Not all NBA seasons are created equal.
Some campaigns are more important than others, as Kyrie Irving and John Wall are about to find out.
Young, developing studs are under constant pressure to improve, to make strides each and every year early on in their careers. Irving and Wall still find themselves playing under such expectations.
The former is set to begin his third season as LeBron James' replacement, the latter about to be held to a more demanding standard on account of his wallet.
Both have shown they can be great, but neither has proven that they're prepared to sustain such success.
Which of the two has the most to prove as the 2013-14 campaign draws nearer?
Different obstacles are facing either point guard, some of which will be more defining than others.
One season after earning his first career All-Star selection, Irving still has plenty prove.
Cleveland's offseason transactions have brought the team to a place it hasn't been since LeBron James left town—playoff contention.
Most eyes remain fixated on the summer of 2014, where the Cavs are still in position to stage a coup, but this coming year isn't about wading through even more losing.
Free-agency additions such as Jarrett Jack, Earl Clark and, most notably, Andrew Bynum, coupled with the debut of Anthony Bennett and return of Anderson Varejao, have given the Cavaliers something to play for now.
That doesn't mean there is a championship to be won in Cleveland next year. There isn't. But for the first time since 2010, the Cavs are less about angling toward a high lottery pick and more about making the playoffs in a now deeper Eastern Conference.
New acquisitions in hand, Cleveland's immediate intentions still rest on Irving. Entering his third season, he is still the end-all, be-all for a much-improved outfit.
Varejao hasn't appeared in more than 31 games for the last three seasons, Jack is purely a complementary piece, not a building block, and Bynum, for all his star potential, hasn't played in over a year. Even in offseason triumph, there is only Irving.
And he himself knows it, which according to Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer, is all a part of his master plan:
This is part of the plan that I’ve kind of planned out for my career and how I want it to go in terms of the third year for different guys in the league. They either get worse or they continue to get better. The third year is a big year for a person in my position ... kind of on the cusp, on the fence between being good and great.
Most wouldn't hesitate to call Irving "great." That All-Star selection of his left him as the eighth rookie or sophomore to earn such an honor since 2003, forever linking his credentials to that of superstars like Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and, yes, LeBron James.
Those 20.6 points, 5.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game he's averaging in conjunction with 39.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc for his career also put him in a company all his own. Save for Irving, no player in NBA history has notched at least 20 points, five assists and one steal while converting on 39 percent or more of their deep balls through their first two seasons. Absolutely no one.
Having already distinguished himself in ways some players never will, questioning his on-court brilliance can seem like a feeble attempt at sensationalizing an issue that really isn't there. Only something is there, and to ignore it would equate to romanticizing what has yet to become a glamorous situation.
Irving is a former Rookie of the Year, an All-Star and at the forefront of Cleveland's championship ventures. He's also yet to lead them to the playoffs, to dig them out of the hole LeBron's departure put them in.
Two years isn't enough time to recover from a crushing blow like the one The Chosen One delivered. He was Cleveland's everything, the Cavs' lifeline.
So is Irving.
There is no substitute to LeBron. He stands on a ground all his own. Irving, however, was brought in to supplant what he represented—hope.
Injuries and a shoddy supporting cast have prevented the Cavs from amounting to anything more than a lower-tier lottery team. And that has provided Irving with an excuse. Taking the Cavs to the playoffs was out of the question, because they weren't built to win, even with him.
Organizational structure will no longer vindicate Irving and these Cavs, though. If healthy, they should make the playoffs; should they make the playoffs, their star point guard can begin to be recognized as "great."
Three years is what it took for Chris Paul to get the then New Orleans Hornets to the playoffs. Same goes for LeBron and the Cavs. The player he is most often compared to (Paul) and the one he replaced (LeBron) got their respective teams to the postseason in three years time.
That sound you hear is the urgent ticking and tocking of Irving's clock.
Failing to bring Cleveland to the playoffs won't negate all Irving has done, nor will it devastate his standing within the NBA. Absence of a postseason berth won't be a harbinger of ever-lasting mediocrity.
Approaching the summer of 2014, though, this season serves as an audition of sorts for the young point guard. Leading the Cavs to the playoffs now validates the status so many have already bestowed upon him, catching the attention of all the marquee names Cleveland will chase. Like LeBron. Or Carmelo Anthony. Or Nick Young (kidding).
Cleveland isn't going to sell itself. It's not Los Angeles, New York or Chicago. Quicken Loans Arena isn't the Staples Center, Madison Square Garden or United Center.
More importantly, Irving isn't LeBron or Paul. What he's done thus far may not be enough to attract the types of stars the Cavs clearly want and also need.
Finishing in the top eight of the East, willing the Cavs into the playoff fray acts a declaration that Cleveland is going places with Irving. That the Cavs are a team worth playing for.
That Irving is unquestionably great.
If only everyone could do the John Wall.
To be clear, "do the John Wall" refers to extracting $80 million over five years from the Wizards after never 1) leading them to the playoffs, 2) being selected to an All-Star game and 3) shooting better than 40 percent outside three feet of the basket.
Should the Wizards actually go through with giving Wall a max extension—ESPN's Marc Stein reports that they will—next season won't be about contending for a playoff spot or the development of Washington's youngings in general, so much as it will be about the point guard justifying himself as a star.
Like Irving, Wall is well aware of what's at stake next season, according to Michael Lee of the Washington Post:
Everybody was writing me off. Nobody believed in me no more, until what I did at the end of the season and then they started believing again. Just more motivation. Fuel to my flames to try to get better.
I feel like I’m being recognized, but I still got a long way to go, to be in the playoffs and stuff like that. I think the organization is doing a great job. They are getting the pieces they need and how we finished last season, we’re right there. And the main thing is just stay healthy. That’s the biggest thing for us.
Hopefully that "fuel" is enough to carry Wall and the Wizards a great distance, because the point guard is right, he and the rest of the team have a long way to go.
People did, in fact, begin to believe in him again toward the end of last season, when the Wizards went 24-25 with him in the lineup. But that's still a sub-.500 record. I know Washington plays in a conference where that is often deemed acceptable and playoff worthy, but come on.
Superstars aren't paid so handsomely to lead mid-level outfits to early playoff exits or lottery finishes. And they're not compensated to be as inefficient as Wall himself has been.
Lee points out that once Wall inks his extension, he'll "join former MVP Derrick Rose and all-stars Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook as the only NBA point guards with maximum-salaried deals," yet he hasn't shown he can impact a team like they can. Any of them.
As you can see, Wall is in the middle of the pack in terms of his career usage rate (25.5), but his true shooting percentage (50.4) and the number of win shares he amassed through his first three seasons (10.2) are dead last amongst the rest of the league's max floor generals.
The biggest issue here is the wins he's accumulated, or lack thereof. Rose and Westbrook are proof you don't need to be a deadly shooter to enter the realm of elite, so long as your winning, which the Wizards haven't been.
Wall is not only devoid of an All-Star selection (and MVP), his Wizards have yet to eclipse 30 wins since he entered the league. Since 2010, he has accounted for the 134th-most win shares in the NBA (10.2). And he's to be paid $80 million?
Ty Lawson (21), Stephen Curry (20.0) and Jrue Holiday (13.2), all of whom signed extensions worth one year and close to $40 million less than Wall, have accounted for more victories over the last three seasons. Hell, the unwanted Brandon Jennings (15.2) has the edge on Wall as well.
All blame can obviously not be placed on Wall. Washington hasn't made the shrewdest of moves over the last three years. If you put Rose, Paul, Williams or Westbrook on the Wiz, though, are they a playoff team?
Yes, four times over. That's the point.
Holding Wall to the same standard we would hold any of the other four isn't unfair. It doesn't matter that they're older or playing on better teams, and it doesn't matter that he's not considered cancerous the same way a Brandon Jennings is. Stars make it work. Wall has been valued by the Wizards as a star, hence the bar he will be held to moving forward.
At present, Wall isn't worth what the Wizards gave him. Not even close. Washington's offer is more indicative of their lack of options than it is his current value.
The Wizards have nowhere else to go with that money. There is only Wall.
Not to imply he won't be worth it one day. Maybe he will, but that's why next season is so important.
“I’m confident now and I’m ready to show the world what I’m capable of,” Wall said.
Whatever he has to show better be enough to justify his projected salary, lest he face another season's worth of unrelenting doubt.
Who Has More on the Line?
Both Irving and Wall are young enough to the point where next season won't define the rest of their careers.
Irving could prove just as injury prone and fail to lead the Cavs to the postseason, and he would still be one of the best young point guards in the league. Wall could wind up not meeting expectations and also fail to push his team into the playoffs, and he too will survive.
Wall, however, has more to prove (and disprove).
The absence of a playoff berth in Cleveland may or may not affect how prospective free agents see the Cavs during the offseason. And Irving's potential inability to bring them that far will most definitely distort our perception of him as a "great" player.
But it's not Irving who will have been handed a max contract, becoming one of just five floor generals to be paid so lavishly.
Next season should mark the onset of something special in Washington. Max contracts usually signify the arrival or return of a star. Wall isn't an undeniable star, though, let alone a superstar.
Stars will their teams to the playoffs. Those that don't at least distinguish themselves from the rest the way Irving has. The way Wall hasn't.
For all his individual accolades, there are other point guards playing at a higher level. Cheaper options who exceed his output.
Coined a superstar by financial association, Wall has to shoot better, he has to win more. He has to become great. And if he can't, if he doesn't, he'll find himself drowning in more questions and diffidence than if Irving were to do the same.
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