How Kyrie Irving Holds the Key to LeBron James' New Kingdom

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 15, 2014

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A season ago, Kyrie Irving was indisputably the Cleveland Cavaliers' best player.

But after the busiest summer in franchise history, he's faded from headlines and almost instantly became his team's second or third scoring option. While it's tempting to believe this will be the season of LeBron James and Kevin Love, we shouldn't be so quick to overlook what's sure to be a pivotal role for Irving.

The last time Irving was in the news, he was signing a near-max extension with the organization after averaging 20.8 points and a career-high 6.1 assists per game last season.

Since then, the 22-year-old's future with the franchise has been overshadowed by two key developments.

First, James announced his return to Cleveland in July after his talents enjoyed four celebrated seasons with the Miami Heat. It was an instant game-changer for a club that spent those four seasons missing the playoffs and undergoing a protracted rebuild.

"At first you were speechless; you couldn't believe it," Irving said, according to's Ken Berger. "I've been watching LeBron for a while now and now that I'm going to be running alongside him and being his point guard, it's an honor and hopefully we can do great things."

Second, it's become all but certain that disaffected Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love will soon join the Cavaliers.

Earlier in August, Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported, "The Minnesota Timberwolves have reached an agreement in principle to send All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round draft pick, league sources told Yahoo Sports."

Welcome to the charmed life of a franchise that has a four-time MVP on its side.

With all the new firepower, Irving's production is likely to drop to some degree, along with his ball-handling and playmaking duties. James will often have the ball in his hands instead, and Love immediately becomes Cleveland's go-to three-point shooter.

Irving becomes a very capable sidekick from the outset, initiating some offense while also seeing increased time off the ball.

As's Zach Harper explains, "Irving could be in a similar role as Wade was with James, but we also have to remember this is under [Cavs head coach] David Blatt and not [Heat head coach] Erik Spoelstra. The offensive system could and will likely be different."

Indeed, Blatt will use elements of the Princeton offense in Cleveland, ensuring that ball and player movement take precedence over isolation-based play.

According to that model, there should be plenty of touches to go around, regardless of the recently incorporated star power.

Nevertheless, Irving should become increasingly comfortable in a catch-and-shoot role. He ranked third among point guards last season with a 27.8 usage rate, and those touches will be fewer and occur more sparingly this season. 

"You do think about [changes] because you're going to be playing with the greatest player in the game," Irving told reporters (via ESPN) during Team USA training camp. "I've talked to several teammates about how we're going to have to change our games."

Irving led the Cavaliers with 17.4 field-goal attempts per game last season. By contrast, James' sidekick, Dwyane Wade, attempted just 14.1 shots per game—a figure that may be more in line with what Irving can expect going forward.

The parallels with Wade are important, in part because they also hint at how vital Irving will remain to Cleveland's title chances.

Even with James leading the way for Miami, there were never any doubts about Wade's importance. Though the 32-year-old's 19 points per game last season were the lowest since his rookie year, those were also the most efficient points Wade had scored in his 11 seasons. He posted a career-high 54.5 field-goal percentage.

The more perimeter-oriented Irving made just 43 percent of his field-goal attempts last season, and—while he'll remain an essential three-point threat—there's plenty of room for the young floor general to become more judicious with his possessions.

He'll also need to improve his play on the defensive end. James' presence will help in that regard.

"I think James will have a real impact on Kyrie Irving and Love – if he goes there," said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, per Northeast Ohio Media Group's Tom Reed. "You need a real commitment to defense if you're going to win (a title). I think James knew that from his time in Cleveland and he certainly knew it from his time in Miami. He will bring that experience and defensive mindset back to Cleveland."

Van Gundy added, "Defense is about commitment, resolve, discipline and an ability to concentrate. The pressure is going to be exerted by James. He is in his prime and they have a chance to win so as a player you don't want to not play up to your potential defensively."

Especially not if you're Irving, an emerging star who's yet to prove himself a legitimate two-way presence.

The San Jose Mercury News' Tim Kawakami wrote in June, "Irving might not be the pound-for-pound, minute-for-minute, mistake-for-mistake worst defensive player in the league. He’s assuredly way up there, but probably not Numero Uno."

Kawakami added, "It takes something special to stand out as a bad defensive player amid all of Irving’s wobbly defensive teammates on the Cavaliers. Yet he keeps doing it."

Given that Love has received his fair share of criticism on the defensive end, Irving's work is cut out for him. Cleveland won't have any difficulty scoring the ball, but it desperately needs James' defensive prowess to become infectious.

Irving's individual defense will become an instant barometer signaling whether any osmosis has taken place. Without an improved effort, James' patience with his young teammate could be tested early and often.

LeBron is once again the face of this franchise, and Love will soon be its second-most accomplished contributor.

But Irving may well determine how quickly the Cavaliers compete for a championship. While he's no longer the biggest name around town, his critical importance endures.