Kyrie Irving's Star Ceiling Will Be Revealed Alongside LeBron James

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Kyrie Irving's Star Ceiling Will Be Revealed Alongside LeBron James
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

LeBron James' return to the Cleveland Cavaliers is as much about Kyrie Irving as himself.

The ripple effects of James' free-agency mulligan span deep. This is James' shot at redemption. Kevin Love is now in town. The Cavaliers themselves have gone from lottery occupants to championship-seekers.

Then there is Irving, the talented yet maligned All-Star who spent most of the last three years trying to rescue the Cavaliers from the obscurity James' initial departure hurled them into.

Reactions to the job he was doing were mixed. The Cavaliers have posted the NBA's second-lowest winning percentage since Irving first entered the league. Irving himself battled injuries while finding games difficult to win.

He ranks 61st in total win shares since his rookie season, trailing supposedly inferior talents like Jeff Teague, Isaiah Thomas and Jose Calderon.

Was Irving victimized by a poor supporting cast and incompetent franchise during that time, or was he overrated as a star that wasn't actually one?

Left in the dark for so long, James' second go-round in Cleveland will provide answers to one of the most controversial mysteries the NBA has housed since 2011.

 

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Different numbers say different things about Irving.

That he's averaged 20.7 points and 5.8 assists per game through his first three seasons seems swell. That he's done so on declining shooting percentages and player efficiency ratings does not.

This is where James and Love make the game easier for Irving. They diminish the number of touches and shots Irving must take, which Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry reveals is a good thing:

In his first three years in the league, Irving managed to convert his shots relatively efficiently despite having to generate many of them from scratch. He has grown accustomed to scoring off the dribble, and he has developed a knack for using his freakish handle to create shooting space.

However, it’s not unreasonable to expect big gains in Irving’s shooting efficiency, for two reasons. First, given the arrival of James and Love, his usage will certainly diminish, and he’ll have to take fewer tough, self-created jumpers than last season. Second, he will have more higher efficiency, catch-and-shoot chances. Open looks are one of the main perks of being in (or on) the King’s court.

Lower usages rates don't appear good on the surface. Fewer shots mean fewer points, fewer touches mean fewer opportunities to prove himself.

At the same time, there is such a thing as too much exposure. Irving has experienced it firsthand over the last three years.

He has the eighth-highest usage rate (29) of any NBA player who has appeared in at least 100 games since 2011, putting him ahead of renowned talents like LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin and Love himself.

Too much dependence on a burgeoning point guard isn't a good thing. Some players can handle it, like James himself. But Irving isn't James. He's a 22-year-old prospect who has been held to a different standard because of James.

Irving has led the Cavaliers in win shares for each of his first three seasons. Never before has he topped seven win shares in one year, which also means none of his teammates have either.

Tristan Thompson recorded 5.7 last year, the most any of Irving's teammates have ever accumulated.

Not even James himself was put in that situation. Both Carlos Boozer and Zydrunas Ilgauskas cleared seven win shares in James' first season. Both actually had James beat, as he rattled off 5.1 as a rookie.

It wasn't until his sophomore season that he led the Cavaliers in win shares. Each time he did during those first three years—twice—he always had at least one teammate clear seven.

James is the beacon of hope Irving has never had in that regard. Hell, Boozer would be too. That he finally has help—incredible help—will count for something.

Does that mean fewer touches and fewer shots? Absolutely, but it also means fewer do-it-all-myself sets and more open spot-up opportunities.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), at least 52.5 percent of Irving's offensive possessions since entering the league have come within isolations and pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler. That puts an enormous amount of pressure on Irving to create for himself.

Meanwhile, no more than 10.2 percent of his offensive possessions ending in shots have come as a spot-up shooter in the last three years.

That number should skyrocket alongside the ball-dominant, drive-and-kick-inclined James as well as the passing-savvy Love.

Additional catch-and-shoot opportunities give Irving his first real chance to improve his efficiency and play within the ebb and flow of an offense rather than forcing the action. How quickly he adjusts to Jamesand how successful said adjustment iswill speak volumes about his star ceiling on a genuine contender.

 

Actual Guidance

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Life in general becomes easier for Irving alongside James.

Gone are the days when he was responsible for everything, when he was thrown into the fray as an inexperienced boy expected to have the profound impact of a man.

"Everybody asks me if this is my year to be a leader ... I haven’t been so far though, not at all,” Irving told RealGM's Shams Charania. “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."

Things are mostly looking up these days.

Irving has been gifted the mentor he's never had. James is his safety net. He's free to focus on basketball, improving as a scorer and defender, while James bears the championship cross Cleveland placed upon Irving's shoulders in 2011.

Free from those distractions, from those responsibilities, Irving has a chance to learn. Almost overnight, like Sports Illustrated's Chris Johnson explains, Irving's entire career has reversed course:

It wasn’t so long ago, you’ll recall, that Irving was rumored to be unhappy with his situation in Cleveland, with some raising questions over whether he’d refuse a long-term commitment and seek to play elsewhere. Now, after an eventful summer that saw the Cavaliers morph from punchline to powerhouse, Irving finds himself at the precipice of something he probably didn’t consider possible as recently as last season. Not in Cleveland. Irving will enter the upcoming season on a star-laden team with championship expectations -- the Cavs are Vegas favorites at 5/2 -- and no one is questioning Irving’s happiness. 

Manufactured storylines will still commandeer headlines whenever the Cavaliers are going through a rough patch. It's what happens to preordained superteams. The Miami Heat of the last four years, as well as the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, can attest to that.

Only the difference is Irving won't be alone this time.

Where it was once Irving vs. the Cavaliers, it's now something different entirely.

There will be no debating his future in Cleveland. He's locked up for the next five years—next season, plus his extension. There will be no locker room turmoil that paints Irving as a villainous miscreant. James' Heat never stood for such assertions. His Cavaliers won't either.

All that's left to do for Irving, finally, is play and grow.

 

Out of Excuses

USA TODAY Sports

Ideal circumstances breed truth.

Moving forward with James—and Love—doesn't leave Irving in a pressure-free environment entirely. He has to back up his newfound wealth with results. No excuses.

There is no displacing blame for his own, individual success anymore. He has the supporting cast. He has the mentor. He has the coach (David Blatt). He has the money. He has the stability. There's nothing and no one left for him to need.

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He finally has everything.

“It’s great to have help. Tremendous help from LeBron,” Irving told The Washington Post's Michael Lee in early August. “To get a chance to play with him and learn from him will be a great experience for me.”

Playing with James will be equally revealing now that Irving finds himself with everything and everyone he's never had, and thus the means to identify himself as a genuine star or relative impostor no longer hiding behind three years of excuses.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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