Kyrie Irving Ready to Lead: Cleveland Cavaliers 2012-2013 Season Preview

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Kyrie Irving Ready to Lead: Cleveland Cavaliers 2012-2013 Season Preview
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

I won't lie to you, I don't feel ready for the basketball season to start. Don't get me wrong—I'm thrilled to have Kyrie Irving and Cavaliers basketball back in my life. But I just don't feel prepared. I could almost use a little mini-lockout again.

But alas, whether we're ready or not the NBA season gets underway today, as the new look squad in Cleveland takes the court looking to continue on the path back to the playoffs. While nationally there is very little attention spent on Cleveland apart from Irving, there is certainly a buzz about this team among its faithful fans.

That buzz revolves around three core issues for the 2012-13 Cavaliers season...

 

1. Kyrie Irving will make The Leap from being Rookie of the Year to legitimate NBA All-Star.

Every discussion about the Cavs must start with Kyrie. He is far and away the most important player to this team's success.

Last year was great. I didn't have the highest expectations coming in for the rookie No. 1 pick because I failed to catch many of his 11 games at Duke. I was skeptical about his foot injury and I was sucked into the hype of the highlight dunks from Derrick Williams.

Naturally I was blown away by the skill and grace with which Irving plays. As a 19-year-old rookie, he displayed the pace of play that isn't usually seen in players until their fourth or fifth seasons. He knows when to slow things down and when to pick up the tempo, when to get teammates involved and when to take over.

Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

You seldom saw Kyrie jack up the unnecessary 3-pointer early in the shot clock or barrel into the lane out of control, things that are so often seen in the games of rookie guards.

But beyond the fantastic talent, what was maybe the most impressive thing was the leadership that he displayed and the way that he carried himself on the court. The game was never too big for him.

Just three games into his NBA career he was called upon to take the game-winning shot on the road against Indiana, and even though the lay-up rolled out and the Cavs lost in overtime, every Cleveland fan knew at that moment that there was just something special about Kyrie Irving.

About a month later on Sunday, January 29th, Kyrie got another chance to hit the winning shot, again on the road in Boston. Kyrie came off a high screen, slipped a double-team with a spin move and rolled in the game-winning shot, officially putting the league on notice that there was a new star making his home on the shores of Lake Erie.

The league took notice last year and the Cavs were talked about again as more than just "the team that LeBron left." National pundits took notice that Kyrie wasn't just a really good player, but that he was "special."

Unsurprisingly Kyrie ran away with the Rookie of the Year award, commanding 117 of 120 first place votes.

But that was last year. The question is: Where does Kyrie Irving go from there?

As long as he can stay relatively free from injury (knock on wood, rub rabbit's foot, kiss horseshoe, etc.) I believe that Kyrie will vault himself in the realms of the NBA's elite.

In terms of NBA point guards at this very moment this is how I'd have them broken down:

1. Chris Paul
2. Derrick Rose
3. Rajon Rondo
4. Russell Westbrook
5. Deron Williams
6. Steve Nash
7. Tony Parker
8. Kyrie Irving
9. Ty Lawson
10. Brandon Jennings or Ricky Rubio

By the end of the season Kyrie will be in the discussion for inclusion in that top five. A lot of the national thinking on the list will depend on if Rose can come back from his injury, how Nash and the Lakers do, if Williams decides that he wants be a great player all the time, and of course how the Cavs do.

But make no doubt that no matter where the rankings may fall, Kyrie can hang with any of those guys on that list. He has the ability and the temperament to be a great player on the same level as Paul and Rondo.

At the very least Kyrie will be selected to the All-Star team, especially with Rose out.

The ultimate success of the Cavaliers this season and going forward will depend mostly on how quick Kyrie can make The Leap. If he does what I believe he's capable of, then there's no reason why the Cavs couldn't contend for the playoffs this season. In the NBA one great player can elevate the level of the collective team.

A star player in the NBA is kind of like a star QB in the NFL. Take the Steelers for example. The breadth of their roster is overwhelmingly mediocre, with the exception that they have Ben Roethlisberger at QB. As sleazy as he may be as a person, Roethlisberger is a great QB that elevates the level of his team and always gives them a chance to win no matter who they're playing.

Thankfully for Cleveland fans, Kyrie Irving is a much more likable person than Roethlisberger. But he has a similar affect on the Cavaliers. Last year we saw the Cavs win games that they had conceivable purpose even competing in, including road wins in Boston, Denver, and Oklahoma City.

We'll be looking for more of the same from Kyrie Irving in 2012-13 and with any luck he'll even get the Cavaliers back in the playoffs.

Man, am I giddy about Kyrie Irving! I'm gonna take a quick cold shower before continuing...

 

2. Anderson Varejao and Daniel Gibson must stay healthy.

Varejao and Gibson are the longest-tenured players on the Cavs and represent the defensive/intangible roles on the team. Their stats may not always be super flashy, but they undoubtedly are integral pieces to the success of the Cavaliers this season.

They’re also the two most injury-prone players on the roster. Both Varejao and Gibson have missed extended periods of time the past two seasons and the Cavs noticeably struggled in their absence.

Varejao is definitely the more important of the two. He needs to play in 70 games and average a double-double for the Cavs to have a shot at the playoffs. He brings energy to the team that can’t be measured in typical stats.

What can be measured is that he’s the best offensive rebounder in the NBA. Those couple extra possessions that he gets your team every night can be the difference between winning and losing. Steals on defense get a lot more notice, but an offensive rebound is just as important and can at times have an even bigger psychological impact on an opponent.

Gibson’s role on the team is simple: play great man-to-man defense and make 3’s. He didn’t shoot well from the field last season (only shooting 35.1 percent ) and was just okay from 3 (39.6 percent). He’s going to have to improve in that area for the Cavs to win.

Together, their veteran presence on the team is so important given that the average age on the Cavs is 24.9 years old. It's so tough for young teams to be consistent and win enough games to make the playoffs. If Andy and Boobie can stay healthy and play well, the Cavs will have a shot at the postseason.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

 

3. Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters need to play up to their draft spot.

I understand that players coming out of college have no control over where they are taken in the draft. But like it or not, if you are taken in the top five of the NBA Draft, there are going to be certain expectations placed on you.

That's what's facing Thompson and Waiters, who were both taken with the No. 4 pick in the past two drafts. When they were taken there were a number of people who believed that Cleveland "reached" for both players and should have gone with the likes of Jonas Valanciunas and Harrison Barnes.

If the Cavs are going to get back to the playoffs and grow into a championship team these two picks must pan out. They need to become cornerstones of the team.

Thompson showed signs of promise at times last season but often looked lost, particularly on the offensive end. At this point he's a hustle guy who busts his butt on both ends of the court. He works hard for rebounds but isn't anywhere close to being a great rebounder on the level of Varejao. There's just a feel for rebounding that all the greats have. I'm not sure Thompson has it.

Offensively, Thompson needs to have a presence. Teams already don't have to worry about Varejao scoring, so the Cavs need some scoring from the low post. Thompson appears to be a guy who is working hard on his game. But right now he looks so awkward in the post.

As the No. 4 pick (albeit in a very weak draft) Thompson must improve into a solid starter and maybe even a fringe All-Star over the next four years for the Cavs to have any championship hopes down the road.

I'm cautiously optimistic about Waiters. I did a lot of research after the draft and was convinced that he was the right choice.

But he's been up and down all summer. He showed up overweight and out of shape for Summer League. He played well at times but also struggled quite a bit.

He got benched during the preseason for not knowing the plays. He had one great game where he led the Cavs in scoring with 18 points (coming off the bench) but played out of control at times.

While he needs to play well this season to keep fans believing and keep the media and naysayers off his back, fans need to remember that most rookie guards struggle a lot. We can't measure Waiters by Kyrie's rookie season, which was abnormally great.

Waiters will be measured against the guys he was taken ahead of: Harrison Barnes, Jeremy Lamb, and Austin Rivers. He doesn't have to win Rookie of the Year, but I'd say that he has to be better than those three guys.

He'll certainly have a chance to put up points since he'll probably be the Cavs' second scoring option behind Kyrie. The Cavs may even try to make him the primary option so that Kyrie can run the offense and then take over late.

Chris Chambers/Getty Images

What Waiters definitely brings to the Cavs is another guy who can get his own shot at any time. The only other guy on the roster that can do that at all is maybe Alonzo Gee, but no one is counting on him to carry any major scoring load.

I would say that if the Cavs want to make the playoffs this season, both Waiters and Thompson need to average around 15 points per game. While I believe that's certainly doable for Waiters it will be a big step up from the 8.2 PPG from Thompson's rookie season.

It'll take time for these two guys to grow into their own and we can't expect them to be All-Stars these first couple seasons. But make no doubt, as great as Kyrie Irving is, he needs Waiters and Thompson to develop into NBA stars in their own right if the Cavs want to get back to competing for championships in the future.

 

Predictions for the Cavs and the NBA

I would love to sit here and predict that the Cavs will make the playoffs in 2013. But this team is so young and inexperienced right now that that is almost impossible to forecast.

If everything for the team goes right and they stay healthy and the young guys play at a high level they can do it. But I don't expect it to happen.

I do expect them to at least compete for the playoffs and be in the picture for that 8th seed as we come down the stretch of the season. I'd say that a 40-win season in 2012-13 for the Cavaliers should be termed a success.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

I wouldn't be surprised to see Varejao get traded by the deadline if he's healthy. He's such a valuable player to a playoff team and he has a very favorable contract. And there are plenty of teams that could really use his services, like the Celtics who will be leaning on Darko Milicic for heavy minutes.

If Andy gets traded that will obviously have a negative effect on the record this season. But if they can get good value back for him (which he's definitely worth) then it could be very positive for the future success of the team.

Let's hit a couple other bullet point thoughts about the 2012-13 NBA season:

  • As much as most Cleveland fans will hate to hear it, I believe LeBron James is going to be out of this world great this season. He was remarkable last year and will be even better after getting the taste of a championship.
  • While we're on the topic of LeBron, the Heat are my pick to win again. As improved as the Lakers are I still think the Heat are the better team. Too many old guys and chemistry issues with the Lakers for me. And Mike Brown is their coach.
  • I am not sold on the Nets. Can someone tell me why we should believe that the Deron Williams/Joe Johnson marriage is going to work? Everyone seems to believe that the Hawks are better without Johnson and Williams hasn't played good at all for the past two seasons. And the rest of that Brooklyn roster is suspect. To me that team's all hype, little substance. The Cavs might be a better team.
  • The Rockets will make the playoffs with James Harden. (That one's for my buddy Slim to see if he's reading.)
  • It's going to be a great season. LeBron playing at a high level. Kevin Durant and Westbrook trying to get back to redeem themselves. Kobe Bryant gunning for one more ring. Dwight Howard being Hollywood. What's not to like?
  • And one more...Jared Sullinger is going to have a great rookie season. He probably won't win Rookie of the Year (it'll go to Anthony Davis), but he'll finish top three. You heard it here first. Cavs should have drafted him

As I finish typing, my Cavs iPhone app tells me it's 5 hours, 36 minutes, and 13 seconds till tip-off. So I just have one more thing to say...

Let's Go CAVS!!!!!!!!!!!!

 

You can follow Benjamin Flack on Twitter @ClevelandFlack.

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