By: Kwame Fisher-Jones
There was a promise of greatness when Kyrie Irving was selected first overall in the 2011 NBA draft, and perhaps a proclamation of such after Irving’s 2016 NBA Finals performance. Yet, recent struggles have forced a true reflection of one of the game’s most rigidly undefined players.
After six seasons and three NBA Finals appearances it is still the most daunting of tasks to fully grasp what type of basketball player Kyrie truly is. The Cleveland Cavaliers only needed to witness 11 collegiate games and were willing to hitch their championship aspirations to Irving. The guard was drafted ahead of the likes of Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, and Isaiah Thomas in what proved to be a deep 2011 draft. The organization hoped the former Duke Blue Devil would resurrect a franchise bludgeoned by the departure of LeBron James. However, that was not the case and the Cavaliers continued to lose at a rapid pace and in the process amass multiple top five draft picks.
The Cavs suffered through three straight losing seasons (64 – 117 to be exact) with the young man playing the role as the franchise's supposed savior. As the losses mounted King James returned, and all the pressure to lead was removed. It looked as if the guard flourished offensively with his new found freedom. In that span Cleveland transformed from perennial bottom dweller to championship contender, and Irving’s rise to “star player” followed suit.
It is trite to belabor what Irving is blatantly not, but it is necessary to question what he has been billed to be. In the Cleveland guard’s last 200 regular season games (a span of three seasons) he has passed the 10 assist mark only 14 times. Going one step further, in 51 playoff games the former Blue Devil reached 10 or more dimes twice. Safe to say pass first point guard he is not. And with 35 percent of his field goals coming when Irving dribbles the rock seven or more times it is apparent the guard is the Cavs designated scorer. At least on the surface that appears to be the role played by Kyrie, until one considers in those same 200 regular season games the Cavalier scorer has dropped 30 or more points 30 times. Those numbers do not jive with the “Mamba Mentality” we heard so much about during the offseason. Especially when compared to the likes of say Toronto Raptors’ hired gun DeMar DeRozan who notched 30 or more 32 times last season alone. Or Boston Celtics’ mercurial guard Isaiah Thomas who netted 30 or more 31 times last season. Both are considered the lead scorers for their prospective clubs.
A 6’3 lead guard who is not particularly effective distributing the ball or at creating shots for his teammates is normally a recipe for disaster. However, the Cavs have enabled the All-Star to flourish in this very role and the “Ankletaker” has relished being an effective scorer, who at times can score at a high rate. But is that all the former Blue Devil is capable of? There has to be more meat on the bone if you will. This cannot be the ceiling for a player who signed an endorsement deal with Nike before even making an All-Star appearance. Only to see that deal manifest into a signature shoe before registering one minute in a playoff game. There seems to be a trend of promise before production for the 2011/2012 Rookie of the Year and the defending NBA champions need that promise of production to be kept now more than ever. Those electrifying moments need to become electrifying games.
In full disclosure the All-Star guard went from 64 total wins in three years and an extended offseason to 53 wins and playing in the NBA Finals, literally in one season. So development along with the trials and tribulations of playoff misery have been nonexistent. The Cavalier’s rites of passage included four coaches in four years, significant injuries and the dreaded “overrated” label running parallel with every missed shot. There is the chance Kyrie is just an isolation player riding the coattails of one of the greatest players of all-time. What if Lebron never came back or what if the Los Angeles Clippers never made the trade that allowed him to be drafted by Cleveland? To that point what if Irving does not make the most horrific of shots in the closing minutes of game seven, would we even be having this discussion? But he did make that ill-faded shot and with it came an ascension into the upper echelon of players in the league.
These Finals should have been a coming out party for the 2016 NBA champion, instead the focus can shift to him being outrebounded by Stephen Curry 2-to-1. This serves as a microcosm of the young man’s career. When will the Cleveland star be good enough to overlook what he is not good enough at? Meaning when will we as fans be so enthralled by Irving’s nightly performances, that we are willing to overlook his counterpart’s dominance on the other end. Game four gave us all belief yet again that there is something worth waiting for, but how much longer will we wait. It is ironic that the player drafted 10 spots after Kyrie is the very same player that may be exposing Irving’s greatest flaw. If the Cleveland All-Star is not scoring he has virtually no impact on the game. The irony does not cease in these Finals, oddly enough it is Thompson who leads that draft class in total minutes played and total points scored. The Cavs’ guard has had better moments, but it is Klay who has had the better career.
There is no wiggle room when you are taken first overall, you are a difference maker or you are not. Number one picks cannot live in the question, they must nightly provide the answer. For six seasons the embattled scorer has been treated like a superstar and in turn we as basketball fans believed him to be one. Kyrie's embraced destiny may just be the uncertainty we have seen so frequently. The game and this series can no longer be a playground for “Uncle Drew”, it must now be Irving's battlefield. Because through every obstacle, through every missed shot the guard has continued to battle. That is why so many have continued to believe in his promise while awaiting for his production.