LeBron James' Return to Cleveland Cavaliers Forces Kyrie Irving to Mature

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 20, 2014

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 14: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game against the Golden State Warriors on March 14, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Has Kyrie Irving been a leader during the early portion of his NBA career? 

Absolutely not, and he'll tell you that himself. 

"I haven't been a leader—not at all," the talented point guard explained while speaking with Shams Charania of RealGM.com

It's a refreshing bit of honesty from Irving, who has been at the center of a great deal of controversy over the past calendar year. The dysfunction in the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room? He was apparently a part of it. The lack of defense? Problematic and unchanging, even when it was public knowledge. 

All that's in the past, though. 

With LeBron James in the fold, Irving is being forced to mature quite quickly, and that's undoubtedly a positive for the new contenders in the Eastern Conference. If he can become the star he was meant to be—and has often looked like—that's just one more weapon in an already deadly arsenal. 

Win-Now Mentality

OAKLAND, CA - MARCH 14: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in a game against the Golden State Warriors on March 14, 2014 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Irving never really had a chance to compete in the past. 

When he was selected at No. 1 in the 2011 NBA draft, the Cavaliers were still reeling from the departure of James, who had taken his talents to South Beach one offseason prior. The result had been a horrific season, one filled with 19 wins and 63 losses, good for the NBA's second-worst record and the eventual top pick. 

Irving was expected to be great, but he wasn't a transcendent prospect capable of immediately transforming his squad into a contender. Instead, he was just a 19-year-old kid with precious little experience playing basketball at a high level. Remember, his time at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski was limited by that pesky toe injury, one that held him to only a handful of games throughout his lone season in Durham. 

In fact, let's take a gander at how the ESPN forecasting team predicted the Cavs to fare over the last few years (looking at winning percentages rather than wins due to the lockout-shortened nature of the 2011-12 campaign, which was Irving's rookie season): 

What changed this offseason?

Just the return of James and the arrival of Kevin Love, who technically still hasn't been traded but will be as soon as Andrew Wiggins is allowed to be dealt. With the addition of two superstars, as well as the expected growth from Irving and the other young pieces in Cleveland, there's finally hope in Northeast Ohio. 

For the first time since Irving joined the NBA, the Cavaliers are expected to finish above .500. Last season, ESPN's forecast had them squeezing into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed, but that was due more to the overall putridity of the Eastern Conference than the strength of Cleveland. This year, missing the playoffs would be nothing shy of a complete and utter disaster.

Now, there are no more excuses. 

CLEVELAND - DECEMBER 25:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers moves the ball up court during the game against the Washington Wizards at Quicken Loans Arena on December 25, 2008 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavs won 93-89.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Irving is now a key piece on a team expected to compete for a championship, and James will inevitably hold him to the highest possible standards. Dysfunction in the locker room will no longer fly, and neither will a distinct lack of effort during meaningful possessions. And given the importance of every game this upcoming season, there's really no such thing as a meaningless possession, save for garbage time, when Irving likely won't be on the floor. 

The time for being a kid is over. It's time to morph into a valuable contributor on a potent roster, one who's going to hold himself to nothing short of excellence night in and night out. 

The Duke product hasn't been forced to do so in the past, but now he has James to help him out. The same James who became a seasoned leader during his time with the Miami Heat, winning championships, motivating teammates and helping everyone around him work as hard as possible. 

Fortunately, the incumbent recognizes the value of the new arrivals, as he told RealGM

I'm more than excited with our new veterans. I'm really excited just from the standpoint of how the locker room is going to go and how to really be a professional. I'm not saying that the veterans that we had weren't professionals themselves, but we didn't have enough. Given the right and wrong things to do in the league, I've had to learn on my own and that's what some of us been doing.

Now, we have guys who've been in the league for years, guys who've won championships and have had to give a piece of their game for the greater good of the team. It's something I admire and something I'm going to learn from.

Irving doesn't need to become a leader, but he does need to become a mature basketball player in order to thrive alongside a certain four-time MVP. He's aware of that, which is a fantastic first step.

Need for Defense

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 30: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers plays defense against J.R. Smith #8 of the New York Knicks during a game at Madison Square Garden in New York City on January 30, 2014.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

One of the most problematic effects of Irving's on-court immaturity in the past has been his distinct lack of defense. That's especially true because it's been a lack of desire and discipline holding him back, not his physical tools. 

The dynamic floor general undoubtedly has the physical tools necessary to play at least adequately on the less-glamorous end. He has the lateral quickness, the speedy hands and the basketball smarts he needs at his disposal, but something just hasn't clicked between the ears. 

That's the only possible excuse for plays like the one you can see below, when Irving momentarily falls into the bad habit of ball watching and loses his man due to sheer laziness. 

Had he been focused and motivated, he easily could've gotten around a weak screen, fighting over it quickly to deny the pass or ducking under the pick and recovering to Damian Lillard without breaking a sweat. But that's not how Irving played during the first few seasons of his career, likely because he didn't have to. 

At the lowest point of the Cavaliers' season from hell this past go-round, Irving was drawing one bad review after another as his future in Cleveland was constantly questioned. Take what ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst wrote, for example: 

You don't need any inside info, just read Irving's demeanor recently. Just when he was expected to take the third-year leap that so many stars before him have made, Irving seems to have played much of the season with a frown. His stats are down, but more troubling his effort level and leadership have been inconsistent, to say the least.

This traces to what seems to be a growing displeasure with coach Mike Brown, who he has not clicked with in the least. Irving is unhappy with how Brown runs the offense and Brown is unhappy that Irving's interest in the defensive end has eroded massively in recent weeks.

That's not going to be the case any longer. 

Not with LeBron helping motivate him on a daily basis. Not with David Blatt demanding perfection before, during and after each game of the season. If you're unfamiliar with Blatt's motivational skills and techniques, this is all you need to see: 

Convinced? I thought so. 

But beyond that, Irving has to mature into a player who will try on defense because the Cavaliers so desperately need for him to do so. There are going to be major liabilities attempting—and often failing—to protect the rim at all times, as Tristan Thompson, Love and Anderson Varejao all struggle in that area. 

It's up to Irving to keep players from gaining penetration, doing his part to ensure there's one less liability on the court at all times.

Defense wins championships, the old maxim goes. Now that there's a distinct shot at one, the 1-guard has to realize the value of buying in. And if he doesn't, for the first time in his career, the microscope will truly be focused on his performance.

James' arrival—as well as the potential of this team—forces that issue.

Already Necessary

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 26: Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates after a basket against the Atlanta Hawks in the second quarter at Quicken Loans Arena on December 26, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

"I've just been a kid trying to figure it out. There's no perfect way to be a leader, and coming in as a 19-year-old kid and having everything bearing on your shoulders, there are a lot of ups and downs," Irving explained to Charania. "Now it’s about being the best every single day and not being afraid."

Even if the other factors weren't in the picture, this would still be a good time to expect maturation from the developing point guard. 

No longer is he a 19-year-old kid. He's a grown man who will turn 23 years old during the 2014-15 campaign, and he already has three seasons of professional basketball experience under his belt. He's been around that proverbial block a few times. 

The third year is often when young players make the leap, but Irving didn't do so. He could very well remedy that in his fourth season with the Cavaliers, especially now that he's received a max contract extension. 

"Surely, Irving viewed the transformation of John Wall once former NBA champions and conference finalists took charge of him and challenged his capacity to lead last season," Charania writes. "This duty came too swift for Irving in the NBA. He wasn't ready. He wasn't a leader of men in his first three pro seasons..."

What isn't mentioned is the similarity of the contract circumstances. 

Wall signed a max extension with the Washington Wizards last offseason, then he justified his contract by settling down on the defensive end of the court and improving while leading his team into the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Well, Irving put ink to paper for his five-year, $90 million extension in early July, and now it's time for him to follow a similar route to the one Wall blazed down in 2013-14. 

He's paid like a star, and now it's time for him to play like one on both ends of the floor, acting like a positive locker room presence all the while. 

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 23:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers controls the ball against the Detroit Pistons at The Quicken Loans Arena on December 23, 2013 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downlo
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Even if that's not motivation enough, the Cavaliers' need for defense and the presence of James should guarantee that happens. 

Irving hasn't lived up to the hype during his first few NBA seasons, although he's made two All-Star teams in three years. He hasn't carried his team into the playoffs, and he's been a one-way player who relies on scoring and glamorous highlights to bolster his growing reputation. In fact, he's been one of the Association's more overrated floor generals, failing to distinguish himself from players like Isaiah Thomas, at least from a statistical standpoint. 

But this year, that changes. 

It has to. 


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