If you think calling Kyrie Irving "the next LeBron James" is a compliment, think again.
In his brief NBA tenure, the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard has filled the role LBJ vacated in all the wrong ways. And there's a growing sense in Cleveland that this story—just like the one that featured James—is going to end disastrously.
In some ways, the Cavaliers are doing this to themselves. Less accustomed to success than almost every other NBA organization, the Cavs have no rings, one finals berth (in which they were swept) and an overall franchise record that is literally hundreds of games below .500.
Think of them like the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox—minus the hipster fans and Neil Diamond.
All that losing in Cleveland created a malaise befitting the Rust Belt. Being a Cavs fan wasn't fun; it was work. It was pain. It carried a stigma of inevitable doom. The Cavs would never be great because, well...they were the Cavs.
Until James came along and changed the narrative.
It couldn't have been scripted any better. James, the hometown kid, was the best talent to enter the draft in memory. And he happened to be available the year the Cavaliers had the No. 1 pick. He was the savior, and his coming created something new in Cavs fans: hope.
It wasn't just any hope, though. It wasn't a generalized feeling of optimism or a renewed faith in the organization's ability to build a winner. James had, after all, fallen into Cleveland's lap because the Cavaliers lost a whole lot of basketball games.
It was a specific hope, one that fostered a belief among Cavaliers fans that one transcendent player could save the franchise from itself.
You couldn't blame them, really. Not after decades of predictable first-round outs in the '80s and '90s and nothing but the lottery from 1998 until after James showed up.
Whatever form the Cavs' salvation took in this pivotal instance would become a model on which fans in the city would base their future understanding of everything about their team—about how to build a winner and how to believe in one player instead of a whole roster, front office or owner.
Cavs fans aren't crazy. Under normal circumstances, they would have realized the danger of pinning all hope to one man. But they'd been traumatized by years of below-average basketball. It's understandable they formed this flawed perception of how to succeed.
Ownership hasn't helped. Dan Gilbert reacted like a jilted lover when James left, proving in his overdramatic and infamous letter that he couldn't conceive of life without a savior/hero either.
That's why he's so adamant nobody will hurt Cleveland like the last star did.
Gilbert is ferocious in his determination not to lose Irving the way he lost LeBron, and league sources say the lessons learned from James' decision to go to Miami in 2010 will be the guiding force behind his search for an executive to lead the franchise forward.
Cleveland's not into diversification of hope. It puts every last shred of it into one guy and hopes he doesn't walk away.
James did exactly that in 2010.
Irving hasn't yet, and he's asserted that he won't in language as strong as has been prudent, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst: "I'm in Cleveland. I enjoy myself. I enjoy going out and competing at the highest level for the Cleveland Cavaliers."
But let's be real: Irving should probably leave. Yes, there's that alluring pile of money the Cavs can offer him, but that's the extent of the leverage Cleveland possesses.
Irving can't look at this Cavs organization with any kind of confidence. He should see the ingrained unfamiliarity with winning, the coach who can't construct an offense and the roster full of role players and attitudes but no stars.
And if he wasn't leaving before, he's getting a serious shove out the door lately. Not deliberately, of course. We've already established everyone in Cleveland desperately wants him around.
The constant badgering and speculation that comes out of that desperation is a real turnoff, though. Ironically, all the love for Irving, Cleveland's anointed singular hope, may be pushing him away.
Sick to my stomach with all these rumors and accusations. Can I play without media guessing at my life and putting B.S out for headlines.— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) April 5, 2014
It brings nothing but negativity to the team and portraying me as something I'm not. I don't want or need the attention, so it can stop now.— Kyrie Irving (@KyrieIrving) April 5, 2014
And if the attention born out of love isn't enough to do that, the hate from those who used to love him might be, per Grantland's Chris Ryan:
The very people who are questioning Irving’s maturity, wondering whether he’s even worth a max deal, calling him a coach killer…they’re the same folks responsible for building him into a messianic figure in the first place. Irving was not just asked to learn the NBA game, but to save a franchise still reeling from LeBron’s departure. And he was asked to do so, more or less, on his own.
If James hadn't come (and gone) before, maybe Irving wouldn't find himself so beset by desperate questions about his future.
It's funny, really. Irving isn't the kind of transformative talent James was. He doesn't defend, pouts plenty and, well, we'll let Windhorst take it from here (via Truehoop's Cavs: The Blog): "The thing about Kyrie: his talent is amazing, but he’s so defeatist. He gets defeated way too easily. You’ll see something bad happen to him and his head just goes down."
Despite Irving's many flaws, he's the best Cleveland's got. And since the city was conditioned by James to tie the fate of an entire franchise to one guy, he's that guy by default.
The Cavs can't let him go.
Not because the he's the cornerstone of a championship franchise. Not because he's worthy of a max deal.
But because if he leaves, it'll prove to the Cavaliers and their fans that this franchise is what it was before James ever came along: hopeless.
The Cavs have already set themselves up for disaster by placing all their hopes in Irving. Not just because he might not be the kind of superstar many think he is, but because burdening one 21-year-old kid with the fate of a whole organization is a foolish exercise in the first place.
Even if placing all that hope in Irving is potentially disastrous, it's better than having no hope at all.
If Irving leaves Cleveland like James did before him, the Cavs will find themselves in an eerily familiar spot. And it's hard to know how they'll recover from having their world shattered a second time.