LeBron James' Return Puts New Level of Pressure on Kyrie Irving

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 15, 2014

Feb 24, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) and Miami Heat small forward LeBron James (6) during the second half at the American Airlines Arena.  MIami won 109-105. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

LeBron James' return to the Cleveland Cavaliers is a boon for every player on the roster, but it could also make a few things tougher on some of them—Kyrie Irving in particular.

In one sense, James is a safety blanket. He'll take the heat for wins and losses as befits his superstar station. In another, he comes bearing a certain standard that Irving may find hard to satisfy. There's real pressure in playing second fiddle to James, and Irving is about to feel it.

Granted, any additional pressure James' arrival puts on Irving comes nowhere close to matching the weight LBJ's presence lifts off of his new teammate, per Adi Joseph of USA Today:

Finally, Kyrie Irving doesn't have to be LeBron James. Finally, the 6-2 point guard can slip into his No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers jersey comfortably, without the pressures of the past three years and the tarnished home-state legacy of one of the NBA's greatest ever weighing on him.

Despite that, Irving now faces a new level of expectation—the kind that comes when excuses no longer exist.

It's worth mentioning that James never had a player of Irving's quality alongside him during his first tour of duty in Cleveland, which was probably among the biggest reasons for his decision to depart. A similarly frustration-fueled exit seems unlikely this time around, but if Irving can't be more Dwyane Wade than Larry Hughes, it'll reflect poorly on his already shaky reputation.

People will start to wonder about a guy who can't perform with the world's greatest basketball enabler at his side.

We've seen how James reacts to teammates he doesn't believe are pulling their weight. For all the respect he showed to Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, James also repeatedly lashed out at Mario Chalmers, belittling him in the middle of games for everything from bad shots to blown assignments. In fact, things got to a point where the other two Heat stars followed suit in singling out Chalmers for mistakes that, for most players, probably wouldn't have warranted notice.

That's all a long way of saying James has shown visible frustration with teammates plenty of times in the past. And while he's usually been quick to squash any beef that might ultimately hurt the team, we shouldn't be surprised if James sets Irving straight a time or two.

Admittedly, it's hard to imagine James demonstrably gesturing and shouting at Irving in the middle of a game, let alone casting those telltale frustrated looks to the rafters he so often used in reaction to Chalmers' mistakes.

But that's the thing with Irving. For all his talent (and now, his massive contract as well), it's still fair to wonder if he's the kind of superstar those things indicate he should be.

He's not Chalmers, but he's not Wade either.

Irving is extremely intelligent, and he's shown plenty of flashes in games that haven't mattered (he's a real beast on All-Star weekend), but he has yet to display the leadership or commitment to defense a player of his quality ought to.

Maybe that's a symptom of Irving's virtually nonexistent college career. Or perhaps spending his formative NBA years with no surrounding talent or capable coaching has stunted his growth. Whatever the case, both of those excuses are gone now.

Apr 5, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown talks to guard Kyrie Irving (2) in the first quarter against the Charlotte Bobcats at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

If he doesn't take a major step forward, it'll be pretty clear that Irving's shortcomings stem from nature instead of nurture.

For what it's worth, James made a point to approach his relationship with Irving in a positive, collaborative fashion from the outset, per his announcement letter from Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated: "I see myself as a mentor now and I'm excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league."

That's a good sign, but even if James treats Irving with more respect, it won't alleviate the pressure on the newly maxed-out point guard.

That's because Irving, more than any player on Cleveland's roster, will have an impact on James' championship chances.

Mar 12, 2014; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) reacts on the court against the Phoenix Suns in the second half at US Airways Center. The Cavaliers won 110-101.  Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

We can't pretend Cleveland fans will be satisfied by LeBron's heartwarming return and commitment to be more than a basketball player forever. Eventually, they'll want success. They'll want rings. And if they don't crave those things organically, a national media that judges James solely on Finals won will pick up the slack, forcing that binary analysis on all of us.

This isn't fair, by the way. Not to James, not to Irving and not to the Cavaliers as an organization.

James did something unprecedented by leaving a superior team to return home in the middle of his prime for reasons that had more to do with the well-being of a region than money or titles. We're not going to see something like that again.

Nonetheless, when the good vibes subside and James starts playing actual basketball games for the Cavs, we'll all judge him on postseason success.

It's what we do.

And so far, we haven't seen Irving prove he can deal with real stakes. We can't be sure how he'll react, or if he'll be the kind of sidekick James needs.

James' improbable return taught us plenty about his heart, social conscience and altruism. Next, we'll find out what Irving's made of.