As the Cleveland Cavaliers continue their process to rebuild after the departure of LeBron James in 2010, they've got another electric player in Kyrie Irving who they need to build a team for, lest he travel down the same path as LeBron.
In Irving, Cleveland has a point guard who looks very much like the next big thing. Not only has he won the Rookie of the Year award in his time in the league, he's had an All-Star-quality year this season and is already looking like one of the three best point guards in the Eastern Conference.
Moving forward, he's going to continue to improve in terms of managing the game, working his teammates into the fray and controlling the pace.
He's already shown that he's an excellent fourth-quarter scorer, hitting multiple game-winning shots with just 74 games in the league under his belt, something it took LeBron more than two years to accomplish.
As Kyrie improves, the team stagnates. Cleveland is a mere 8-26, a winning percentage of just below 24 percent. Last season the team finished 21-45, a winning percentage of just under 32 percent.
So what's in Cleveland for Kyrie? What's keeping him in town, and just where is this franchise headed?
Let's break it down a bit.
The City of Cleveland
Something that seems to be ignored because it's not one of the major NBA markets, and it's not in a hot vacation spot, is the fact that Cleveland is an amazing city.
Sure, it's Cleveland. It's cold, there's no beach nearby that anybody's going to seriously consider an attraction, and it's not the center of the basketball universe.
However, stories come out time and again about the players who come to the city falling in love with things outside of the "attractions." Rather, they fall in love with the blue-collar, hard-working folk of Northeast Ohio.
The fans in general are a raucous bunch, and as long as there's respect between team ownership and the fans, they'll show up for games. Al Horford voiced his impression of the fans when the Hawks came to town in December.
Cleveland fans are great! Very impressed with the way they support their team.— Al Horford (@Al_Horford) December 29, 2012
As for the players who have been there in the past decade or so, there's an endless number of stories about making the city their second home.
From Zydrunas Ilgauskas meeting his wife and raising children in Cleveland to Anderson Varejao proclaiming that he feels like he's from Cleveland (via waitingfornextyear.com) and Boobie Gibson's long-winded letter dripping with dedication to the city, there's a lot more to Cleveland than people like to give it credit for.
What They've Got
Alongside Kyrie, Cleveland has built a core of Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and Alonzo Gee, along with two solid veterans in Gibson and Varejao. Everybody else is there because Cleveland needed to field a full team (although C.J. Miles has been fine this season).
Right now, the Cavs have a team that's going to lose a lot of games; they're simply not built to be big winners right now.
It's rough to ask Cleveland fans to continue to be patient, as they've been waiting for next year since 1964. At some point the waiting gets tedious and the losing gets painful.
However, in this one case, it's beneficial for the Cavaliers to keep losing, as counterintuitive as that may be.
Winning more games would get them, at best, a shot at the eighth seed in the playoffs, rather than a shot at another high lottery pick.
This is not, however, a team that's as bad as its record states.
Aside from getting bitten by the injury bug, the Cavs have lost many a close game.
Cleveland has played in 10 games decided by three or fewer points (the most in the NBA) and won just three of them. That's tells me that they're a young team that hasn't learned to close out games yet—and even Kyrie can only do so much.
These guys can play. They're just not all on the same page in terms of consistency.
Down the Road
What Cleveland is looking at down the road depends very much on how its young players progress. Looking at them separately, there's a lot of hope and a lot of questions yet to be answered.
Waiters will continue to be a puzzle for a few years. While he's shown flashes of brilliance, he's also shooting less than 37 percent from the floor. That is otherwise known as dead last in the NBA among qualified players.
Thompson has shown flashes of putting together an offensive game, notching 12 double-doubles so far this season to go along with his stout defense. He's definitely a positive piece for the future.
Zeller, at the very least, is a smart player who can draw charges, hit a jumper, block a shot or two and run the floor incredibly well for a guy as tall and goofy as he is.
The roles of Varejao and Gibson will be up in the air moving forward, but they're excellent trade pieces at the very least.
Aside from those guys, Cleveland will have a few draft picks in the upcoming draft and very little money committed after the 2013-14 season, otherwise known as the summer when Kyrie's contract runs out.
As a restricted free agent in 2014, Kyrie will stay with Cleveland unless something odd happens, and they'll have money to spend.
That means this ragtag bunch of players is fine to lose now, but they're going to need to show that they can win games next season if they want to have a chance to lure free agents to Cleveland the following summer.
It's not rocket science, although at times it may seem like it. The best thing they can do now is hope their draft picks pan out and keep an eye on the free-agent class of 2014.