Blueprint for Kyrie Irving to Become a Top-5 NBA Star During 2013-14 Season
What were you doing when you were 21 years old?
Most of us were either finishing up our education or attempting to make it in the real world, scrounging out a living while trying to move out of our parents' basement. A precious few are dreaming of the next year of their lives, one in which they can dress up like hipsters and make fun of their exes.
But Kyrie Irving isn't "most of us."
Even though he wasn't legally able to drink alcohol until March, he's still trying to become one of the five biggest stars in basketball during the 2013-14 campaign.
And the scary thing is that he can definitely do exactly that.
Right now, Irving is on the cusp of superstardom. He's universally viewed as one of the next great point guards, and he's already on the verge of becoming a truly elite player.
ESPN's NBA Rank has Irving at No. 8 now that he's coming off a season in which he averaged 22.5 points and 5.9 assists per game with a 21.4 PER.
Personally, I think that ranking is far too aggressive, but I can't deny that he's already in the upper echelon.
Anyone in the top 20 is in pretty solid shape.
But it's not good enough for Irving. Not at all.
He's on a quest that could eventually leave him at the top of the rankings, and the next step of the journey involves elevating himself into the top five.
So, how can he do that in 2013-14?
Defense, Defense, Defense
The big knock on Irving throughout his NBA career has been his defense.
I'd discuss how bad it's been, but that would actually be acknowledging that it exists.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Irving allowed 0.85 points per possession throughout the 2012-13 season. That left him ranked 148th, which actually seems respectable at first glance.
He was particularly effective stopping players who were coming off screens, and in eight opportunities, he somehow held roll men in pick-and-roll situations to 0-of-7 shooting with one turnover.
However, Irving's individual defensive numbers looked better because he completely eschewed playing team defense. If he wasn't stopping his own man (when he could manage to do so), he failed to help out his teammates.
Basketball-Reference shows that the Cleveland Cavaliers allowed 108.8 points per 100 possessions when Irving was sitting on the bench, a mark that would have left them with the No. 25 defense in the league.
And it got even worse when the point guard stepped onto the court.
The Cavs allowed 110.5 points per 100 possessions, which would have given them the No. 29 defense in basketball. When you're already starting so low, it's hard to get much worse, but Irving was just an especially bad team defender.
The Duke product doesn't have to start stopping scores so effectively that he gains entry to one of the NBA's All-Defensive teams. He doesn't have to begin drawing votes for Defensive Player of the Year. He just has to gain competence on that end of the court.
Whether Irving starts standing out as an individual defender—he's shown signs of playing good isolation D—or begins to play help defense and makes Cleveland quite a bit better at preventing points whenever he's on the court, he has to improve his two-way play.
One-way stars can't be top-five players. Not in a league this deep and stacked at the top.
Irving is already one of the best offensive players in the league, but his scoring and passing contributions are limited by the amount of time he spends on the court.
When was the last time that he actually played a full season?
He certainly didn't at Duke, sitting out the vast majority of his freshman year with the Blue Devils thanks to an injured toe.
That didn't stop the Cavs from drafting Irving at No. 1, but their excitement was presumably tempered when he wasn't able to stay healthy during either of his first two seasons.
He was constantly injured, missing games because of nagging ailments. Hell, he even had to wear a face mask at one point.
As a rookie, Irving played 51 of a possible 66 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Then, he suited up in only 59 games during the 2012-13 campaign.
It's just not enough.
To make an impact, Irving must be on the court. Just take a look at his win shares, if you're curious.
Throughout 2012-13, the Duke product earned 5.3 win shares, and that was without the benefit of much defense. He earned 4.2 offensive win shares and only 1.1 on the less glamorous end of the court.
Prorated to an 82-game stretch, Irving would have earned 7.4, and that brings him much closer to the top 20 that he desperately needs to work his way into.
As a reference point, Paul George came in at No. 20 with 9.0, according to Basketball-Reference. It's a total that Irving could certainly exceed with more stellar defensive play and more time on the court.
Go to the Playoffs
This is the biggest key of all, especially if we're talking about stardom.
You can be one of the five best players in basketball without carrying a team into the postseason, but you can't be one of the top five stars without the aid of public perception.
As hesitant as I am to use ESPN.com's extremely flawed NBA Rank, let's just take a look at how many of the players in the top 20 have failed to make the playoffs at some point during their careers.
Kevin Love and Irving. That's it.
It's almost a prerequisite for stars to make the playoffs.
If they haven't advanced to the postseason, their stardom gets questioned incessantly just as we've seen happen with Love over the last few years (although he and the Minnesota Timberwolves should break that playoff drought if they can somehow stay healthy).
Although it's not entirely fair that individual prowess is partially measured by team success, it's the reality.
And while Irving hasn't had enough help in the past to make it past the 82nd game of the season, nothing could be further from the truth in 2013-14.
Will the Cleveland Cavaliers make the playoffs?
Dion Waiters took a big step forward after the All-Star break, remembering that he's supposed to find the bottom of the net with more frequency instead of aiming for the rim.
Tristan Thompson continued to improve, then switched shooting hands during the offseason and appears to be even better now.
Plus, the Cavs are returning many of their major pieces and adding quality rotation members like Andrew Bynum (if healthy), Jarrett Jack and Anthony Bennett.
Everything points toward a playoff run, one that would see Cleveland challenging the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors for the three final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
But the race still rests on Irving's shoulders.
He's the leader of this team, even at the ripe young age of 21. He's also the best player, and the team often goes as far as he can take them.
Just take a look at his win-loss splits from 2012-13, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell that Irving was much better when the Cavaliers emerged victoriously. And while I must provide the standard "don't imply causation from correlation" warning, it's awfully tempting to do exactly that.
As the driving force behind the Cleveland offense, one which scored 2.7 more points per 100 possessions when he played, Irving can safely be viewed as the catalyst for success.
That's why the playoffs are such an important tool for measurement.
If Irving leads the Cavs into the promised land, he'll be viewed as the leader of the team, one who deserves to be considered a premier star in basketball.
But if he doesn't, the word "scapegoat" might be applicable.
Offensively, Irving doesn't have to make any substantial improvements, especially because the margin between him and the top-five players in basketball is so thin.
He's already a dynamic scorer who makes his teammates significantly better when he's on the court.
According to my calculations, Irving's teammates had an effective field-goal percentage of 49.2 percent when he played and just 46.6 percent when he sat.
Will Kyrie Irving finish the 2013-14 season as a top-five player?
Although he doesn't have the passing abilities and vision of a Ricky Rubio or Rajon Rondo, the threat of his handles and inside-outside scoring touch opens things up for everyone.
It's defense and durability where the 21-year-old floor general needs to improve most, but making the playoffs is still the ultimate goal.
If he can do that, we'll be able to count the number of better NBA players with just one hand by the time the Larry O'Brien Trophy is handed out next.
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