Does Kyrie Irving Still Need to Lead Cleveland Cavaliers by Himself?

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Does Kyrie Irving Still Need to Lead Cleveland Cavaliers by Himself?
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Being dubbed the leader of a professional sports team, while still a teenager, can be a daunting task.

Such was the case when the Cleveland Cavaliers selected 19-year-old Kyrie Irving with the first overall pick in 2011. Despite having no NBA experience and playing just 11 games in college, the Cavs needed Irving to assume a leadership role immediately.

Statistically, he responded in a big way, averaging 18.5 points and 5.4 assists en route to winning Rookie of the Year. These numbers didn't lead to many wins, however, as the Cavs finished at just 21-45.

This has been the case for Cleveland with Irving in town. A lot of scoring, fancy dribbling and catchy commercials, all of which haven't resulted in wins.

To be fair, no player can lead a team to victory alone. Heck, sometimes star players even team up in an effort to win, as crazy as that sounds.

For the first time in his Cavaliers career, Irving is surrounded with capable NBA-level players.

Because of this, Irving doesn't have to shoulder the entire load himself. He can now focus on his passing instead of his scoring and his defense instead of his handles.

Irving no longer needs to be the leader of the Cleveland Cavaliers and should instead welcome the idea of sharing that responsibility with his teammates.

Here's how a slight change in command can help Irving, and the Cavs, moving forward.

 

Share Responsibilities (and the ball)

Ball movement has been a problem for the Cavaliers all season long. They rank 29th out of 30 teams in assists per game (19.4), resulting in a 22nd-best scoring offense.

When Irving first came to Cleveland, his best option to pass to was 35-year-old Antawn Jamison.

The next leading scorer for the Cavs that season? Lester Hudson, he of 12.7 points on 39.1 percent shooting. This was also the season that Manny Harris, Donald Sloan, Omri Casspi and Samardo Samuels were logging heavy minutes.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Irving's supporting cast has vastly improved through the years.

Irving averaged just 5.4 assists as the starting point guard that year, which may actually be high considering with whom he had to work.

Times have changed now, and for the better.

Cleveland has seven players currently putting up 8.5 points a game or better. Irving leads the pack with his 21.5 scoring mark, but others like Luol Deng (18.4), Dion Waiters (14.8) and Tristan Thompson (12.2) have been very good as well.

Couple these guys with Anderson Varejao, C.J. Miles and Jarrett Jack, and Cleveland has some legit scoring talent all throughout the roster.

 

Stop Getting Buckets (or at least don't shoot as much)

Despite the major upgrade in talent around him, Irving's shot numbers just keep on rising.

During his rookie year, Irving took 17.3 shots per 36 minutes. This number jumped up to 18.8 last season and currently sits at 18.9 this year. With all of the capable scorers around him, Irving's field goals keep increasing, while his assist total is actually going down. His assists per 36 minutes have gone from 6.4 his rookie season to just 6.2 each of the last two years.

Think about that: Irving was averaging more assists to guys like Semih Erden and Luke Harangody than he is to Deng, Waiters and Thompson.

Irving needs to accept that he doesn't have to put up 25-30 points every night for Cleveland to win, which was often the case back in 2011-12.

Scoring is nice, but it's his assist total that needs to garner more attention.

In 14 wins this season, Irving is averaging 6.9 assists. In 23 losses, just 5.5 dimes.

It's no coincidence that in the Cavs' biggest win of the year, a 111-93 beating of the Philadelphia 76ers, they registered a season-best 29 assists.

The lesson? Move the ball and get everyone involved.

Irving needs to realize that this isn't the same roster he broke into the league with. A serious upgrade in talent has been made around him, and his field-goal attempts should reflect that.

 

Listen to the Vets

Irving needs to find the balance between leader and follower, or student and teacher.

He needs to be mature enough to know when to push the younger guys and when to sit back and listen to veterans like Luol Deng, Anderson Varejao and Jarrett Jack.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images
Irving has vets he can learn from in Varejao, Jack and Deng.

They may not have his overall skill, scoring ability or handles, but they all have one thing Irving has yet to achieve: playoff experience.

As an NBA scout told ESPN's Marc Stein: "Kyrie Irving is an unbelievable talent -- and I think [Dion] Waiters wants to be Kyrie Irving -- but those young guys need to see [Deng in action] and learn how to approach the game like he does."

While he's not always a vocal leader, Deng is a true professional in everything he does. Growing up with eight brothers and sisters would definitely help someone mature very quickly.

Deng's been through the battles that Irving one day hopes to be in. He's already been to the playoffs six times in nine seasons with the Chicago Bulls, averaging 16.7 points and seven rebounds in 40.3 minutes.

Deng was playing in the NBA when Irving was just 12 years old. He knows what a successful locker room looks like. He knows how to take care of his body during an 82-game season. He knows all of the little aspects of the game that only a 10-year NBA veteran can.

Irving should approach Deng like a freshman in college would a 30-year professor, armed with a pencil and notebook in hand.

Studying and relying on veterans like Deng, Jack and Varejao will only help Irving grow and ease the burden of carrying this team now.

Irving has to realize that it's no longer him against the other team. Moving the ball, taking fewer shots himself and learning from the senior voices on the team will all add up to more Cavalier wins.

Irving no longer has to lead all by himself, which, based on previous results, is a good thing for everyone involved.

 

-GS

 

All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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