For his first three years with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kyrie Irving catered to no one.
Now, Irving finds himself in a strange new world.
Long considered the Cavs' best chance at relevance, he now becomes the third option in his own starting five.
Immediately dubbed the city's next sports savior at age 19, Irving instead battled injuries, losses and a lack of leadership that clouded his remarkable talent.
Teammates came and went, all trying to mesh with Irving and his ball-dominant style of play.
Dion Waiters, easily the second-most talented player on the roster, was even sent to the bench because he and Irving couldn't share the ball. Cleveland tried veteran point guards Shaun Livingston and Jarrett Jack behind him, neither with much success.
For all the talk about Irving's leadership, he must now take a step down and follow the lead of LeBron James and Kevin Love.
Irving should instead adapt his game to that of his new teammates, something he's never had to do before.
Summarizing Irving's Game
We've seen the highlight videos of Irving's swirling, twisting, double-clutch layups that seem to slice through defenses like a steel knife in warm butter. His handles rival those of Allen Iverson, leaving opposing guards tripping over themselves.
Nice traits for sure, but neither can do Irving justice.
At 22 years of age, it's the entire offensive package that makes Irving shine.
He represents a unique mix of the game's best guards today. Irving has an outside stroke that could one day rival that of Stephen Curry. His handles are already near or better than Jamal Crawford's. Irving's nose for scoring off the dribble is behind only Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.
One aspect of his game that often goes unmentioned is Irving's foresight.
When driving the lane, Irving doesn't just see defenders, he anticipates when and where they'll attack his shot. Just 6'3", Irving can somehow navigate his way in and around players nearly a foot taller than him by using his arsenal of fakes, spins and touches to convert at the rim.
Irving's become an expert at teasing post players with his double-clutch layups, making them believe they have an easy block before pulling the ball back in and then extending for the score.
Though his percentages dipped last season while playing in Mike Brown's iso-heavy offense, Irving is a strong outside shooter. He converted at clips of 39.9 percent and 39.1 percent during his rookie and sophomore seasons before dipping to 35.8 percent last year.
Most of Irving's success came from his own doing. Despite being a strong outside shooter, Irving rarely came off screens or operated without the ball. He averaged just 3.1 points on catch-and-shoot opportunities per game, good for 138th in the league, according to NBA.com/Stats.
As good as he is scoring the ball, Irving has never been a committed distributor.
Last season's 6.1 assists per game were a career best, but still ranked Irving 16th in the NBA. His assist percentage actually took a drop down to 31.6 percent, 15th in the league.
Now, one could point out that Irving hasn't had the greatest supporting cast to pass to, which is fair. It's also fair (and true) to state that Brandon Jennings, Jameer Nelson, Michael Carter-Williams and Isaiah Thomas all had more assists per game than Irving, even though their teams finished with a fewer amount of wins.
His lack of leadership has come into light lately, as Irving told Shams Charania of RealGM, “I haven’t been a leader – not at all." This also includes the defensive side of the ball, where Irving has been pretty awful for the better part of three years. Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal tells us more:
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. 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.
Locker room problems have at times plagued the Cavs and led to less-than-stellar effort on the court. Irving may not have been the culprit, but he didn't seem to do his part of carrying Cleveland during those times, either.
That's Irving's game in a nutshell.
What will have to change for him to mesh with James and Love?
The LeBron and Love Effect
While Irving's greatest strength has been his ability to score the basketball, that skill is no longer crucial to the Cavaliers' success.
James (27.1) and Love (26.1) finished third and fourth among all NBA scorers last season, respectively. Irving was 14th with 20.8 a contest. While it's easy to say Irving's scoring will drop, this may not necessarily be the case. The fact is Irving will only get more open looks with James and Love around. How he adjusts to playing off the ball, something Irving's never had to do, will be key to his scoring numbers now.
How terrible was Irving without the ball in his hands last season?
Out of 212 NBA players averaging at least one catch-and-shoot three-pointer, Irving ranked 188th at 32.1 percent, via NBA.com/Stats. This is a surprisingly low number, considering Irving is a talented shooter with a fundamentally-sound shot.
So why the low percentage?
It's easy to blame the lack of playmaking teammates. Besides Waiters, who Cleveland tried to avoid playing with Irving, few Cavs could handle the ball while creating scoring opportunities for others.
Before, Irving was set up by guys like Jarrett Jack and Matthew Dellavedova. He now has James and Love to fill that role. Given this upgrade, Irving's catch-and-shoot success should almost certainly improve, assuming he's committed to this new role.
When it comes to distributing the ball, this is where Irving really needs to make an improvement. The excuses have to stop. Irving has the most talented pair of teammates anyone could ask for. He doesn't need to take 17-18 shots a night anymore for the Cavaliers to have a chance to win.
Becoming a willing passer doesn't just mean getting the ball to James and Love. It means finding Anderson Varejao cutting to the basket. Waiting for Dion Waiters to come off a screen for an open three. Connecting with Tristan Thompson on a well-timed alley-oop. Basically, all the things he should have been more focused on doing the past three years. With his two new All-Star teammates, the job should only be easier.
In the times he does have the ball, Irving needs to have a feel for James and Love. He has to know that Love prefers the left-center arc three-pointer, having launched 266 balls from that spot alone last season.
Irving has to find James not just on alley-oops and cuts to the basket, but hanging out on the three-point line as well. He should already be aware that James knocked down a remarkable 48.8 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season, second only to Kyle Korver for players taking at least one such shot a game, via NBA.com/Stats.
Basically, Irving needs to be more Rajon Rondo and less Russell Westbrook.
On defense, Irving must do a better job cutting off opposing point guards' penetration, thereby taking pressure off Love in the paint. Last season, Love allowed opponents to convert 57.4 percent of their shots at the rim, per NBA.com/Stats.
Irving needs to increase his defensive effort and use his athleticism to help keep players in front of him. James is already an elite wing defender, and one can bet he'll be calling Irving out if he doesn't see anything other than total effort.
From a leadership standpoint, Irving should be fine with taking a step back. The Cavaliers did a poor job by not providing a mentor and role model upon making him the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, a mistake they're more than making up for now.
Cleveland's free-agent haul netted them players with 10 combined NBA championships. That's a nice amount of experience to learn from.
Irving's ultimate meshing with James and Love will depend on how well he adjusts to playing off the ball, becoming a pass-first point guard and committing himself to the defensive end.
It may take some time, but it will ultimately be what's best for the Cavaliers' championship hopes this season and beyond. The pressure on Irving now comes from winning games, by far his greatest test as a pro.
All stats via Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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