Kyrie Irving, in repose (Getty Images)
The Cleveland Cavaliers are in 11th place in the East, and it’s only because of their Conference’s miserable first half to the season that the team is just two games out of the Eastern playoff bracket. The squad is 16-28, and on pace for a 30-win season, frustrating news for a fan base and front office that is looking to end a three-year postseason drought. In a last-ditch move, the franchise recently traded for former Chicago Bull All-Star Luol Deng in the hopes that his veteran poise and two-way game would fix what ailed Cleveland, and though the team is an improved 4-5 with Deng in coach Mike Brown’s lineup, but that hasn’t stopped some from wondering why the team hasn’t improved to at the very least the ranks of the mediocre.
One of those people is Akron Beacon Journal reporter Jason Lloyd, who wonders if Kyrie Irving’s fame and the All-Star designations he’s been afforded aren’t truly aligned with his contributions to a disappointing Cleveland Cavaliers team. So far this has been Irving’s first fully healthy year in Cleveland, but his personal marks are down across the board, and his defense remains lacking as ever.
Part of the problem was Irving being anointed the Big Man on Campus immediately upon arriving. He hasn’t been held accountable much the last couple years. That has festered into what we’ve seen this year, which is too much dribbling, at times a lousy attitude and a 21-year-old who has shown his immaturity.
Two opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting. Over what is anyone’s guess. Jarrett Jack hasn’t been the locker room enforcer he was supposed to be. Luol Deng should help, but he just arrived and may not be here past April.
That has left Mike Brown trying to keep everyone in his “circle” despite what has been a disappointing season.
“You can X and O to death and all that, but when times get tough, are we going to stick together and fight together? Or are we going to do what is easy to do?” Brown asked. “Everybody has people in their ear. When they leave this building, they’re saying: ‘It’s not your fault, it’s the coaches fault’ or ‘It’s the system’ or ‘It’s that player’ or ‘they don’t have good enough players.’ And that’s where the fractions can happen or the splitting can happen.”
Lloyd went on to detail Irving’s apparent shirking of responsibility in the wake of former Bobcat, Pacer, and Raptor castaway D.J. Augustin’s 27-point work against Irving while working for the Chicago Bulls last Wednesday, vaguely blaming the team’s pick and roll defense for Augustin’s game-changing performance.
In Irving’s defense, he has contributed an All-Star level season thus far. And despite a slow start, he has rebounded over the last few weeks to at least approximate the numbers he put up in his first two seasons in the NBA. The body language has become noticeable, though, but even just 151 games into his career, can you really blame Irving at this point?
The Cavalier front office was extremely lucky to both vault up in the 2011 NBA lottery to select Irving, and in the way they were allowed to use the amnesty clause soon after to waive Baron Davis and the massive two years and final $28.5 million from his contract. What they haven’t done in the years since that stroke of luck is draft well, and the slow rebuild from general manager Chris Grant hasn’t gone according to plan.
Pickups like Jarrett Jack and Andrew Bynum haven’t panned out, the squad has a combustible guard in Dion Waiters that may not have the talent or consistency to allow for reported attitude issues, and first overall pick Anthony Bennett is dealing with the unfortunate troika of being mistreated by both the front office (which pushed for his top overall selection, while refusing him needed D-League training), coaching staff (who play Bennett out of position at small forward), and opponents (the dude gets lit up, on both ends). New/old coach Mike Brown at times seems like he’s in danger of being tuned out by three consecutive franchise players.
So to go completely off on Irving because of the pouts seems like a bit much, but as Lloyd pointed out, it was expected that Irving’s contributions would take off in his third, fully healthy, season. Recent MVP-caliber types like LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant have seen their numbers skyrocket at a rate that couldn’t be filed away as a gradual ascension in their third seasons. Meanwhile, Irving is just bringing more of the same. Slightly less, if we’re honest.
This is where Deng is supposed to help, and he’s already technically made a difference in the realm of the tangible, as that 4-5 record suggests. The full weight of the package that Luol Deng brings, that on and off court guidance, has yet to fully hit. Deng spoke about as much recently, from Mary Schmitt-Boyer at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.
"I'll be honest with you, and I really want to put Chicago behind me, but me and Joakim (Noah) weren't so nice to each other on the court if one of us didn't play hard," Deng said. "And it made us better friends, and play harder. The same with Derrick (Rose). We knew when Derrick didn't play defense. As good as he is, even his MVP year, if he didn't play defense, we all said, 'Yo, you're not playing defense. You've got to step it up.'
"I think guys here are young, but I think they'll realize that you're only as good as the guy next to you. It's never personal. I've never had an issue with a guy telling me I'm not giving it my all on the court. My first 2-3 years in the league, did I know this stuff? No. But I had good vets who did the stuff I'm trying to do now, and it paid off for me. That's what I'm trying to do now."
All this is what Deng has noticed in just nine games with Cleveland, and he has been hesitant to scream in his teammates' faces, even if the Cavaliers covet and value his leadership.
It is true that Deng had credibility to lean on in Chicago in ways that just aren’t present in Cleveland, despite the team’s obvious respect for him as a player or person. It’s hard to come in as a Chatty Cathy during a midseason trade, even if the Cavaliers badly want him to speak up to his new, younger, teammates.
Deng came to Chicago in 2004 with three other rookies in the rotation that season, joining young second-year guard Kirk Hinrich and two still-developing preps-to-pros youngsters in Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. Though he was only 19, Deng was allowed to act as a go-to sage almost from the beginning, through myriad Chicago reboots and with several different rosters and coaching staffs.
That’s not going to be easy to emulate in Cleveland, especially with the knowledge that Deng will be listening to free agent offers this July in a market that is trending toward all things comin’ up Luol. Would Deng want to sign what would be the last big contract of his wearying career with a team that can’t get its act together, with a star in Irving that could still surprise and disappoint Cleveland by turning down his own contract extension, waiting out restricted free agency, and leaving as a free agent himself in 2016?
That would be a shock, and we’re certainly not the type to neither expect nor consider it an inevitability that Irving would leave for other pastures. Even if he can’t stand playing with Dion Waiters, even if Deng leaves, and even if Irving doesn’t like playing for coach Brown (again, this isn’t what we’re reporting, we’re just relaying a worst-case scenario), there is still plenty of time for the Cavaliers to get things right between now and when Irving can leave. And that’s on top of the fact that, even with those worst-case scenarios in place, Kyrie would be turning down significant money if he chose to leave Cleveland.
And it’s not as if the soda pop pitchman can’t find good endorsement deals in the chilly Midwest.
Kyrie Irving is an All-Star, he’s a deserved franchise player, and he’s still just 151 games into his career. He has a lot to figure out, though, and it’s understandable that some are wondering why he hasn’t taken that Great Big Leap yet.
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