Returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers was, at the time, indicative of the selflessness James didn't espouse in 2010. He left the title-toting—albeit aging—Miami Heat for the young and adrift Cavaliers.
In one concise, tell-all essay in Sports Illustrated, James liberated himself from the shackles of his past, breathed hope into a tormented fanbase and perhaps most notably relieved Irving from the barbed throne upon which he sat.
Next to James, there would be no individual pressure. Collective expectations would soar—climbing further still after Kevin Love's arrival—but Irving would no longer be measured against the star he replaced. The days of failed one-man rescue missions were over. Irving was free.
Then James went ahead and said something along the lines of this, per Slam Magazine:
Pressure, in the form of a sky-high ceiling, has found Irving once again. Never mind ceding the strain of success to more established stars; Irving has those words—James' faith—hanging over his head.
There's only one thing he can do now: enter the running for best point guard to ensure he doesn't make an optimistic liar out of James.
A Little More Stephen Curry
Part of Irving's development into the NBA's best point guard entails being, well, less of a point guard.
Weird, but true.
Playing beside James will be a blessing, make no mistake. But his presence is going to take the ball out of Irving's hands more than the 23-year-old is used to.
Consider the second- and third-highest usage rates—among starters—on the last three Heat teams James piloted:
Note how much higher Irving's usage rate has traditionally been than Miami's third fiddle. There's a real chance Irving experiences a third-option drop while playing alongside James and Love. It could be even steeper if Dion Waiters sneaks into the starting lineup.
Perfecting his off-ball offense—not unlike Stephen Curry—is the best way for Irving to improve his point guard credentials.
Curry buried 52 percent of his spot-up attempts last season, including a 48.9 percent conversion rate from deep, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). Irving registered 38 and 33.3 percent clips, respectively. His rates will need to be closer to Curry's looking ahead.
And that's going to be an adjustment.
Most of Curry's shots aren't standalone opportunities. Only 7.2 percent of his offensive touches came as standstill field-goal attempts last season, which is what happens when you're the primary ball-handler.
Cleveland's new primary ball-wielder is James. Because of his—and Love's—playmaking abilities, more of Irving's shot attempts should come as an off-ball scorer. This is something that Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry says can, in theory, be 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.
Scoring has always come easy to Irving. Receiving more open shots could be a boon for his efficiency and point-totaling averages—as long as he can adapt.
Few of Irving's made baskets have come off assists over the years. Hardly any of them, in fact:
Operating without the ball isn't very point guard-y, but it's required of any floor general who calls James a teammate. And while Irving still needs to be a lethal scorer, he'll have to get his points in noticeably different ways.
A Little Less Selfish
Terming point guards "true", "modern" or "hybrid" is overrated.
The position has evolved too much for classic, all-compassing descriptions. Point guards aren't supposed to just pass anymore. They can score. They can be explosive. They can be both a No. 1 option and the primary catalyst.
But yeah, they still need to pass.
Deferring isn't something Irving has done especially well through the first three years of his career. Averaging 5.8 assists per game isn't nothing, but it's hardly elite.
Of all qualified guards who have a usage rate of 20 or higher since 2011-12, Irving ranks 21st in assists. Put another way, he's tied with Raymond Felton.
More telling still, Irving ranks 18th in passer rating, a metric created by Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal and Kelly Scaletta that looks at the difference between "teammates' shooting percentages with the player on the court and the percentage of the player's passes" to determine how much of an impact the player in question had. Irving's passer rating last season (16.06) was less than impressive when pitted against most of his peers.
Plotted below is the correlation between passer rating and assists per game for players who appeared in a minimum of 20 games and averaged at least five assist opportunities. Certain names have been identified for additional perspective:
Make another note of how strong the relationship between Fromal and Scaletta's passer rating and player assist averages is. Make further note of how middling Irving comes off.
Paul, Curry, Rondo and Wall, among others, are situated at the top. Irving is nowhere near them. Those are the players he is competing against, so he actually needs to rival their distribution abilities.
To that end, Fromal says there is hope:
In fact, we also looked at passing impact as a branch-off statistic, multiplying field-goal percentage impact by pace-adjusted assist opportunities in order to derive it and show how much impact a player made on his teammates with his passing. Irving's score of 94.44 trailed only Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, Kendall Marshall, Kyle Lowry, Joakim Noah (yes, that Joakim Noah) and Rajon Rondo among all qualified players.
Hope only goes so far. Playing side-by-side with James and Love, and within David Blatt's movement-heavy offense, Irving's selflessness must reach all-time highs.
Quality—or lack thereof—of teammates has long been a shield that inoculated Irving against certain types of criticism. Support isn't a problem anymore. It's time for change.
Inordinate amounts of time cannot be wasted trying to create space and scoring opportunities for himself. That may have been a necessity last season when Irving was on his own, but that was then.
This is now.
Individual rises take ironclad commitments on both ends of the floor, including defense.
Not once since Irving has entered the league have the Cavaliers finished better than 19th in defensive efficiency. That's not on the point man alone, but he's a prominent symptom of their collective disease.
His defensive ignorance was on full display last season during a discussion with the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd in which he misidentified his issues, citing the ability of opposing guards to score on him within pick-and-rolls.
For the record, that's not entirely true.
Pick-and-roll ball-handlers dropped just 0.76 points per possessions and shot just 40.3 percent against Irving, according to Synergy. He was readily torched in isolations, where he ranked 192nd in defensive efficiency, and spot-up situations (239th).
Pretty much anytime Irving didn't have help in front of or behind him, he was a sitting duck, stationary when he need to be mobile, passive when he needed to be aggressive, in one spot when he needed to be somewhere else.
"In short, if he has help, the Cavs are helping," CBS Sports' Matt Moore wrote of Irving in January. "If he doesn't, he gets eaten up. That's an effort issue."
Effort cannot be Irving's downfall. The Cavaliers are already short on rim protectors and can ill afford to have a porous perimeter defense. They need him to be a two-way player.
Take a gander at the disparity between his offensive and defensive scores compared to some of his point guard brethren:
Once again, there's Irving bottoming out alongside the NBA's most talented floor generals. He's not even among the best offensive performers.
Although the unfavorable state of Cleveland matters here, Irving needs to refine his defensive performance—in addition to adjusting offensively—if he's to have a puncher's chance at catching peers such as Paul, Curry, Russell Westbrook and many, many others.
Pushing Forward Without Looking Back
Now is not the time for harping or reflection.
These last three years were what they were. Irving spent most of that time on his own, playing for a franchise devoid of direction, stability and surrounding talent, his potential obviously tapered by Cleveland's years-long slop fest.
All is forgotten now. Or rather, everything has changed.
Accompanied by fellow stars and playing on a real title contender, Irving has the chance to develop in ways he couldn't before. He has safety nets most cannot even fathom.
Equally important, he has James' faith, which has thrust him into the "best point guard" discussion with its unmistakable sincerity.
Whether Irving develops enough to prove his mettle and remain part of a conversation reserved exclusively for players like Paul and Curry is up to him.