By Jason Lloyd
Beacon Journal sports writer
In two weeks, Kyrie Irving will walk onto a stage of glowing lights and billowing smoke when the NBA’s All-Star game blends into a rock concert. Fans will cheer him, the league’s superstars will embrace him and Irving will realize his childhood dream when he is introduced as a starter for the Eastern Conference.
Irving is a terrific young player. He’s a magician with the ball — or a pen — in his hands. His creation of the “Uncle Drew” character has clearly increased his popularity on top of being one of the best young guards in the NBA. But the looming question hanging over this game, this franchise, is simple: Who will Kyrie Irving be when he returns from New Orleans?
Something changed within Irving last season, and it coincided with his return from All-Star weekend. It was evident to anyone around the team, particularly former coach Byron Scott, who told me in the days before he was fired, “I haven’t changed, but he has.”
Irving spoke all summer about growing up, about becoming more of a leader and committing to defense under Mike Brown. It sounded good, it has even looked good at times, but the Cavs are still floundering in the East and Irving is still getting beat by too many mediocre point guards in the NBA.
At some point, winning has to matter more than All-Star games, 3-point shootouts and even USA Basketball. At some point, if Irving wants to be considered the best in the league, he has to win.
He has the opportunity to sign a max contract this summer, and the Cavs will certainly offer it. I wonder, however, has he actually earned it?
He spoke at the end of last season how important it was to take the leap in Year 3 like so many before him, guys like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, who along with their teams exploded in their third season in the NBA.
Irving has not. He’s scoring less than last season and shooting worse. His assists are up marginally and his turnovers are down slightly, but this hasn’t been the significant leap he spoke of nine months ago.
Before he was added to the East team as a reserve last season, there was much debate over whether the Cavs’ losing record would hurt his chances. There has been no such debate if Irving is worthy this season despite the Cavs’ 16-27 record.
He is 80-193 with the Cavs, and certainly that isn’t all his fault. The Cavs didn’t give him much help the last couple of years. That was supposed to change this season, only it hasn’t. If he is truly the leader, then Irving has to own some of that.
Instead he doesn’t have to because 860,221 people voted for him. That’s about 56,000 more votes than Chris Paul received for this All-Star game, which is astonishing since Paul plays in Los Angeles and is widely (and rightfully) regarded as the NBA’s best point guard. That’s where Irving is trying to get, but he won’t as long as journeymen like D.J. Augustin and the like continue tormenting him. And starting in the All-Star game only re-enforces the misconception Irving is blameless in all of this.
Augustin is shooting 53 percent and averaging 22.2 points and 9 assists in five starts against Irving. He’s averaging 9.5 points, 4 assists and shooting 40 percent for his career. After he did it to Irving again last Wednesday with 27 points in the Chicago Bulls’ victory over the Cavs, I asked him why Augustin gives him so many problems.
“Problems?” Irving responded, as if disagreeing with the assessment. So I reminded him that Augustin had 27 Wednesday after scoring 18 in the previous meeting. Irving blamed the defense.
“Most of the time when he was coming off the pick-and-roll, he was wide open,” Irving said. “He was playing so free out there. We were trying to make adjustments and most of the time he was wide open.”
That doesn’t account for all the times Augustin simply beat Irving off the dribble, but he’s not alone.
Just within the last three weeks, here are the point guards that have really hurt the Cavs: Denver’s Ty Lawson had 19 points and 11 assists (averages 18 ppg, 8.9 apg), Portland’s Damian Lillard had 28 points and 5 assists (averages 21.2 ppg, 5.8 apg), the Lakers’ Kendall Marshall had 10 points and 16 assists (averages 10.1 ppg, 9.1 apg), Sacramento’s Isaiah Thomas had 26 points and 6 assists (averages 19.5 ppg, 6.3 apg), Utah rookie Trey Burke had 17 points and 6 assists (averages 13.5 ppg, 5.6 apg) and Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams had 33 points and 5 assists (17.5 ppg, 6.7 apg).
Of that list, the only player who is supposed to be in Irving’s class is Lillard, yet all of them are reaching or exceeding their averages fairly easily against the Cavs. All-Stars don’t allow the D.J. Augustins of the NBA to beat them so soundly, nor do they allow their teams to lose by 44 to the Sacramento Kings.
Irving has to take ownership of all this. When he truly does, inferior guards will stop having big nights against him.
Part of the problem was Irving being anointed the Big Man on Campus immediately upon arriving. He hasn’t been held accountable much the last couple years. That has festered into what we’ve seen this year, which is too much dribbling, at times a lousy attitude and a 21-year-old who has shown his immaturity.
Two opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting. Over what is anyone’s guess. Jarrett Jack hasn’t been the locker room enforcer he was supposed to be. Luol Deng should help, but he just arrived and may not be here past April.
That has left Mike Brown trying to keep everyone in his “circle” despite what has been a disappointing season.
“You can X and O to death and all that, but when times get tough, are we going to stick together and fight together? Or are we going to do what is easy to do?” Brown asked. “Everybody has people in their ear. When they leave this building, they’re saying: ‘It’s not your fault, it’s the coaches fault’ or ‘It’s the system’ or ‘It’s that player’ or ‘they don’t have good enough players.’ And that’s where the fractions can happen or the splitting can happen.”
If Irving truly wants to lead, if he truly wants to evolve into the best player in the game, as he said at the start of the season, then it’s his job to police the locker room. Instead, he’s talking about his “brand.”
When he was asked again last week about bypassing the chance to play for Australia in the Olympics a couple of years ago to preserve his chance to play for Team USA in 2016, Irving said “It was a big decision, not only for myself but for my family and my brand. That’s what it boiled down to.”
You know what will really help Irving’s brand?
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.