The first overall pick of the 2011 NBA draft, Irving has used his smile and skills to win over fans across the country. In just three years, the 21-year-old has already been named Rookie of the Year and Rising Stars Challenge MVP, won the Three-Point Shootout and earned two All-Star berths. His most recent trip to All-Star Weekend saw Irving become not only a starter on the Eastern Conference team, but MVP of the game as well.
Despite all of these individual accolades, Irving's Cavaliers have struggled to find success.
Irving now faces the pressure of not only putting up big numbers himself, but also leading Cleveland back to the playoffs following a three-year drought. It's been a struggle, as Irving himself has admitted.
“I got away with so much my first two years. It wasn’t a breeze, but everything came easy," Irving told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. "This is the first year where every single night it’s going to be a challenge. That’s one of the things I’m getting used to and I’ve accepted.”
Irving now faces his toughest test as a professional.
Can he still be the same flashy, ankle-breaking guard while making the team around him better? Will taking the Cavaliers to the postseason help silence the critics who've questioned his leadership? There's also the little offseason contract decision he'll need to make.
Now is truly the most important time in Kyrie Irving's career.
With all the good publicity that his Uncle Drew commercials, highlight tapes and overall personality bring, Irving has also been involved in some not-so-flattering rumors.
First, there was the report by ESPN's Chad Ford that said Irving was telling people privately he wanted out. When asked later in his chat about the comments, Ford said he "thought that was fairly common knowledge that he's been unhappy there."
While this was a shock to most Cavalier fans, Irving did shoot the rumor down by telling The Plain Dealer, "I'm still in my rookie contract and I'm happy to be here and I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be here for a long time."
Still, this was a topic Cavs fans hoped wouldn't come up. Not for another year or so, at least. Cleveland has already lost one superstar in the past five years. Losing a second would be potentially devastating for the franchise.
ESPN once again stirred the pot on Irving wanting out, this time in a February 25 article by Brian Windhorst. As many Clevelanders remember, Windhorst is a former Akron Beacon Journal and Plain Dealer columnist who skipped town to join ESPN shortly after LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat. Conveniently, the story about Irving broke during the same time James was sidelined with a broken nose. Take away from that what you will.
Now, Irving himself isn't without fault.
In one of the best columns regarding the Cavaliers this year, Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal called out Irving in what was really an uncharacteristic move. After all, beat writers like Lloyd depend on their relationships with the team and its players for news, quotes and inside information. Choosing to criticize Irving publicly like this was a major risk.
Lloyd made a couple strong, yet justified statements. He pointed out Irving's lack of defense, focus on his "brand" and the Cavaliers' poor record. Lloyd went on to say:
Irving spoke all summer about growing up, about becoming more of a leader and committing to defense under Mike Brown. It sounded good, it has even looked good at times, but the Cavs are still floundering in the East and Irving is still getting beat by too many mediocre point guards in the NBA.
At some point, winning has to matter more than All-Star games, 3-point shootouts and even USA Basketball. At some point, if Irving wants to be considered the best in the league, he has to win.
What followed was truly surprising.
Instead of getting defensive, avoiding the media or making a regrettable comment, Irving faced the criticism head on.
He sat down with Lloyd soon after and showed a side of himself few in the public had witnessed.
“I just feel like what people fail to realize is I don’t have all the answers all the time,” Irving told Lloyd and the Akron Beacon Journal. “I’m still the third-youngest on this team. I’m a 21-year-old kid trying to figure this whole thing out. It’s a daily job and that’s probably why it’s been one of the toughest years for me. I’m learning every single day.”
Irving was vulnerable, unguarded and refreshingly honest.
For someone who could still be a senior in college, Irving showed the maturity of a 10-year veteran by doing the interview and facing his critic head on.
He went on to emphasize the team first and took ownership of him being the leader even at such a young age:
Everybody has all these rumors and stories they’re coming out with and it’s all based on me. It’s not really about me. It’s about the team and what we’re going through as a team together. Obviously, some things will be put on me and I take responsibility for that, but all that extra stuff that comes with it. … It’s the business. I understand that. But that’s one of the things I wish I could change. It’s definitely not about me, it’s about my teammates and what we can accomplish.
For a star like Irving who's always going to be in the public eye, this was a huge step in his development.
Irving's ability to score the basketball has never been questioned.
His ability to help others score, well, is a work in progress.
Despite being considered one of the best point guards in the NBA, Irving's assist numbers certainly don't back it up. Here's how his passing ranked among the league's best last season.
In 19 wins with the Cavaliers in 2012-13, Irving averaged 6.4 assists per game. In 40 losses, this number shrank to 5.7 per contest.
This season, we're starting to see a major improvement from Irving.
His recent triple-double against the Utah Jazz, the first of his career, was arguably the best passing game Irving has had in Cleveland.
One could tell Irving made a concerted effort to get his teammates involved. Passes were crisp, on target and with a purpose. He used newcomer Spencer Hawes in the pick-and-pop game beautifully and threw laser lead passes to Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and Luol Deng in the paint.
Irving finished the game with 12 assists, tying his season high. Cleveland is 5-2 this season when he collects 10 assists or more.
Continuing to work on this part of his game is crucial, especially for the remaining part of this season. The Cavs are trying to sneak into the playoffs despite owning one of the league's youngest rosters. They need Irving to set up other young players as well as create for himself.
As of late, Irving has done just that. During the Cavaliers' last 12 games, Irving is up to 7.1 assists per contest. Not surprisingly, the Cavs are 8-4 during that stretch.
Irving no longer has to take 20 shots a game for Cleveland to have a chance. With Dion Waiters, Luol Deng, Hawes, Thompson and others on board, Irving now has plenty of options to pass to.
Playoffs and Contract
Despite everything that's gone on in Cleveland this season, the Cavs still have a very good shot at the postseason.
As of March 3, the Cavaliers were 3.5 games behind the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks are just 1-9 in their last 10 games and already lost their best player in Al Horford to a torn pectoral muscle earlier in the year.
This leaves Irving and the Cavs with a golden opportunity to grab the last spot and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
A postseason berth is a must for the Cavaliers. They traded away five draft picks to acquire veterans Deng and Hawes, knowing both will become free agents this summer. Cleveland needs to get a taste of the playoffs to use as a building block for next year, when all of their young core (Irving, Waiters, Thompson, Zeller and Anthony Bennett) will return.
That is, assuming Irving will be back.
To be clear, this would only happen if the Cavs were to trade Irving. He can't hit unrestricted free agency until 2016 at the earliest.
The only way Cleveland would even entertain the idea of dealing its star player is if he rejects a five-year, maximum contract the Cavs will almost assuredly offer him.
Passing up what will likely be an $80 million deal would seem crazy, especially because no other player coming off his rookie contract has ever done it. Signing an extension with the Cavs would not only give Irving tremendous financial security, but put to rest rumors of him wanting out anytime soon.
Irving has to continue to prove this season that he's worth a max deal and that he's capable of leading a young team to the playoffs.
That's quite a lot for anyone, much less a 21-year-old kid.
If he truly wants to become a superstar in this league, Irving will accept these challenges and face them head on.
From what we've seen recently from Irving, he'll do just that.
All stats via basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.