Kyrie Irving should be celebrated more than he is. In June, he sent the Golden State Warriors and their 73-9 season into a hasty and final retirement, having dethroned the champs and in the process making their greatest season ever a footnote in the annals of NBA achievements that had mixed results. Best regular season team doesn’t get a trophy. By virtue of his three pointer against Steph Curry that won the title for the Cavaliers who were so desperate for a win in anything, Kyrie Irving elevated himself into clutch scorer and the first #1 overall pick to win a title since LeBron James did it in 2012. And then six months later-or 188 days if you are counting- Kyrie did it again, but differently which is a testament to his elite offensive talent. A drive on Klay Thompson who defended him perfectly, then a spin to get space and another game winner with everyone watching.
You would expect Irving to be feted with the title of best clutch shot maker of his generation, the media being the prisoner of the moment the way they are and there was some of that for 24 hours but then the Cavaliers played a low performing Pistons team in Detroit, LeBron didn’t play, Irving did and the Cavs lost by 16. So the Kyrie doubters came out the woodwork to use the PIstons beat down as proof that Kyrie is good but not elite and definitely not a superstar.
Their argument: he is not Kobe sans Shaq or Westbrook without Durant. Kobe won games. Kobe led the team to the playoffs. Westbrook won games. Westbrook has the Thunder in playoff contention. But Irving can’t win without LeBron so how good is he really?
Before LeBron came to Cleveland Kyrie was individually great. He was Rookie of the Year in 2012, but he was a terrible team leader. He didn’t guide the team anywhere. Before LeBron’s return, the Cavs record with Irving as their best player was 78-152, though Irving averaged 20.6 points, 35% from three, 5.8 assists plus two All-Star game appearances (2013,14), two Player of the Week honors, Rookie of the Year, 4th in usage in 2012-13, top 10 Offensive Box Plus-Minus (2011-13). But the Cavs never made the playoffs. The Cavs needed LeBron. Kyrie needed LeBron.
Apparently, he still does. He can’t win when LeBron doesn’t play. Unlike Kobe and Westbrook who were top-10 defensive players Kyrie is an average to apathetic defender. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranking is 70th out of 85 point guards. Translation: he sucks defending his position. That is why the Cavs lose without LeBron. Irving is a great offensive player but he doesn’t exert the same willfulness and effort on defense. Frankly the presence of LeBron makes up for his mistakes. Kyrie doesn’t make players better and so he is constantly questioned about how good he really is.
Put it another way. Put Kyrie on the Thunder and Westbrook on the Cavs. What would the Thunder’s record be with Kyrie having to do more than he has to do with the Cavs. LeBron makes Kyrie’s job so much easier. Kyrie has the luxury to iso. He doesn’t have to worry about a steady diet of double teams. If anyone is getting doubled it’s LeBron.
Kyrie admitted in an interview with Rachel Nichols (ESPN) that he and Kobe Bryant have a special relationship. After winning the Finals, after the trophy celebration, the first person Kyrie spoke to in the locker was Kobe via Facetime. He mentioned to Rachel Nichols Kobe has been very influential in his professional life. “Just watching from the outside and now its turned into mentorship. Now I have direction.”
Kobe can’t help Kyrie with this though. How to win games without LeBron so he is viewed as LeBron’s equal and not as a great player who needs an icon to thrive. Kind of like Scottie Pippen.
No one with any common sense would say Scottie wasn’t a great player. But Scottie couldn’t lead a team. He couldn’t drive his team to a title without MJ. Those two years without Jordan, Scottie realized his limitations. As Michael once said, “Poor Scottie. It’s hard being me.”
It’s hard being LeBron James which is who everyone wants Kyrie to be. Perhaps in his mentorship Kobe has told Kyrie about his NBA Finals game in 2000 in Indiana when Shaq fouled out in overtime. It was all on Kobe. And so Kobe did his all on me thing, I got this and won the game while Shaq was on the sidelines.
For people to be convinced Kyrie is as great as LeBron that is what he is going to have to do. Win a game that matters when LeBron isn’t on the floor. Take a team and guide them somewhere. A lot of people are unconvinced of the Kyrie Irving greatness, if he is a superstar rather than just a very talented scorer and pressure player who can do things in the end to seal a victory and a championship.
Doubters remain doubters until you prove them wrong. It’s the Kyrie Irving test.
photo via llananba