The idea of an obvious NBA leader is a tricky thing.
Point guards are typically asked to act as a team’s leader because they tend to walk the ball up court and call the plays, but oftentimes the best NBA offenses don’t – or shouldn’t – rely on a point man dominating the ball.
The top overall pick in a draft is usually added to a team to become its franchise player, but working as a high lottery selection usually means you’re paired with players on a terribly poor team. They could include aging and disinterested vets, youngsters that haven’t gotten their act right, or limited players that no amount of sound leadership can help remake or remodel.
Acting as the most talented player on the team usually means being burdened with the status/privilege of acting as a leader, but an ability to break down defenses or swat away heaps of shots doesn’t always lend itself to being able to act a right Knute Rockne in the locker room.
These are the fascinating elements that have long been in place in a star-driven league that still relies on strong team play to win. Nobody knows this more that Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, who was drafted first overall in 2011 before watching his Cavaliers take two more top overall selections in the years since, while never coming close to sniffing the playoffs in his three NBA seasons.
Now paired with LeBron James and tasked with acting as the lead guard on a championship contender after years of watching his team’s championship contention end sometime around Christmas, Irving copped to failings as a “leader” in an interview with RealGM’s Shams Charania recently:
“I haven’t been a leader – not at all,” Irving told RealGM.
“I’m more than excited with our new veterans. I’m really excited just from the standpoint of how the locker room is going to go and how to really be a professional. I’m not saying that the veterans that we had weren’t professionals themselves, but we didn’t have enough. Given the right and wrong things to do in the league, I’ve had to learn on my own and that’s what some of us been doing.
“Now, we have guys who’ve been in the league for years, guys who’ve won championships and have had to give a piece of their game for the greater good of the team. It’s something I admire and something I’m going to learn from.”
Irving truly does have it made with James in the room, a star who has dealt with more criticism than any player in NBA history not so much because of his early failings, but because of an ever-growing amount of media saturation on several different platforms. Whether James deserved it or not is beyond the point. What matters now, entering 2014-15, is that LeBron James has been through the storm.
From here, we have to move onto the question of whether or not Irving deserves criticism.
The Cleveland Cavaliers foolishly thought they could contend after James left the team in 2010, the franchise’s owner said as much in a public letter, and refused to rebuild until a miserable 2010-11 campaign was past its midpoint. The squad then lottery-lucked its way into receiving the top overall pick in selecting Kyrie, who was tossed into a world of dysfunction. Irving had played just 11 games at Duke the season before and missed a proper NBA training camp and rookie orientation program due to the league’s locking out of its players. He also missed 38 games due to injury over the course of his first two seasons, as coach Byron Scott seemed to stand helplessly by on the sidelines.
The re-hiring of Mike Brown in Irving’s third year didn’t seem to help, nor did the arrival of top overall pick Anthony Bennett. Tristan Thompson’s growth has come on the slowest of curves, and lottery pick Dion Waiters has both clashed with Irving and shown a miserable sense of shot selection and station at times. This has not been an ideal upbringing.
Could Irving have done much about it? Possibly, but certainly not enough to create massive change in the Cavalier ranks. None of these teams should have come close to the postseason.
One has to work through the paces, because not every certain star can come into the league and play for a ready-made winner, as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were gifted.
It took Isiah Thomas years and two or three different variations of his Detroit Pistons. Same with Michael Jordan, including four coaches along the way. And if Irving wants to model himself after anyone, LeBron James wouldn’t be a bad place to start.
James deferred in his first season in the presence of knuckleheads like Darius Miles and Ricky Davis. He did the absolute best he could after free agent signings like Donyell Marshall and Larry Hughes – rightfully lauded at the time – failed to pan out. He took a miserable supporting cast to the 2007 NBA Finals, he handled the terrible and embarrassing mistake that was The Decision as best he could, and properly responded to the disappointment of losing the 2011 NBA Finals to a (better) Dallas Mavericks club with professionalism and a re-shaping of his offensive game.
Along the way, he’s watched as his Q rating, respect amongst peers and reputation amount journalists and fans have come to match his already-sterling production on the basketball court.
Irving hasn’t been through a scintilla of what James has, and while he is still going to be counted on to wreak havoc on NBA defenses (while improving his own work on that side of the ball), he can also be counted on as the NBA’s luckiest man. Cleveland Cavaliers front office and ownership group excluded, of course.
This is where Irving can step up. LeBron James has played deep into June for four consecutive years, and he wants to do the same for four more, but he’ll need another voice as his enters his 30s (in this unprecedented career) and wearies. James didn’t mention Andrew Wiggins in his Cavalier announcement. Kevin Love isn’t yet part of this team and the enjoyment of once again playing alongside Anderson Varejao only counts for so much.
Kyrie Irving can use this as all the cachet he needs in order to keep things moving correctly on the court, and in the locker room. He’s been blessed with something pretty special, and the good news is that he’s apparently more than aware of it.
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