The world will be watching when Kyrie Irving takes the floor with Team USA for August's FIBA World Cup in Spain. More importantly, so will LeBron James.
The upcoming summer tourney will provide Irving, a player most agree has not yet come close to achieving what his talent should allow, his first chance to prove to his new megastar teammate that a return to Northeast Ohio was a wise move—for basketball reasons.
James made it clear in his much-dissected letter with Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins that his homecoming was about things beyond basketball. But I think we can all agree that LBJ wouldn't be a Cleveland Cavalier right now if he wasn't fairly convinced Irving could be a capable sidekick.
"Kyrie's special,” James said after Irving won the All-Star MVP award last February, per Ken Berger of CBSSports.com. “It's just that simple. Very special basketball player, very smart basketball player—his ability to shoot the ball, get into the lane, make shots around the rim. He has the total package. I've always known that, always witnessed that ever since he was in high school."
James, as avid of a hoops watcher as there is, has probably also witnessed a few other things about Irving—like the way his Cavs have fallen flat for three straight years, for example. As impressed as LBJ is with Irving's undeniable talent, he knows the point guard hasn't won any games that actually matter. And he also knows the former No. 1 overall pick has loads to prove heading into his fourth NBA season.
Fortunately for Irving, the World Cup will provide the perfect opportunity to show what he can do.
First Things First
Irving has to actually make the team.
As Colangelo detailed in an interview with USA TODAY Sports, the most likely plan would be to have two pure point guards and three shooting guards who also have the ability to play the other wing positions. If that tentative plan holds true, then – per Colangelo's descriptions of the roster that he'll form with coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff – it appears that Wall or Irving are likely to be on the outside looking in.
Still, things look pretty good for Irving:
1st unit (at least while I was watching) looked like Kyrie/Steph/PG/KD/AD— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) July 30, 2014
From this point forward, we'll assume Irving beats out Wall for the final backcourt spot. But just know nothing's certain yet.
Among the many barbs fired at Irving during his career, perhaps the most consistent one has been the accusation that he doesn't defend. The stats suggest that criticism is accurate.
When Irving was on the court last year, the Cavaliers defense was a whopping 5.4 points per 100 possessions more generous than when he sat, per NBA.com. That's a significant difference, and one that can't be explained away by citing team context.
Mike Brown, for all his faults, has always been a good defensive coach. And it's not as though the Cavs subbed in a defensive specialist for Irving that skewed the on-off numbers. Jarrett Jack played behind Kyrie last year, and Jack has never been lauded as a shutdown defender.
So while Synergy (subscription required) showed Irving to be a respectable defender when he was engaged on the ball (He ranked in the top 20 percent of all NBA players when guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers), we know from watching film that his real weakness was a simple lack of attention.
There's a joke to be made here about allowing Brandon Jennings to shoot being a sound defensive play. But the basic lack of man-ball vision—not to mention Irving's casual, upright stance—illustrates his obvious issues on D.
In FIBA play, Irving will likely be paired with another small guard in the backcourt, which means it won't necessarily be easy to hide him on defense. He must embrace the challenge of guarding tougher matchups, and when faced with weaker ones, he has to lock down even more fiercely.
Team USA should be (and probably is) most concerned with Spain, and we'll see just how committed Irving is to defense when he has to face Ricky Rubio, Jose Calderon and Juan Carlos Navarro. His ability to stick with quality players like them will say a lot about whether defense can someday become one of Irving's strengths—as opposed to his greatest weakness.
Nobody has ever made the suggestion that Irving lacks the physical or mental abilities to play terrific defense; he's cat-quick and highly intelligent. James, like the rest of us, will be watching to see whether Irving is finally ready to commit his considerable faculties to the task.
In other words, he'd like to see Kyrie actually try.
On and Off-Ball Balance
Playing alongside James means giving up a few touches, and perhaps even making drastic alterations to one's offensive style.
Ask Dwyane Wade about it.
Irving has been Cleveland's dominant ball-handler throughout his tenure there, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. He's hard to stop in one-on-one situations and is only getting better as a drive-and-kick facilitator.
Last season, Irving possessed the rock for an average of 6.2 minutes per game, according to SportVU data provided to NBA.com, far more than anyone else on the Cavs. That's not to say Irving was a dribble-pounder to the level of someone like John Wall or Isaiah Thomas, but it's safe to say he's used to playing on the ball.
Irving must use his time with Team USA to show he can be effective without the rock. That'll start with knocking down spot-up shots, which he figures to see plenty of as World Cup defenders scramble to account for the other threats in Team USA's lineup.
After coming into the league with a deadly three-point shot, Irving has seen his long-distance accuracy dip.
He'll need to prove to James that he's as deadly as ever from distance, especially since LBJ grew so accustomed to having tons of floor-spacing shooters around him in Miami. The key for Irving will be learning to space out to open spots and trusting the ball will find him if he's open, a marked change from how things have gone with the Cavs. There, Irving spent a lot of time trying to get the ball back almost immediately after surrendering it.
If he can learn to trust both scheme and teammates, Irving will show James he can be the kind of versatile supporting player Wade eventually became.
Lastly, Irving must prove he's capable of being deferential to superior talent when necessary. Nobody's arguing he needs to become overly unselfish, or that he must surrender shots he'd normally take.
This is more philosophical.
Pecking orders exist on every NBA team, and the Cavaliers' changed substantially when James signed on. It could change even more drastically if Kevin Love winds up in Cleveland before the season starts.
Extreme confidence is part of what makes Irving effective, and neither James nor the Cavs should want him to lose that quality. But Irving must show he can be happy as a second (or third) option because that's what he's going to be from now on—max contract be damned.
According to The Associated Press (via USA Today), Irving has been showing signs of understanding his place on Team USA:
During the latter half of Wednesday's scrimmage at UNLV's Mendenhall Center, (Irving) looked as if he fit in just fine, passing with ease, executing a drive-and-kick game to perfection and getting everyone coach Mike Krzyzewski put on the floor involved with the Blue squad's scheme.
Irving hasn't been trying to take things over on every possession, and that's a great omen—one James will likely view favorably.
Taking on the World
International basketball competitions used to feel like exhibitions in which the Team USA's best players showed off their skills and solidified what everyone already knew: that they were the best players in the world.
Now, though, the cream of the NBA crop (especially American players) don't always take part. James, for one, won't be involved in the World Cup. And as older, more established players have gradually pulled away from non-Olympic international games, things have changed a bit.
What were once exhibitions have now become proving grounds—places for young up-and-comers like Irving to show they're ready to to take the next steps in their development. And while every inexperienced future star can gain something from playing with Team USA, Irving has even more at stake.
He hasn't had an opportunity to show he can play in big games or face real pressure because his first three years were spent in some of the worst organizational conditions in the league. Instead of growing up and learning how to adjust, Irving dealt with poor coaching, bad drafts and a dysfunctional locker room—not to mention the fact that he played under the cloud of replacing James as the Cavs' savior.
It's hard to believe, but even after three seasons, we (and James) can't really know what kind of player Irving might become.
We'll get a chance to find out soon.