Will Kyrie Irving Follow LeBron James' Career Path out of Cleveland?
Kyrie Irving, like LeBron James before him, entered the NBA as the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They each joined a rebuilding organization that had won fewer than 20 games the year prior to their arrival.
Irving and James both went on to be named Rookie of the Year before becoming an All-Star during their second professional season. Neither player had reached his 21st birthday before appearing in the All-Star Game for the first time.
During year three, James made his first trip to the postseason. Heading into the 2013-14 campaign, the goal is the now same for Irving.
Fueled recently by rumors suggesting that Irving is unhappy in Cleveland, however—which the young point guard quickly denied—a lazy narrative speculates that based on the similarities to date, he will inevitably follow James out of town as soon as free agency affords him the opportunity.
What this suggestion fails to recognize, though, is that the Cavaliers' current rebuild shares almost nothing in common with the effort that previously surrounded James.
By acquiring young talent through the draft capable of growing with Irving, the Cavs have put themselves in a position to take a sustainable step forward in 2013-14.
The measured approach to free agency under general manager Chris Grant will likely aid in that effort.
Led by newly rehired coach Mike Brown, Cleveland must use the assets it's acquired to ultimately help Irving compete for a playoff berth this season. Assuming the Cavs do specifically that, an opportunity exists for Irving to win moving forward—both on and off the court in Cleveland—that James never knew.
Learning from Past Mistakes and Building Through the Draft
During the LeBron James era, the Cleveland Cavaliers operated with a sense of urgency driven by a torturous fear of losing their young superstar.
They didn't believe they had the time necessary to invest properly in the draft and failed to secure young talent to complement James as a result.
From 2003-09, the list of first-round picks the Cavaliers acquired to pair with James included Luke Jackson, Shannon Brown, J.J. Hickson and Christian Eyenga.
Jackson, taken 10th overall in 2004 by then-general manager Jim Paxson, represents the highest player taken during James' tenure in Cleveland.
As the chart above highlights, Jackson, Brown and Eyenga combined to play 84 games as James' teammate. Only second-round pick Daniel Gibson went on to become a core player, and this lack of promising, young talent helped lead to James' departure in 2010.
Pairing Three Top-Four Picks with Irving
Starting with a trade that sent Mo Williams and Jamario Moon to the Los Angeles Clippers in return for Baron Davis and a lottery pick that became Kyrie Irving in 2011, the Cavaliers have made multiple first-round selections during each of the last three years.
After taking Irving first overall that summer, the Cavs spent the fourth overall pick on Tristan Thompson, another fourth pick on Dion Waiters in 2012 and the first overall pick on Anthony Bennett this year.
They also acquired Tyler Zeller in a draft-day trade with the Dallas Mavericks for the 17th selection last year and took Sergey Karasev 19th in 2013.
The current rebuilding philosophy has resulted in surrounding Irving with five other players taken in the top 19 over the last three years.
Besides assembling talent that projects to develop favorably in the league, a team atmosphere has been created that will allow this young nucleus to grow together.
Alongside Jason Kapono and Luke Jackson, for example, LeBron James never had that opportunity in Cleveland.
Supporting a Young Core with Smart Free-Agent Investments
Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones were all solid-enough NBA players when they signed as free agents to play with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
However, none of those players fit or projected to contribute to the extent of the free agents recently acquired to help Irving and his young core build a winner in Cleveland.
While backing up both guard positions, Jarrett Jack will not only allow Irving to thrive as a scorer off the ball, but he will also assist Dion Waiters in his professional approach to the game.
Jack is an ideal option alongside Irving and Waiters as a third guard and is frankly a better overall player than Hughes, Marshall and Jones were during the time they spent in Cleveland.
If Andrew Bynum is 85 percent of what he was for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011-12, he could make an even bigger impact than Jack.
But even if he isn't, by structuring the incentive-laden deal the way the Cavaliers have—guaranteeing Bynum only $6 million of the two-year $24 million contract—Cleveland still has an opportunity to be a threat in free agency again next summer as its rebuild continues.
Taking a Sustainable Step Forward in 2013-14
The 2013-14 campaign is a critical one for Kyrie Irving and the Cavaliers. The young pieces they've acquired will need to take a step forward under coach Mike Brown in order to reinforce the encouraging moves made to date.
In light of Tristan Thompson's development during 2012-13, though, along with Dion Waiters' season of experience, the promise of Anthony Bennett and the veteran pieces acquired through free agency, there is reason to believe that Irving will have significant help moving forward.
Anderson Varejao will return after missing most of last season due to injury and Earl Clark expects to provide quality minutes at the forward position.
If Irving is able to stay healthy and perform as most expect he will, a playoff berth is well within reach.
Establishing the Kyrie Irving Brand in Cleveland
LeBron James was surrounded by the aging talents of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Antawn Jamison, Larry Hughes, Ben Wallace and others as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The more dominant James became over the years, the more his aging teammates declined.
By building through the draft this time around, however, the Cavaliers' young core should all be coming into their own at the same time. Assuming that happens over the next few seasons, Irving is on track to be a perennial winner moving forward.
His professional brand, meanwhile—which has already begun taking shape off the court in Cleveland—will only grow stronger as a result.
Irving, who was recently introduced as the cover athlete for EA Sports' NBA Live 14, has inked sponsorship deals with the likes of Nike, Pepsi Max, Foot Locker, Skullcandy and Cisco, among others.
While he will need to consistently prove his worth among the league's elite, Irving is in a position to excel long-term in Cleveland both on and off the court unlike any superstar before him.
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