horizon for anything resembling a legit championship chase.

Evolving spotlight in Cleveland

Irving likely wouldn't be prepping for Game 4 of The Finals Friday night at Quicken Loans Arena (9 ET, ABC). The building, in fact, would be dark, save for some work being done in advance of the Republican National Convention. That's what Cleveland sold to the GOP several years back when the city bid for the event, working under the assumption The Q and the Cavs wouldn't be busy by this point in 2016.

Only, then July 2014 happened. LeBron came back. The Cavaliers' world shifted with that seismic decision. And Irving took a step to the side, maybe a little bit of a stagger.

He's still a young man, guarded with reporters and not necessarily prone to introspection. Certainly not in this setting, his comments made while sitting on a stage in a roomful of mostly strangers, for consumption by millions. So this is how Irving talked of James' return, the impact it has had on him and where he and his team might be otherwise:

If I could look at the first day I returned to now, our floor general, Kyrie, has become such a great leader. Every single day he's learning, every day.

– LeBron James, on Kyrie Irving

"I don't know," Irving said. "To be honest, don't take this the wrong way, I really don't care because this is everything that I've dreamed of. So whatever that alternate journey was, I don't even want to think about where that would be. But I'm glad that we have the management, we have the ownership, that belief in our GM, and he put together a great team that has done great things over this last year and a half. And our work still isn't finished, but I'm happy about where I am right now."

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Players who know Irving, who know the league, believe it had to be difficult on him. He arrived as the designated savior of a franchise, which means your game, your needs and your wants get attended to in ways most players and people never experience. Yet Irving still would have been in college, still figuring out the person and player he'd eventually be.

Those first three seasons were trying, but he had shown enough to earn, and commit to Cleveland's vision via, a five-year, $90 million contract extension.

Ten days after he agreed to the deal, LeBron returned and everything changed .

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"I don't think anyone was prepared for me returning and understanding what the situation was going to entail," James said Thursday. "I mean, that's everyone here. They had gone through some losing seasons in my previous stint before I came back, so they knew they were getting a pretty good basketball player and a great leader and a good person, and someone that was going to command excellence. But I don't know if they understood the day-to-day process of being in this situation was going to entail.

"So it's been a learning experience for everyone that's been a part of it to this point, and including myself. ... If I could look at the first day I returned to now, our floor general, Kyrie, has become such a great leader. Every single day he's learning, every day."

Irving scored 30 points in Game 3, igniting the Cavaliers with 16 points in the first quarter as they clawed back into the championship series. But it had taken two long years to reach that point.

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The adjustments on the court, fitting James with Irving and the two of them with Kevin Love in an instant Big Three, have been challenging enough. This season James relinquished some ball duties, putting more responsibility on Irving to initiate the offense. Still, it goes beyond Xs & Os and whomever the other four guys on the floor happen to be at any point in a game.

Cleveland has turned over its roster almost entirely since James changed the franchise's trajectory again -- only Irving Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova remain from the last pre-LeBron edition. It has burned through four coaches in Irving's five seasons, too, the messages and missions changing each time the guys in the suits got swapped out.

From Byron Scott, who had a reputation for thriving with star point guards (Jason Kidd, Chris Paul) to Mike Brown, who did not. Next came Blatt, who got the job when it still was Cavs 1.0, Irving developing, the team building.

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Blatt's world got rocked by James' return too, his first season nothing like he anticipated. Instead of a teaching year and a honeymoon period during which he could share lessons and wisdom gained from his years coaching internationally, he and the Cavs immediately embarked on a tightly wound, passive-aggressive, outwardly ebullient but deeply flawed trudge to The 2015 Finals.

Irving spent most of 2014-15 stuck in between yet another coach's vision and style and a superstar unconvinced that vision and style would work. He finished the season hobbled as the playoffs began and sidelined, on crutches, before they ended.

Irving didn't play in 2015-16 until nearly Christmas and he was back for only a month when Blatt got fired and Tyronn Lue, Irving's fourth coach, took over. One of Lue's first priorities after he got the job? Emphasize Love, the former All-Star power forward.

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Lue talked of Irving's adjustments since James' arrival -- like LeBron, he came to Cleveland two summers ago. He said the veteran MVP has helped Irving learn how to take proper care of his body, how to eat and train such that he's at his best for the Cavaliers' games. But he didn't see much impact on Irving's play and Lue didn't address his psychology.

"LeBron hasn't hurt him any by being here," the coach said. "He's really helped him. And Kyrie's still able to be aggressive, still able to be him. And now [we] just have that one, two, three punch with him, Kevin and Kyrie. So it's not anything different that LeBron has brought just outside of professionalism."

Like it or not, admit it or not, Irving's world and potentially his career has changed. Quite possibly for the better, though ultimately he'll be the judge of that.

Success defined as a viewpoint

Andrew Bogut, center for the Golden State Warriors, is one of three former No. 1 overall picks (like James and Irving) in these Finals. The 7-footer from Australia has had a career arc similar Irvings, going from supposed savior of the Milwaukee Bucks (when they drafted him in 2005 to a smattering of individual acclaim) to team success in synch with his priorities and willingness to change. In Bogut's case, it took a trade to Golden State in 2012.

"Early on it was tough," he said before the Warriors' practice Thursday. "My first year and second year, you're trying to go out there and put up big numbers to prove your worth. But you come to realize that numbers in this league can be hollow -- there are a lot of guys who average huge numbers on bad teams and it doesn't mean a whole lot.

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"So I was one of those guys who ended up putting up decent numbers in Milwaukee and we never really got anywhere."

And once he was teamed with other highly talented players, some better than himself?

"Less touches, obviously, are coming when you play with Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson], guys who shoot the ball so well. I probably concentrate more on setting good screens, trying to get those guys open. Clogging up the lane defensively. Doing things where I can try to affect the game.

"If I was a player who could only affect the game scoring-wise, I wouldn't be playing for the Golden State Warriors. Simple as that."

I had to really just remove myself emotionally and realize that the journey isn't going to be easy in order to be a champion in this league, a great player or anything.

– Kyrie Irving

Bogut had to adjust but first he had to want to adjust. Not everyone does. People presume Irving takes it for granted that Irving has wanted it, with James in the building now. They take it for granted, just like they take for granted how easy it must be.

But it isn't necessarily easy and sometimes, this sort of thing isn't even necessarily wanted.

"It's what's important to you," Golden State's Draymond Green said. "Being the greatest player you can possibly be but you never win anything, but your numbers are there and all that, if that's what's important to you, then you did what you wanted to do.

"I don't think it's a right or wrong answer. It's what's important to you. Winning the championship is not important to everybody. So be the best at what's important to you."

Asked if he ever thinks of an alternate universe where he remains the Bucks' star with gaudier individual achievements, Bogut said: "Who gives a [expletive]? I'd rather have some rings and be part of a winning culture. Being in Milwaukee averaging 16 and 10 and getting individual accolades [I'd] be drinking a beer at the end of April watching the playoffs."

Bogut said it's up to each player to accept, to commit and take that step back. Or not.

"I'm fine with that," he said. "A lot of players say they're fine with that but they're not. A lot of players [think] 'I want to win but I want to win on my terms.' I really don't care at this point in my career."

Bogut will turn 32 this fall. Irving turned 24 three months ago. That might affect how thoroughly a player embraces the changes Irving has had foisted upon him.

'A learning experience'

James said Thursday he would have welcomed it during his first Cleveland stint if a star of his ilk had landed in his lap.

"It would have been great to get a multiple All-Star, someone who had done something in our league to come to this team when I was a young guy to kind of help me along the way," he said.

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No one has said Irving he has fought the Cavs' transformation and his shift in the pecking order, or that he wasn't pleased to have James walk through that door. But it's worth remembering that it cannot have been easy.

"It's been a learning experience," Irving said. "It's been a constant adjustment every single day being around a great player like that. But I've enjoyed every single moment, the good, the bad, the ups and downs.

"Everything necessarily won't be perfect, which I had to understand as a maturing young player, young man. I had to really just remove myself emotionally and realize that the journey isn't going to be easy in order to be a champion in this league, a great player or anything. And when you have the chance to learn from someone like that and you have a group of guys in our locker room like we do with veteran leadership, it makes my job a lot easier and a lot more fun to be a part of.

"So I'm happy about the team that we're part of and the teams that I've been part of. But being around him every single day has been great for my career."

At least this version of it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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