Kyrie Irving lost his place as the face of the Cleveland Cavaliers this summer, but that could have been his biggest offseason victory. And that's saying quite a bit considering his vacation started with a jackpot payday in the form of a five-year, $90 million contract extension.
LeBron James gloriously returned home to Northeast Ohio, immediately relieving Irving of the tremendous burden he had left behind four years prior. With James back on board, Irving no longer has to be the best player on his team—or try to fill the shoes of the best player on the planet.
That's been his impossible task since landing with the Cavs as the top pick in 2011, despite his best efforts to create his own basketball story that didn't include all-world expectations. Not right out of the gate, at least.
"I'm not the next LeBron," Irving told reporters leading up the 2011 draft. "My name is Kyrie Irving. I'm not really concerned about filling that void if I do go to Cleveland."
It didn't matter if that was Irving's concern. It was his obligation as the lone ray of hope for an organization that had crash-landed without James and had no intentions of staying grounded for long.
The Cavs averaged 54.4 victories over James' last five seasons in Cleveland. The year after his South Beach migration, Cleveland limped to a 19-63 record, at one point losing 26 games in a row.
The disastrous campaign helped the franchise snag Irving, but it also highlighted the daunting task ahead of the then-19-year-old.
Cleveland's roster was a mess. Christian Eyenga and Manny Harris each made at least 15 starts. Anthony Parker, along with his 39.9 field-goal percentage and 10.5 player efficiency rating (via Basketball-Reference.com), started 65 games and logged 29 minutes a night.
The franchise looked decades away from relevance, yet pride wouldn't allow it to look in the mirror. After all, James' decision was followed by a volatile letter from Cavs owner Dan Gilbert in which he personally guaranteed Cleveland would win a world title before James.
Reality, of course, quickly showed how foolish those words were. While the Cavs plummeted down the standings, James' Miami Heat soared to 58 wins and secured their first of four trips to the NBA Finals.
Even if Clevelanders had resigned themselves to the fact that a title was inevitable for James—he won his first in 2011—they still needed something on which to hang their hats. Irving, who played all of 11 games during his injury-plagued lone season at Duke, was that something.
As Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz explained, Irving had the keys to the city before he even started calling it home:
When the Cavs drafted Kyrie Irving, it was like no other selection in NBA history. That's because no other team had undergone a major hometown free agent leave the summer before. No other team had lost their identity so quickly and subsequently needed a new face of the franchise.
The moment David Stern called his name on June 23, 2011, Irving became the new face of the Cavaliers.
Irving was anointed to a throne that wasn't his, tasked with leading a kingdom that wasn't ready to be led.
He did what he could to restore relevance. He became just the sixth rookie in NBA history to average at least 18 points and five assists while shooting 46-plus percent from the field. His 21.4 player efficiency rating, via Basketball-Reference.com, was the fifth highest of any rookie and second best among first-year point guards since 2000.
Irving's efficiency has sagged a bit since, but the quantity of his stat sheet has been hard to ignore.
|Kyrie Irving's Career By the Numbers|
Those are All-Star numbers, and the basketball world has seen them as such. He's made back-to-back appearances at the Midseason Classic, earning MVP honors for his brilliant 31-point, 14-assist performance this past season.
But everything he's done hasn't been enough. The Cavs haven't had a winning season or a playoff berth since James abdicated his throne.
That challenge is no longer Irving's alone.
James is back, and he even brought some floor-spacing friends with him (Mike Miller, James Jones). More importantly, James brought a desire to help mold Irving into the quantity-plus-quality player he hasn't yet had the chance to be.
After facing so many insurmountable hurdles over these last few years on his own, Irving is glad to have the help.
"I'm happy he's back," he told reporters at his basketball camp. "It's going to be a pleasure to learn from him and grow with him these next few years."
Credit Irving for keeping his comments appropriate for a family-friendly setting. One can only imagine his initial reaction to the news included some choice words that could not be repeated at his camp or in this piece.
How else does one react to hitting the career lottery like Irving just did?
He finally has been positioned to succeed. That's what this James return means for Irving, above all the spotlight and scrutiny — relief. He gets to play next to the best player in the world, and James will allow Irving to expand his game and improve his efficiency from day one. Irving may not top his 20.8 points per game average this season, but he should improve dramatically on his 43.0% field goal and 35.8% three-point shooting percentages.
Had James stayed in South Beach, or even taken his talents elsewhere, the scrutiny facing Irving would have only increased.
There's an inherent pressure to perform for the first overall selection, but it's nothing like the expectations facing a maximum-contract player. When Irving put pen to paper on his new deal, he signed off on the weight of a franchise being placed on his shoulders.
Yet, his new deal might be the third-biggest story of the Cavs' offseason.
In addition to LeBron's return, there's also the on-again, off-again trade rumors involving top pick Andrew Wiggins and Minnesota Timberwolves stretch forward Kevin Love. Even if nothing materializes, there's already enough smoke to take the heat off Irving.
Three years into his NBA career, Irving now has the chance that should have been initially afforded to him. He doesn't have to be a savior, just a productive piece of a puzzle that no longer starts and stops with him.
On the floor, he'll no longer face the pressure as the top item on an opposing team's game plan. Off the floor, he might benefit even more from the attention James will attract.
Irving's extension should effectively kill all the "he wants out of Cleveland" chatter that has surrounded him since his arrival. Between James' return and either Love's arrival or Wiggins' development, there should be plenty more interesting stories to cover than the possible rift between Irving and Dion Waiters.
For the first time in a long time, Irving should only have to worry about playing basketball. The outside noise hasn't blocked his ascent as a certified star, but just imagine how well he'll perform when those distractions stop.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.