Last week, as generally happens on Twitter, a rather large and all-encompassing discussion broke out about Tony Parker's value within the grand scheme of the NBA. Parker is a lightning rod for such debates due to his surroundings. Is Parker a top-five NBA player? Top-10? Is he only as good as the rest of his team makes him, or does he make the team go? Is it Gregg Popovich's scheme that brings out Parker's value, or does Parker's skill around the hoop and in the midrange allow Popovich to create new ways to get him and the rest of the team into positions to succeed?
To answer these questions, one has to go all the way back to 2001. Parker was selected a long way away from the number one overall pick at 28th overall; however, had it been a different time he probably would have gone higher in the draft. Parker dominated the Nike Hoop Summit game -- arguably the largest event for international prospects nowadays -- as an 18 year old against American players such as Darius Miles, Zach Randolph, and Jared Jeffries, scoring 20 points, dishing seven assists, and adding four rebounds and two steals to boot. Maybe, had he come along five years later, Parker would be have been looked at as a lottery pick and some of these misconceptions never would have taken hold.
Throughout his time in San Antonio, Parker has worked endlessly hard to improve aspects of his game. People said that you could stop him by laying off of him and stopping him from getting to the hoop, so Parker decided to get a better midrange jump shot, forcing people to continue playing up on him (44% on over 500 shots last season, or about 4% better than league average for point guards). People said that he struggles to defend, but his team is much stronger on that end of the floor with him on the court. People wonder how a player that small can get to the rim and finish as consistently as he does. Parker decided to perfect imperfections, like wrong-footed, off-balance layups and floaters in the center of the lane over much larger defenders. And he’s done all of this while playing with a coach that has put him in a position to succeed.
This isn't just a system thing. It's clear that Tony Parker has realized his full potential and become a title contender's best player, no matter who helped him get there or how it happened.
How can the Cavaliers help Kyrie reach his potential?
Sure, the Cavs don't have an offensive genius on par with Popovich. And yeah, they don't have a generational talent like Tim Duncan to help bring Irving along slowly. But that doesn't matter. The Cavs have to find a way to properly utilize Irving's unique skill set, or else all of his vast "potential" to be one of the top five players in the NBA becomes unrealized talent that floats away into space like Bruce Willis in "Armageddon." Irving taking the next leap as a player is one of the most important questions of this season. He doesn't have to be a top-5 player -- or even necessarily a top-10 one this season -- but making sure he doesn't stagnate as simply a top 20-25 player is essential.
The influx of talent into the Cavs' roster during the offseason will help him continue to improve as a passer and creator for others simply because he'll have more capable teammates. And then maybe increased health will help the team reach it's potential. But that's not all that has to happen. The Cavaliers need an offensive scheme that allows an elite talent like Irving to take that next step. There are many examples in the past where we've seen point guards take the next step in part due to either schematic enhancements or comfort with the offense.
Parker is only one example of a player improving along with getting more comfortable/a better scheme. Jerry Sloan's pick-and-roll-heavy flex offense led to Deron Williams' strongest seasons as a player (we'll look further at this one later). Looking back, Chris Paul's best seasons clearly happened under the stewardship of Byron Scott's Princeton offense, where Scott adjusted it to take advantage of Paul's unique gifts (I can assure you, the Paul-Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll-to-alley-oop play that was a hallmark of Paul's time in New Orleans is decidedly not something that normally occurs in that system).
Derrick Rose won MVP in season three of his career, his second with Tom Thibodeau, who entirely based the Bulls' offense around Rose. While it was not the most efficient offense in the NBA, Rose was in every way, shape, and form the catalyst. He was involved in 42.2% of the Bulls' scoring plays that season, or the second highest percentage since the 1976-77 merger. Looking even more recently, Stephen Curry's step forward this season (especially in the playoffs, with Barnes in and Lee out) largely occurred by the coaches putting shooters on the wings and allowing Curry to spread the floor, create space with his shooting ability, and make decisions on the fly.
All of these players did take third-year leaps as they became more comfortable in similar offensive systems. Only Curry and Rose had to deal with a coaching change during his first three years out of this group, and both of their leaps occurred in the second season in their respective offensive scheme. Paul and Williams have seen slight decreases in production since leaving their original systems. So can we really expect Irving to take the leap? Or has the system change potentially stagnated him for year while he gets his feet wet? Would the Cavs have been better off (gasp!) keeping Coach Scott around?
Okay, so that last part is extremely depressing and probably not something we want to explore. Also, to play devil’s advocate here, there could simply be a correlation of third-year point guards getting better. However, in each case of these elite point guards, the system around them has been sterling and based around their skills, as opposed to just assuming that he'll get his and basing the offense around others. I don’t know that we’ve seen an elite point guard take that next step towards superstardom with a weak offensive scheme surrounding them. The pressure is on this coaching staff to create a system that both now and in the future is built around Irving in order to maximize his talents. And, as always, it is incumbent upon the player himself to continue developing his talent and shot arsenal to keep defenses off balance.
Given his skill as a shooter and dribbler, I would choose something similar to Sloan’s flex. With this motion-heavy offense filled with UCLA and shuffle cuts – plus two other guards that can both handle the ball and initiate an offense in Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack, something the Cavs clearly want given their acquisitions -- Irving would have free reign to either work some off the ball to get open shots or play screen and roll ball with a guy like Anthony Bennett, who profiles as an excellent pick-and-roll player, or Anderson Varejao. Ball-screens tend to come more organically in an offense such as this than the Princeton, and this could be an effective set of plays to throw into Brown's playbook.
I know that Mike Brown has specifically said that defense is the concern right now and that a majority of their training camp will be devoted to that side of the ball. Given last year’s defensive issues, I can’t even say I blame him. However, this is the year that we should see Kyrie Irving take the next step towards superstardom. Making him a better defensive player obviously helps to get him there. But where this team needs Irving to be uniquely heroic is on the offensive end. A strong offensive scheme built around him would do that.
Even though he’s only 21, it is not too early to start speculating about this singular player’s unrealized potential through no fault of his own if the right pieces and schemes aren’t put around him to succeed. With hope, we won’t look back at the end of the season and think that to be the case.
More from Fear The Sword:
- Preseason Game 1: Cavaliers 99, Bucks 87
- Cleveland Cavaliers preview: How much will Mike Brown improve the defense?
- Cavs Fever! Excitement for the season builds with the preseason beginning tonight
- Meet the Bucks: Cavs kick off 2013-2014 season
- Cleveland Cavaliers Season Preview: Who will lead the Cavs in each stat?