Checklist for Kyrie Irving to Resume Superstar Journey

Greg SwartzCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2014

Checklist for Kyrie Irving to Resume Superstar Journey

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    Since being selected first overall in the 2011 NBA draft, Kyrie Irving has faced immense pressure as the new face of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    His first two seasons were a tremendous success from an individual standpoint, as Irving juked and jived his way around the court to the tune of Rookie of the Year and All-Star honors.

    This season, however, Irving has endured a rough start.

    All of his shooting percentages are career lows, his team has floundered, and he hasn't shown the clutch factor he so often displayed in his first two years.

    ESPN.com ranked Irving as the eighth-best player in the NBA coming into the season, yet he's just 28th in player efficiency to start the year.

    Here's what Irving can do to get back on track and become one of the best point guards in the league.

Keep Improving on Defense

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    David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

    One of the biggest knocks on Irving early in his career has been his defenseor lack thereof.

    Irving, at 6'3" and 193 pounds, has the physical size and ability to be a strong defender. His poor performance on that end of the court has been more an issue of effort and determination.

    Since Mike Brown was hired back, he and Irving have spent a lot of time watching film and going over what Irving needs to do to be a better defender. Brown has already praised Irving's improved effort on that end of the floor this season.

    The eye test says he's giving a better effort, and the stats back it up.

    In his first two seasons, Irving posted a defensive rating (estimated number of points allowed per 100 possessions) of 110. He's been slightly better this season, with a defensive rating of 108 (per Basketball Reference).

    In terms of taking on opposing point guards, Irving has also shown some improvement.

    During his rookie season in 2011-12, Irving allowed a PER of 19.0 per 48 minutes to the point guards he covered (via 82games.com). Considering the league average is just 15.0, other guards were having their way with him.

    Last season, Irving cut this number down to 18.1, and he is allowing an even stingier 17.5 this year.

    Chris Paul, widely considered the best point guard in the league, gives up just a 14.8 PER to opposing guards. This is a great number for Irving to shoot for, and with his continued progress, it's very possible he'll reach it.

Develop Chemistry with Dion Waiters

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Dion Waiters was drafted as the Robin to Irving's Batman, although he's played more like the Penguin at times.

    Whether it's the result of similar playing styles, a lack of chemistry or alpha dog status, the stats prove that Irving and Waiters are better when the other is watching from the sideline.

    Cleveland is currently using Waiters as its sixth man so that he and Irving will share less floor time. As a result, Waiters has thrived to the tune of 15.9 points a game. Irving has also benefited, averaging 24.1 points and 6.2 assists during the month of December.

    At some point, however, their games will have to mesh.

    Even with their new roles, Irving and Waiters are averaging 20.6 minutes per game together. At the end of a close game, Cleveland will want to have both on the court, as they are the best overall players at their respective positions.

    This will require some sacrifice, especially from Irving.

    As the leader of the team, Irving must be willing to give up the ball on occasion and not run so many isolation plays late in the game.

    Waiters has proven he can hit big shots and score when the team desperately needs a basket.

    Irving and Waiters are both tremendous offensive talents who should be maximizing each other's abilities instead of bringing each other down.

Work the Pick-and-Roll

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    Irving is one of the best pick-and-roll guards in the NBA.

    When it comes to isolation, not so much.

    Josh Martin of Bleacher Report provided an excellent breakdown of Irving's game when it comes to different offensive sets. Given his ability to get to the basket and to shoot three-pointers, Irving is tailor-made for the pick-and-roll game.

    The problem with the Cavaliers this season has been finding a suitable partner for Irving to play off of.

    Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson are the Cavs' top bigs, but both are average mid-range shooters at best. Anthony Bennett seemed like a perfect match, but the rookie has been less than enthusiastic in setting screens.

    Tyler Zeller has seen an increase in playing time since the team suspended Andrew Bynum, and he is a solid outside shooter. He's not the quickest of foot, however, and he is best served as a pick-and-pop partner.

    Newly added Luol Deng would be an interesting choice. He has a 6'9", 220-pound athletic frame that can get to the basket or knock down a jumper. Deng is shooting 48 percent this season from eight to 16 feet.

    No matter who Irving is running it with, the Cavs need to get Irving involved in as many pick-and-roll opportunities as possible.

Keep Hitting the Weight Room

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    While playing at Duke, Irving was a scrawny, baby-faced 18-year-old with some sweet handles.

    Now, he is 21 and in his third pro season, and we've begun to see his physical maturation.

    Irving spent a lot of time this summer working on his body, and it shows. Those once-skinny arms now carry some real definition. Irving played his lone season at Duke at 180 pounds and has since added 13 pounds of muscle.

    Getting in better shape is all about one thing: injury prevention.

    For the most part, the added muscle has helped Irving stay on the court this season. He's played in 32 of 35 games this year, missing just three contests after injuring his knee in a game against the Indiana Pacers.

    Given the slew of serious knee injuries to guards such as Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, missing a few games as a precautionary measure doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

    Playing in 91 percent of Cleveland's games is a big step up from previous seasons. During his rookie year in 2011-12, Irving played in 51 of 66 games (77 percent). Last season was even worse, with Irving on the court for 59 of the team's 82 games (72 percent).

    The NBA has witnessed an alarming number of injuries this season.

    Irving's continued work in the weight room and with the team's athletic trainers should help keep him off this list.

Get Teammates Involved

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Like Dion Waiters, Irving must do a better job of deferring to his teammates.

    While the career scoring (20.9 points per game) is impressive, Irving hasn't blown anybody away with his assist total (5.8).

    Irving could use the excuse that the talent level of teammates wasn't ideal during his first two seasons. And with guys like Christian Eyenga and Manny Harris, he would have a great point.

    But with the recent trade for Luol Deng and the development of guys such as Dion, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller, that excuse can no longer be used.

    Irving's assist ratio (the percentage of a player's possessions that end in an assist) this season is just 20.5 percent (per ESPN). This ranks him way down at 55th among qualified point guards, below guys like Raymond Felton, Marquis Teague and Ish Smith.

    We got to see recently what the Cavs are capable of when Irving trusts his teammates and looks to them first before taking it upon himself to score.

    In a January 7 game against the Philadelphia 76ers, Irving scored just 16 points, six below his season average. Despite that, the Cavs won 111-93 because they did a great job of simply moving the ball. Irving finished with eight assists, allowing other players like C.J. Miles (34 points), Anderson Varejao (18 points), Tristan Thompson (12 points) and Dion Waiters (12 points) to show what they can do.

    The Cavaliers as a team average just 19.1 assists per game, which ranks next to last in the NBA. That night against the Sixers, the Cavs recorded 29 dimes, led by Irving's eight.

    He needs to have more high-assist games to keep the ball moving and the Cavaliers winning.