Cavaliers Have Themselves to Blame for Developing Mess with Kyrie IrvingFebruary 11, 2014
Northern Ohio is home to one of the world's all-time rollercoasters, but it is not called the Cleveland Cavaliers. You are forgiven for possibly thinking otherwise.
Let's put aside for a moment that the Cavaliers once again find themselves with a franchise player whose alleged desire to be elsewhere is offering more gut-twisting entertainment than anything the team is doing on the court. This time, of course, it's point guard Kyrie Irving who has the town being whipsawed by rumors that he wants out and claims—however tepid—that he is happy and (via ESPN's Brian Windhorst) can see himself staying "for a long time."
As anyone who grew up in Ohio can attest (hand raised), one winter of freezing rain and arctic blasts can feel like "a long time." Actually, it doesn't really matter how definitive Irving might be; he has little chance of convincing anyone thanks to LeBron James, who claimed the same fealty before taking his talents to Miami. Instead, let's consider what the Cavaliers could do to change Irving's mind, if it indeed needs changing.
Top of the list: treat the team as one big incubator to develop Kyrie into one of the league's premier point guards.
They seemed to be on that track when they made him the first pick of the 2011 draft, eager to put behind them James' departure the previous summer. But perhaps the most baffling hairpin in the Cavaliers' tracks since then is how they've methodically dismantled a support group that led to his selection as rookie of the year and prompted forecasts of him taking a place next to Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose among the league's young superstar point guards.
Those two, of course, had the benefit of rosters and coaching staffs built precisely to keep a calibrated load on them as they learned exactly how to handle the full weight of being a premier NBA point guard. As in veteran back-ups who could assist in the ball-handling and playmaking duties and coaches who were either former point guards themselves or had worked with some of the best in earlier years.
As one NBA scout said in reference to developing a point guard: "It takes a village."
No one is absolving Irving of his part in this over-promised, under-delivered mess of a Cavaliers season. Apparently, league sources say, he immersed himself in his role as Uncle Drew for Pepsi a tad too well last summer, adopting a conditioning program that gave him the stamina of a gray beard and produced a body better served covered up in a baggy sweat suit.
It happens. He's not the first young star to become infatuated with the off-court perks delivered by his on-court success and mistakenly assume that sustaining his place as an elite NBA player is easier than establishing himself as one.
But for all the carping about Irving's selfishness and indifference, the same invectives were said of Washington Wizards point guard John Wall not too long ago. The Wizards then acquired two pick-setting centers in Nene and Marcin Gortat, added a veteran back-up in Eric Maynor and hired away assistant coach Don Newman after he spent seven seasons watching Tony Parker do his magic for the Spurs.
Compare that to all that the Cavs have done for Irving; undoubtedly he has.
It started as far back as two years ago, when they could've landed the ideal pick-and-roll partner for Irving in the very same draft, Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas, who everyone tabbed as the next likeliest star after Irving. Whoever took Jonas would have to wait a year while he extricated himself from his contract overseas, but the Cavs supposedly weren't in a hurry.
There was only one problem: Valanciunas had the same agent as the 2003 No. 1 pick who left for Miami. Whichever side had an issue with the other, the Cavs declined to take Valanciunas and took Texas freshman Tristan Thompson, whose claim to fame is deciding to change shooting hands in the midst of his NBA career.
Observers overlooked that mistake at first thanks to the rapid rise of Kyrie. Platitudes arrived from every corner. He had the killer instinct right from the start that James had lacked. He was mature beyond his years. More important than anything, he vowed to be what the 2003 No. 1 pick had not—committed to leading Cleveland to greatness.
For whatever reason, the Cavs took all that for granted.
They have methodically made the team younger each season since Irving arrived, stripping the roster of veterans—Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker, Daniel Gibson—who were better equipped to deal with a young star and maintain a healthy culture.
They replaced head coach Byron Scott, who, for whatever other faults he may have, has been a point-guard whisperer (Chris Paul, Jason Kidd) with Mike Brown. The same Brown they fired in a misguided attempt to satisfy the 2003 No. 1 pick. The same Brown who is once again struggling to implement an offense that works.
The same Brown who also alienated power forward Pau Gasol after giving Andrew Bynum a larger role when all three were with the Los Angeles Lakers two seasons ago.
With that in mind, maybe the Cavaliers were wise in not making a more concerted effort to land Gasol earlier this season. But that shouldn't have stopped their interest in landing a big man to set screens and space the floor for Irving.
Instead, they acquired a small forward in Luol Deng for Bynum and several draft picks. While Deng certainly played well alongside Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Carlos Boozer were far more instrumental to his success. It's why the Chicago Bulls were willing to move Deng in the first place.
The 2003 No. 1 pick, of course, is a free agent this summer, and while Cavs' officials have privately waved off the notion that they've left a light on in the window specifically for him since he left—they are prohibited from publicly discussing a player from another team—they've stopped short of squashing it.
Irving's rise to stardom prompted more than one story wondering if he could be enough to lure James back. That was the Cavs' chance to state, emphatically and as many times as necessary, that they'd never go back down that road. Their dismissals have been as weak as Irving's pledge of fealty. The idea, for the Cavs, that LeBron still might return remains too much to resist.
Creating a team to develop a budding star at point guard is not easy, nor does failing to do so doom him. Wall arrived in Washington with Gilbert Arenas as a mentor for half a season and Mike Bibby for a week and that's been about it. It slowed his learning curve, for sure, but he fought his way through it.
Having Sam Cassell as an assistant coach certainly has helped. Wall—who is now working with Rob McClanaghan, personal trainer for both Westbrook and Rose—is the exception, though, rather than the rule. Damian Lillard is another young point guard who has benefited from having a veteran (Earl Watson) with whom he can consult. Lillard's defense, at times, leaves something to be desired, but the criticism of it hasn't reached the same volume as that of Irving's.
The Golden State Warriors removed the guide ropes for Stephen Curry this past summer, allowing Jarrett Jack to sign with the Cavaliers. Jack, for whatever reason, has not had the same impact on Irving, perhaps in part because he has not been empowered to do so. That finally may have changed with Jack starting the last five games for a total of seven starts this season.
There's still time to create a roster that complements Irving rather than saddles him. David Griffin, the interim replacement for general manager Chris Grant, was with the Phoenix Suns when they created the virtuoso pick-and-roll combo of Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire. He also helped acquire point guard Goran Dragic to put him under Nash's tutelage.
For the Cavs to move forward, though, they must find a way to stop talking about their willingness to move Irving if he doesn't agree to a long-term extension. There's work to do, and it's not building another hair-raising turn. In fact, considering the roster and coaching staff the Cavs have constructed, it's fair to wonder who exactly has failed to commit to whom.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.