When the buzzer sounded and the curse was reversed, the flood of emotions was so much more than I ever could have prepared for. The image of LeBron James collapsing to the floor due to the weight of the moment, despite the weight of the hopes and dreams of Northeast Ohio being lifted off of his shoulders stands out, but so does a joyful Kyrie Irving being tackled and embraced by assistant coach Phil Handy.
What made this moment even more significant to me was the impact both Irving and Tristan Thompson had on bringing home a championship. I'm sure many who followed and supported the team during the lean years can relate to the joy of seeing the homegrown players blossom on the biggest stage there is in basketball and validate many hopes of what they could become.
When I first started writing about the future of Irving and the Cavaliers, it was after Game 2. The intention was to illustrate how this was the first time in a playoff setting that what Irving does was stopped and how losing in a playoff series while being limited by the opposition could be an opportunity for growth.
Heading into Game 3, the hope was obviously for a win. But on another level, I wanted to see Irving make adjustments. To study the tape and rise to the occasion. If the Cavaliers were going to lose in the Finals, the most important thing moving forward would be the growth of Irving, the player James bet a lot of his future on as somebody capable of extending his championship window.
As James said of Irving back in January:
He’s special... He’s that special, man. He’s much better than an All-Star. Much better than an All-Star. If he continues to play the way he’s been playing but also continues to progress in his game over the years, he can do something that’s very special around this league. I’m not going to put too much pressure on him, but I know in my head what he can become in this league
The rest is, of course, history. Irving strung together five very strong performances with an all-time outing in Game 5 scoring 41 points on 17-24 shooting.
Irving outproduced Stephen Curry in the Finals, although saying that sells Irving short to some extent and puts unfair blame on Curry. Curry actually defended Irving well throughout the Finals on the few possessions he covered him (even on the shot that ended up winning the NBA championship). But for the series Irving was mostly defended by the 6'7 Klay Thompson and all of his seven foot wingspan. The Warriors were able to stifle the off ball movement in the first two games and their switching defense allowed them to stick with the Cavs one on one. The lack of movement baited both Irving and James to try and beat the Warriors one on one, and they struggled turning the ball over and their efficiency was middling.
For the rest of the series there was better ball movement, but ultimately the Cavs won because both James and Irving made tough shots one-on-one. While ultimately you would likely want a more sustainable approach and one that makes things easier on the team, James and now Irving have made their careers on making the seemingly unsustainable the expectation.
The inconsistency of the supporting cast in the Finals outside of Thompson made things more difficult for Tyronn Lue and made the heroics of James and Irving more or less necessary. The dynamic duo combined for 59.8 points per game in the Finals and the dividends of their joined success have the potential to benefit the Cavs for many years to come.
Outside of a hypothetical pairing with Curry, there may not be a better point guard in terms of fit alongside James than Irving when he is at his best. James is still at his best with the ball in his hands, so you need a point guard that is versatile enough to play the bulk of the game off ball while still being effective. Irving also steps up as a playmaker when James is off the floor, as he is in the top-10 for point guards in assist percentage with James off of the floor at 39.2 percent.
Despite Irving not being anywhere close to the level we've been accustomed to this season coming off of knee surgery, his presence provided relief to the rest of the team in terms of their workload, most notably with LeBron. Just look at how much easier a limited Irving made life for him this past season:
A large part of James returning to Cleveland was the presence of Irving, someone he viewed as a worthy partner who is still nowhere near his prime as a player. Irving's play over the last two postseasons has provided validation to James' belief. James made the claim that when healthy, Irving could be an MVP candidate. The next step in their development together is James molding Irving and showing exactly what it means to get to that level.
Irving is in a unique and fortunate situation. In addition to being in touch with James long before he made his return to Cleveland, Irving has also been mentored by another future first ballot Hall of Famer in Kobe Bryant. This is what Irving had to say about his championship winning three pointer via SI:
That moment right there happened, and I was like ‘ok, I’m fine’ " Irving said. "And all I was thinking about in the back of my mind was Mamba mentality. Just Mamba mentality, that’s all I was thinking.
Nobody in their right mind would ever suggest that Irving should become a pass first player. Like his mentor Bryant, he has a knack for hitting shots that seem impossible and a craving for the ball in his hands in a big moment. He among the most gifted scorers in this league and sacrificing shots in order to give lesser offensive players more opportunities would not be in the best interest of the team. If Irving is to fully realize his potential, he will need to try to combine the aggressiveness of Bryant with the cerebral gifts of James.
Irving has not had great vision as a playmaker to this point in his career. Some of that can be attributed to four coaches through his five years in the league and trying to learn a new system all the time. He also hasn't had the opportunity to play and learn the offense as a primary creator over the last two seasons with James playing in that role. Regardless of the circumstances, the reality is that he could make things easier on himself as a player by recognizing when to attack and when to rotate the ball on the perimeter. Isolation attempts are most effective when they come off of movement.
Ironically enough, Curry would be a good player for Irving to study and watch how he plays. While he is also a score-first point guard, he plays alongside a forward that gets more assists than him in Draymond Green and has a good awareness of when to get his and when to get other people involved. Curry also developed as a team defender and found a way to be effective despite his limitations. Irving showed good defense overall in the playoffs, but a better understanding of where he needs to be, particularly in the pick and roll, would greatly benefit him.
As it stands today, Irving is a champion and his highly debated style of play has proven to be what the Cavs needed (along with a historic performance from LeBron), in order to win a championship. The duo has proven to be a phenomenal pair and while the regular season will not carry a lot of meaning for this championship minded team, the growth of Irving will be one of the few things to focus on as the wait for the playoffs drags on.
Kyrie Irving is here, he has arrived. As for what's next the sky is the limit as he enters the prime of his career. While it hasn't always been the case, the Cavaliers seem to be the perfect situation for him to develop and blossom into a superstar.