Kyrie Irving was the first gift the Cleveland Cavaliers received from the NBA draft lottery after the franchise lost LeBron James to the Miami Heat. Over the past three seasons, Irving’s present for being in Cleveland was losing, carrying a leadership burden he was ill-prepared to handle and the endless rumors of his discontent and eventual James-like abandonment of the franchise.
“Being the No. 1 pick after Bron left, I quote-unquote became the face of the franchise, but I kind of shied away from that,” Irving said last week at Team USA training camp in Las Vegas. “It’s just dealing with the day-to-day grind of being that guy every single day. I prepared myself every single day since I was a kid, and I’ve wanted it but it gets a lot harder, especially as you get older and become the marquee guy. It’s just something you’ve got to go through. And I know players that have come before me had to go through it as well. So it’s always asking for help when I need it.”
But no amount of advice was going to assist Irving on his path to stardom the way James’s stunning return to the Cavaliers did last month. Irving has already displayed the talent — and has the rookie of the year trophy, two all-star appearances and an all-star game MVP award to prove it — but the presence of James should also accelerate the maturity of the 22-year-old point guard.
The pressures of the taking the organization back to the heights of the LeBron Era have been lifted with James back in Cleveland, and for that, Irving is willing to step aside.
“It’s great to have help. Tremendous help from LeBron,” Irving said with a huge grin. “To get a chance to play with him and learn from him will be a great experience for me.” Irving is one of four point guards and 16 finalists for Team USA’s 12-man roster for the FIBA World Cup in Spain.
If he is able to make the team and win a gold medal with his former college coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, the experience could help Irving arrive in the Cavaliers’ training camp with a more accomplished résumé and more confidence. He certainly hasn’t been short on the latter, which was evident two years ago when he was a member of USA Basketball’s select team and challenged Kobe Bryant to a game of one-on-one.
In James’s well-crafted first-person letter to Sports Illustrated, the four-time league MVP made it clear that Irving was one of the players that attracted him back. In seven years in Cleveland, James never played with an individual talent that rivaled Irving, one of the game’s best one-on-one players and a proven, perennial 20-point scorer.
“It makes me feel good,” Irving said of James’s decision to play with him. “I’ve been watching LeBron since I was a kid, so to have him come back and we’ve had a friendship for a few years, so it’s a great feeling. I feel like we can accomplish a lot. The greatest player coming back home and back on the team. The excitement has kind of died down, because I’m getting asked this question a whole bunch. Like I can’t smile anymore when I say, ‘I’m pretty happy.’ ”
Irving will probably be more excited once the Cavaliers pull off their expected trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves for his co-star in those Pepsi Max, “Uncle Drew” commercials, Kevin Love, later this month. That will require that Cleveland sacrifices its other two No. 1 picks in the past four years — Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. It will also force Irving to take another step back from the spotlight, but he’s ready to make some sacrifices for the sake of wins. The Cavaliers have gone 78-152 (.339) with Irving on the roster.
“The direction we’re going right now, I’m really happy about. Our organization is making steps in the right direction and I’m happy to be a part of it. Hopefully, we can tally up more wins than we did last year,” Irving said. “Everybody’s going to be coming for us. That’s what you want as a competitor, especially in the greatest league that we play in.”
The Cavaliers have been especially active this offseason and made the bold move in making David Blatt the first head coach to make the jump from an international league to the NBA. Irving will have his third coach in four years — Byron Scott and Mike Brown were both dismissed for failing to make more of faulty rosters — but is looking forward to having a successful run with Blatt.
“I’m still getting to know him,” Irving said of Blatt. “I’ve watched a lot of clips of his offense when he was [with Maccabi Tel Aviv] in Israel and I just got a chance to talk to him here or there to get a sense of what he wants and that’s it. For me, he’s just a genuine person and he wants what’s best for the team and what’s best for the guys and that’s all you can ask for in a coach.”
Irving came to terms on a contract agreement that cemented his connection with the Cavaliers last month, when he agreed to a five-year, $90 million extension. The commitment — and the celebratory dance that was captured on Instagram — countered the prevailing sentiment that Irving was unwilling to stick around long term and eager to move on. His attempts to quell the speculation on Twitter only seemed to fan the flames.
“So many false articles and so many inside sources that don’t even know what’s going on inside my circle that said I didn’t want to be in Cleveland, it was all a bunch of BS,” Irving said. “Now that I’m actually in Cleveland for the long term, it’s a great monkey off my back and a great relief. I was going to sign it regardless. I knew it the whole time, but obviously, that’s what some media people do. They want to make a story and I’m just happy it’s all over. I’m with Cleveland for five more years.”
And Irving has plenty of time, and help, to reach his full potential. “I don’t have the perfect way to become a leader and I’m just figuring it out,” Irving said.
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