Is Kyrie Irving the Face of the Franchise?
In July 2014, I’m standing in line at the pizza takeout joint in downtown Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve been going to the Vineyard every summer since I was 6 years old, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary to run into famous people. Everyone from Jay-Z to President Obama vacation to the island, but when it comes to athletes they tend to be local players. So when I heard my friend Rob say, “What’s good, Kyrie?” I did a bit of a double take. I know he’s a Jersey kid, and the island is filled with people from the tri-state area, but it still seemed like a random encounter. Fast forward to September 2017, and now that he’s a Celtic I’m realizing his connection to Boston dates back further than that. But can the kid whose father was a Boston University star take the keys to the city’s franchise and shine?
Kyrie Irving’s career thus far has been what seems like the longest 6-year career of all time. He’s experienced things most superstars haven’t by the time they were 25, and it’s remarkable to think that he’s still at least 2 years away from his prime. Irving has been named a 4 time all star, Rookie of the Year, All Star Game MVP, Olympic Gold medalist, and NBA Champion, and that’s not even mentioning the fact that he hit the biggest shot in Cleveland Cavaliers history. He’s undoubtedly one of the top 3 one on one players in the entire league, possesses arguably the best ball handle of all time, and has been well documented as Kobe Bryant’s protégé. But for someone who has so much going for him, Kyrie still has a large group of critics and doubters out there who don’t trust his ability to be a franchise player.
To be frank, the criticism is fair. Irving isn’t as much incapable as he is unmotivated on the defensive end, and we’re talking bottom of the league bad. His defensive ratings are comparable to IT, which lets you know how bad he would be if he were also 5’9”. Kyrie has also never led a winning team; they lost before LeBron got there and they lose when LeBron doesn’t play. The numbers are actually pretty staggering if you compare the Cavs offensive and defensive numbers when Kyrie and Bron were on the court without the other. Another glaring question mark is his ability to be a playmaker. Will an offensive juggernaut whose mindset is “shoot first ask questions last” be able to gel with a Brad Stevens system predicated on ball movement and fluidity? If you don’t think Kyrie doesn’t hear these things being said about him and the public’s perception of his game then you’re mistaken. The whole reason Kyrie asked for a trade in the first place is for the opportunity to prove those doubters wrongs.
The common theme in the introductory press conference for Kyrie in Boston was “maximizing his potential”. It was his not so subtle way of saying he needed a situation like this to really flourish and show how good can really be. Irving has played for 4 different head coaches in his 6 year career, and not a single one of them is anywhere close to Brad Stevens. Even dating back to his Butler days, Stevens’ M.O. was to maximize the talent of the players he had on the floor at any given time. He led Gordon Hayward and a bunch of no names to 2 championship games at Butler and he led IT and a bunch of no names (+Horford) to the Eastern Conference Finals. I’m willing to bet that not only do Kyrie’s assist numbers go up in an offense with constant player movement and backdoor cuts, but his defense will improve as well. He has the tools to at least be an average defender; it just takes the right coach and culture to instill that mindset in him. He’ll no longer be in an offense with Lebron as the Point Guard, he’ll be given the keys to the car.
And to be honest, how did you expect him to win with what the Cavaliers presented him with? Forget about the Cavs team prior to Bron’s arrival; the coaching situation was a mess and that roster was a borderline D-League team. I’m almost positive Dion Waiters was in the locker room at halftime taking shots on Henny at this point in his career. But how do you expect him to win with this team after Bron’s arrival? This team is constructed piece by piece to cater to LeBron’s strengths, and as it should. It resulted in them winning a championship a couple of years ago. But without Bron out there, it’s just run and gun Kyrie with dinosaurs like Richard Jefferson and Channing Frye standing on the 3-point arc looking for a pass that should be coming from King James. Irving was already deadly in pick and rolls with Tristan Thompson, so running it with a skilled big like Al Horford with a shooter like Gordon Hayward flanking him on the wing is going to be a scary sight.
Off the court, this is a match made in heaven for Kyrie and his camp. He finally has the organizational and coaching structure he has longed for his whole career. He was sold on a false future when he signed his 5-year extension with the Cavs back in 2014. He didn’t know that weeks after he signed that contract that the best player in the world would be crashing his party and taking over the team he thought was about to be his. Obviously, playing with LeBron James comes with its perks as well. He learned how to be a winner from one of the all time greats, and he learned first hand the hard work you have to put in to reach the top. But at the age of 25, and without a long-term commitment from LeBron to stay in Cleveland, Kyrie decided to take matters into his own hands and move on to the next step in his career. He wasn’t going to sit around and wait for Bron to leave him first, he’s seen this movie before.
It’s on Kyrie now; he’s got everything he needs to succeed. He somehow managed to escape from under LeBron’s shadow and land on an Eastern Conference contender with a talented young roster, elite coach, and still enough assets to trade for another superstar. He has a chance to play in a sports city and put his name amongst the Celtics greats if he’s eventually able to bring a championship to Boston. This is what Kyrie has always wanted, and he believes he’s that transcendent superstar that just needs the right opportunity to maximize his potential. But like the old saying goes: to whom much is given, much is expected.