For Kyrie Irving, it has always seemed that the criticisms he faces have had more to do with the fact that he doesn't face criticism than the real, on the court issues. By now, you've heard all of it. He doesn't defend, he doesn't get teammates involved. It's all about him. He's too focused on his brand. Does he really deserve to be on Team USA? Oh, so he's willing to pass in the All-Star Game.
To a point, these criticisms are fair and accurate. Oftentimes they are raised in protest of a player who has had things come to him with confounding ease. Irving was drafted into Cleveland, at a time when the Cavaliers were a joke of a franchise. Dan Gilbert's letter had felt good, but it alienated the rest of the league. Forget being a destination for free agents, the city of Cleveland had heard for years that they weren't even good enough to keep the hometown kid, LeBron James. LeBron James then gave that view credence.
All Irving would do during Cleveland's time as an NBA backwater franchise was win the NBA's Rookie of the Year award, make two All-Star games, and win an MVP in one. Nike tapped him for his own signature shoe. He scored in dazzling ways, and every once in awhile he'd make fantastic passes. Also, the Cavaliers lost lots and lots of basketball games. But every once in awhile there would be some magic.
For many Cavaliers fans, Irving became the source of hope. A bona fide talent likely to be in Cleveland for years and years. His persona as Uncle Drew in Pepsi ads was a tiny bit of evidence that you could do just fine in Cleveland and achieve national fame even if you weren't LeBron James. And then there was his age. Irving is one game away from completing his age 23 season. What extra gear is there for this guy? What happens when you actually surround him with some NBA level talent?
But while all of this was on display, the questions started to arise. Okay, this guy is a gifted scorer, but when does that pay off for the rest of the team? What type of team can you build around him? When is it fair to ask him to start to play some defense? Even Byron Scott, who Irving looked at as a father figure, often found himself losing patience with Irving's defense. And around the league, questions started to pop up. If he's not making his team's better, how good can he be?
The Cavs, for the most part, were completely helpless when it came to helping Irving. He was surrounded by non-shooters. After some first year chemistry with Antawn Jamison, Irving's pick and roll partners were mostly a hopelessly raw Tristan Thompson and a sometimes available Anderson Varejao. If Irving found himself slipping into hero ball, well, that can be expected. The Cavs were tanking for Kyrie's first two seasons, and then attempted to transition to win-now mode by signing Andrew Bynum (last seen at Game 4 of the Finals in slippers and an Eminem haircut) and Jarrett Jack and Earl Clark.
All of these issues worked as effective shields for Irving. You might call them excuses. Sure, the Cavs were bad when Irving played. Look who he's playing with! Pepsi and Nike were still calling. And then LeBron James returned. And Kevin Love was traded for. The Cavs suddenly went from a position where Irving would have immunity from outside criticism, to one where he would be asked to play high-level defense in high-stakes atmospheres. His ball-dominant ways would come under immediate threat from James. And by the way, Kyrie, it's not your team anymore.
There was friction with James early on, to be sure. LeBron's unusual leadership style led to him letting Kyrie sink or swim, and early on in the year, the team sank. Irving pounded the ball. James let him lose. It was tough love and it was passive aggression all at once. From James' perspective, though, he doesn't have all the time in the world. It was Kyrie Irving's age 22 year. It was LeBron's age 31 season. There was a lot of learning that had to be done, and it had to happen fast.
All Irving did was make All-NBA third team. He was one of two players, with Stephen Curry, to post a true shooting rate over 58%, a usage rate over 26%, and an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 2:1. More importantly, LeBron James' numbers were significantly better when he shared the court with Irving a year ago. There would be questions to come about whether Irving could play the defense necessary to help the Cavs win a title, but his fit with James was on the backburner.
Irving spent most of the playoffs a season ago hobbled. He didn't play the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals. He played just Game 1 of the Finals. It was a game the Cavs were competitive in, and it felt like the first real test of Irving's ability to defend at the level he would need to.
Shortly after this, Irving would finally face the real test. The real adversity. He broke his knee cap.
The Cavs relative success over the rest of the Finals brought up what was an intriguing notion for many NBA observers. Were the Cavs better off with defensive minded players than Irving and Kevin Love? Does Irving have the right mindset to set up his teammates? These questions lingered over Irving while he recovered from knee surgery. When he came back, he struggled to shoot, and he struggled to defend.
Irving finished the regular season with the lowest Player Efficiency Rating of his career, the second lowest true shooting rate of his career, and the most times he had been included in February trade deadline clickbait articles. Would Rich Paul client Eric Bledsoe be a better fit given his defensive acumen? You know, I'd bet LeBron James really wants to play with Chris Paul. Irving's dribbling became an easy target, even though the Cavs scored a ridiculously high 110.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. The defensive issues were a bit more fair, but this was also a guy still in his age 23 season coming off major knee surgery.
Heading into the playoffs and Finals, there was widespread doubt about the player Kyrie Irving was, and whether or not he could be the player the Cavs needed. The knee injury was one thing, but now it's a multiple time All-Star, a member of Team USA, a Nike signature athlete, and it looks like he might not be good enough.
He's responded to the questions and adversity with vigor. In the playoffs, only two players that have participated in over five games have a true shooting rate over 57%, a usage rate over 28%, and more than two assists for every one turnover. Stephen Curry is not one of them. It's LeBron James, and its Kyrie Irving. He scored 41 points, many of them in ridiculous fashion, in a Game 5 road performance at the hostile Oracle Arena. Many observers pointed out that they are shots the Warriors would live with. Okay, but you're living with a loss in the NBA Finals.
He's also won plaudits for the way he's defended in the series. The Cavs have constantly, relentlessly attacked Stephen Curry defensively over six games. The Warriors have tried to do the same with Irving, with less success. He's been instrumental to keeping the Cavs afloat in the rare minutes James can rest. Unlike the regular season, LeBron's efficiency has once again improved during time with Irving on the court.
Before Game 6, Fear the Sword chatted with Dahntay Jones about Irving's growth and maturity. Jones has known Irving for a long time; they are both Duke guys. His answer was illuminating, as he hadn't been prompted with LeBron's name:
"I've known Kyrie for a long time, and I've got the chance to watch him grow as a player. He's just been awesome. Just, his growth pattern, how much he's willing to learn and listen to LeBron and try and take as much from him ... in the situation he's [Kyrie] in you could have an ego and try to figure it out yourself, but he's been trying to learn from him ... that's his big brother."
Let's not get it twisted. The Cavs are nowhere near the Golden State Warriors without LeBron James. But without Kyrie Irving, it's a lot harder for James to exert the defensive pressure on Draymond Green that he has. Without Kyrie Irving, it's a lot harder for James to consistently switch onto Stephen Curry like he has. A year ago in the Finals, the Cavs often put James on Andre Iguodala to find him some time off. Not this year. James has a smaller offensive burden, and it has the Cavs one game away.
And so Kyrie Irving, the imperfect point guard, is a game away from entering history with a great playoff and Finals performance. The doubts won't go away, particularly if Game 7 goes south for the Cavaliers. LeBron James can put himself into a conversation with Michael Jordan on Sunday night. Kyrie Irving could solidify his place with the game's elite, and become an all-time Cleveland legend all at once.
Stats used courtesy of nba.com/stats