Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Kyrie Irving Experience

By Robert Campbell

Remember in July 2010, when LeBron James infamously took his talents to South Beach, leaving the city of Cleveland in a state of irrelevance? How about the regrettable response to "The Decision" by Cavaliers' owner Dan Gilbert, who guaranteed that Cleveland would win an NBA title before LeBron and the Miami Heat?

Gilbert wasn't exactly Nostradamus in his prediction, as his Cavaliers have still failed to reach the playoffs in the nearly three years since LeBron's departure. Meanwhile, the Heat are in the midst of the second longest winning streak in NBA history and are the clear favorites to win their second consecutive championship. Still, the future of the Cavaliers seems to be looking up with the emergence of Kyrie Irving, the second year stud out of Duke who was picked first in the 2011 NBA draft.

Kyrie has been absolutely phenomenal since joining the Cavaliers — drawing statistical comparisons to Chris Paul and Derrick Rose during their first two seasons and surpassing the rookie and sophomore campaigns of Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, and Jrue Holliday. He is even being mentioned in the same sentence as all-time greats such as Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, and Jerry West. He's not there yet, but Kyrie has the legitimate potential to not only be the best point guard in the game in a few years, but one of the greatest of all-time. And with the right talent surrounding him, the Cavaliers could be competing for a championship sooner than later. With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that nobody could stop Kyrie Irving. Well, except Kyrie Irving.

I'll be the first to admit I was a little skeptical of Irving when he came out of Duke. He only played in 11 games for the Blue Devils, as he was forced to sit on the sideline for the majority of the 2010-2011 season with what was described as a "freak" ligament injury to his big toe. Irving did return for the NCAA tournament, scoring 28 points in a losing effort against Derrick Williams and Arizona in what was his last game with Duke. It was obvious that Irving had talent, but I wasn't sure if he had enough experience to make the leap to the NBA. Besides, Duke players had generally been only average or slightly above-average pros, but were never superstars. Irving has proven to be no Average Joe, however.

Irving started his rookie year on a tear, and although he missed 15 games in the shortened season, he was named Rookie of the Year at only 20 years of age. He was also the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge during All-Star Weekend. Irving averaged 18.5 ppg, 5.4 apg, 3.7 rpg, and 1.1 spg. Chris Paul averaged 16.1, 7.8, 5.1, and 2.2 and Isiah Thomas averaged 17 and 7.8 as rookies respectively.

Irving was on much less talented teams than Paul and Thomas, so he was forced to put more of the scoring load on his shoulders, which explains the smaller assist totals, but the numbers are comparable regardless. Besides, his player efficiency rating was better than LeBron's in Cleveland his rookie year. Irving's smooth yo-yo like handle, unpredictable quickness, and shiftiness make him almost an impossible cover in the open court, and his poise is unparalleled. He wants the ball in crunch-time and usually delivers, making everything seem so easy. That's because, for Kyrie, it is easy.

His jump shot isn't too bad, either. In his second season, Irving became the first true point guard since Mark Price in 1993 to win the Three-Point Competition scoring 23 points in the final round to defeat Matt Bonner. I thought point guards weren't supposed to be the best shooters on the court; they were supposed to be passing to them. Kyrie could do either. He averaged 23 ppg and 5.7 apg this year, and was named to his first All-Star Game. With the selection, he joined an elite list of under-21 all-stars along with Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.

Yeah, this isn't just your regular talent. Irving is something special, the complete package. He can take you to the rim and finish, or simply knock down a jump shot in your face. He's a one-man press break, a one-man fast break, and a one-man show, but still finds a way to make his teammates better. He's likable, laid back, and well spoken. And when he turned 21 at midnight on March 23, he was most likely taking shots at the gym — not the bar.

Athletes with this sort of potential only come around once every so often, and that's why Irving scares me. Following his toe injury at Duke, which caused him to miss most of his freshman year, Irving has missed 35 of 135 games due to injuries to his head, shoulder, and knee during his first two seasons in the NBA. He also broke his jaw this year and a bone in his right hand this summer, although he didn't miss any games due to them. The sprained shoulder he received on March 10 against the Toronto Raptors could possibly end the current season for the Cavaliers point guard.

At such a young age and with injuries already beginning to compile, Irving's fear-nobody, relentless playing style could continue to be hazardous for his career. While his injuries could be considered fluky or bad luck, the fact remains that Irving has had trouble staying on the court, and these fluke injuries could quickly turn into something more serious if his body keeps repeatedly taking shots.

I want Kyrie to be Chris Paul. I want him to be Isiah Thomas or Jerry West. I don't want him to be Baron Davis or Stephon Marbury. Now don't get me wrong, Davis and Marbury were both respectable NBA players for many years, but I doubt I'm ever going to sit my future kids down and tell them my favorite Marbury moment. Irving could be different. I want him to be different. Irving could be the face of the league within three years, or he could be another good player that just couldn't stay healthy.

The city of Cleveland needs him to be healthy. Next year, Irving's third season, will be extremely critical. The Cavaliers, along with regaining Irving from injury, will also bring back Anderson Varejao who was in the midst of a career year before getting hurt. They have Dion Waiters, possibly the second most productive rookie this year behind Damian Lillard, as Irving's backcourt mate and will receive another lottery pick in the upcoming draft. Cleveland will have some talent on their roster, but it is Irving who is still practically single-handedly making Cleveland relevant again. And while they still won't be championship-caliber team, making the playoffs would certainly not be a reach.

I don't think anybody thought Cleveland would return to the playoffs this century after LeBron left.

Kyrie Irving still has a long way to go if he wants to be mentioned with the greats, but the sky is the limit for the 21-year-old. He has the potential, talent, and drive to be an all-star for the next 12 to 14 seasons, and if he remains healthy, is a possible Hall of Famer in my mind.

Kyrie Irving is a must-watch when he's on the court. Let's just hope he can stay there.

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