Kyrie Irving recently turned 21 years old. Drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers two short years ago, he was given the task of leading a team with a serious lack of quality players in a city with a heartbroken fan-base. He would be the face of the franchise, picking up a crown that had been tossed aside by its previous owner. He would be Mike Conley, we hoped, back when Mike Conley wasn't particularly good at basketball. Turns out, he is a much, much better player than that. His rookie season was one of the best in the history of the NBA, and there is no hyperbole there. He excels in nearly every facet of what an NBA offense requires. Breath-taking shooting ability? Check. Quickness and handle? Check. Pick and roll savant? Sure thing. Gifted passer? Yeah, he does that too. One of the best isolation players in basketball, he even can post guys up. He turns the ball over a bit, mostly because he has too much confidence in his own ability. So what is the problem?
"He is the worst defender in the history of Dr. Naismith's sport"
The most common and persistent criticism regards Irving's defense. Writers, even ones I respect, consistently make the claim that there was no improvement for Irving in his second season in the NBA on the defensive end. This is false. For one, Irving is pretty darn good at creating turnovers defensively. His instincts are good and his athleticism allows him to disrupt passing lanes. Opposing point guards saw their Player Efficiency Rating and effective field goal percentage go down while Irving was guarding them this season compared to his rookie year. He isn't a good defender by any means, but he did improve. How many young players in the league are actually good defenders? Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, and LeBron James all took time to develop the focus and stamina to put in consistent defensive work in, and, to be honest, these guys don't do it all the time. Irving has a huge offensive burden when he is on the floor. Why are we killing him for not being a great defender as a 20 year old?
There is also the simple fact that with the hand-check rules the way they are in the NBA, there are only a few guys with the strength and lateral quickness to actually stay in front of point guards. Outside of Eric Bledsoe and maybe Avery Bradley, even the best defensive point guards like Chris Paul and Mike Conley give up penetration from opposing point guards. This is why interior defense is so important. Tyler Zeller wasn't a disaster defensively just because Spencer Hawes could bully him down low. He was also a disaster defensively because he provided almost no value protecting the rim. The Cavaliers as a team finished second to last in the NBA in the total number of shots blocked defensively, nearly 100 below the league average. When opposing guards light up the Cavaliers, please remember that it isn't necessarily Kyrie Irving's job to keep guys out of the lane. The bigs have to help. They haven't so far. I cannot stress enough how little I worry about Kyrie Irving's defense.
"He is a diva in training"
The diva label is courtesy of Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In another more recent article, allegedly about the NBA Draft lottery, Livingston went even further:
Not only is he injury-prone, he paid no attention to deposed coach Byron Scott's harping on defense and sometimes barely tried on that end of the floor. Irving stiffed the fans on Fan Appreciation Night, then curtly denied the cover story an embarrassed public relations man whipped up to explain it.
I will admit to being pretty bothered by this. I was also bothered when Irving failed to stand up for Byron Scott as it became clear that Scott's job was in real danger. Irving admitted to being disinterested for a road game in Detroit this season that I attended. In that game, Irving came out and scored 11 points in the first quarter before realizing that none of the other Cavaliers were all that into the game. It appeared that he decided to take the rest of the night off as well. As the season went on, Irving became shorter and shorter with the local media following games. While veterans like Wayne Ellington Luke Walton, and C.J. Miles would often hand around the Cavaliers locker room after games, recovering and relaxing, Irving was usually one of the first guys out the door.
But, ultimately, what does this mean? The most likely explanation is that we are watching a 20 year old lose a lot of basketball games for the first time in his life with the knowledge that the front office is purposefully avoiding improvement. He is discovering love, he is discovering money, he is discovering success and the fame that comes with super-stardom (he really did enjoy All-Star weekend, didn't he?), and he still has the weight of being the most recognizable and loved athlete in Cleveland, Ohio. A certain amount of moodiness is understandable. Watching old guys put the hammer to a 21 year old is not. It is cliche, but we are watching Irving grow up, and there are some some bumps along that road. I don't want to rationalize bad behavior, but it is just way too early to draw conclusions from these things.
So let's relax a little bit
Sam Amico often makes an argument that I don't really agree with, but nonetheless see some merit in; he argues that expecting an NBA championship, and only being happy with a season that ends with one, is a recipe for sadness, and people should just enjoy their team's success for what it is. I think we all agree that we don't want the Cavaliers to go the route of the Nets or Knicks, where the playoffs is the end destination without much hope of getting better. At the same time, though, NBA titles are really hard to achieve. Maybe the Cavaliers will get one, maybe the won't. But they do have Kyrie Irving, and they have him right now. That is worth celebrating, and the angst and criticisms, while somewhat merited, shouldn't overcome or overshadow the fun that comes with him.