When we look back at Kyrie Irving's 2014-15 season it's easy to forget that, like the Cavs, Irving didn't get off to the best start.
Four games in, the Cavs were just 1-3 and had lost two games on an early West Coast swing. In those losses, Irving had put forth two polarizing performances. In Portland, Irving had shot 3-17 field in a 101-82 loss to the Blazers. Afterwards, a frustrated LeBron James referenced ‘bad habits' that had been built up in the years prior to his arrival and that he was there to help break those habits.
The next night in Utah, Irving scored a game-high 34 points - 19 of which came in a second half Cavs rally - but had zero assists in a 102-100 Cleveland loss. The Cavs had six assists in total against the Jazz and four of those came from LeBron.
In the aftermath, Irving was picked at. Labels originally applied during his first three years - that he was selfish, not a star, not a real point guard, etc. - came back with vigor. These games were Irving's first three seasons magnifying under the microscope that comes with playing with LeBron James.
Roughly eight months later, those concerns now seem distant and largely irrelevant. Lingering concerns about Irving are small and at least somewhat fixable. Four years in, and headed into a max deal, Irving's skill and stardom have been validated.
Irving entered his fourth season as something resembling a question. His talent, of course, had been evident - winning an All-Star MVP and being named MVP of the FIBA World Cup with Team USA tends to mean you're pretty good at basketball- but there were some fair concerns about Irving's ceiling as a player. It wasn't out of the question that Irving would be a fun volume scorer destined to play on bad teams and only tease greatness in small spurts. For every All-Star game-like performance, there was a game where Irving look disinterested on both ends of the floor.
At times, Irving was maddening to watch during his first three years. Defensively, he was a disaster, constantly a target for opposing teams picks because he died almost every time a team ran a PNR at rim at the top of the key. Offensively, there were concerns about how he could score without the ball in his hands and if he made the others around him better. To make matters even more frustrating, Irving seemed to shine with Team USA and in the All-Star Game, moments where he was paying with a far better group of players than he was in Cleveland. When the Cavs signed him to a five year, $90 million dollar deal, there wasn't a clear answer as to how good Irving actually was or would be.
The Irving we see now exits his fourth season as a player firmly established as a star, one who both pairs well with LeBron and gives the Cavs someone to build around for at least the next half decade.
In truth, Irving's breakout year largely came as a result of him improving in the areas that make him special. With LeBron, Irving was inevitably going to have to dial back his shots and adjust to having another scorer and ball handler on the wing. There was an adjustment period, sure, but by the end of it, Irving had found his place alongside James. Irving, like the entire franchise, undoubtedly benefited from the culture shift that occurred when James arrived. In a day, no matter what his Sports Illustrated letter said about being patient, Cleveland went from playing for nothing more than some form of self-respect to playing for titles. In turn, Irving went from being the clear best player on bad teams to the second banana to the league's player since Michael.
In year one with LeBron, Irving decreased his shot attempts by a .9 per game while also decreasing his usage rates a full two percent. That's not a large change, but becoming more efficient matters when James and Kevin Love are your teammates instead of Dion Waiters and Jarrett Jack.
With the ball less, Irving became better. He was excellent shooting from three point range, and had a career high TS% of 58.3. Additionally, Irving posted a career low turnover rate while still dishing out 5.2 assists per game. Off the ball, Irving found the right spots too. Per nba.com/stats, 61.8 percent of Irving's made 3-points came on assists and he shot 46.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. Not surprisingly, LeBron was the most common assister for Irving's 3-point makes.
He became deadly inside too, killing teams in the PNR in a way he only could sparingly his first three years. Leaning on his ball handling abilities and a new-found ability to finish high off the glass in the lane, just 21.6 percent of Irving's two-point field goals came on assists and he shot 49.1 percent on two-point field goals, tying a career high. Irving, simply, is an offensive force everywhere and proved so in playing a career-high 75 games. That last part matters, as Irving's had - and still sort of has - a reputation as being injury prone.
Defensively, Irving still could get better. He doesn't just give up on PNRs anymore - at least not on every possession - and he'll never be laterally quick enough to keep quicker ball handlers in front of him. And even with an increased effort, Irving still posted an individual defense rating of 108. In truth, Irving benefits from Timofey Mozgov's presence more than anyone else on the roster sans maybe Love.
The reality, though, is that Irving wasn't drafted No. 1 overall to be a defensive point guard who manages the game and he didn't win All-Star MVP because he shut down his man all game. He certainly is not a max player because he is good at defense and plays pass first offense.
Irving is a star and an essential piece for the Cavs now and in the future because he either has the best handle in the NBA or the second best. He's a star because when gets rolling like he did in a 55-point performance against the Blazers or in a 57-point performance against the Spurs, he's not guardable. He's star because he's fine-tuned his game and worked through some early kinks to fit alongside the world's best and eventually, probably, become his likely successor at 23.
This season, in every regard, validated the talent Irving had been teasing us with for three years.