It’s been a very exciting offseason for the Cleveland Cavaliers. It started when they won the NBA Draft Lottery and then surprised everyone by selecting Anthony Bennett No. 1 and then going on to grab Sergey Karasev and Carrick Felix later on. More excitement followed with the signing of Jarrett Jack and all the possibilities of pairing him with Kyrie and Dion in the backcourt. Then the excitement bomb dropped when Mike Brown and Chris Grant brought in Andrew Bynum. I feel like something else may have happened as well…[thinking]…oh yeah, and they also signed Earl Clark, which was much less exciting. But the totality of these moves (including bringing Brown back as head coach to what was an atrocious defensive team last year) has had the Cleveland fans buzzing about the potential of the team next year. It’s a given that they’ll contend for the playoffs. The question is How high can they go?
Much of the discussion surrounding the Cavs potential in 2013-14 has centered around things like if Bynum and Andy can get/stay healthy and how big of a growth can Dion and Tristan make and then what can we get out of Bennett and Karasev. All of these are very valid discussions. But one important topic has gone under-covered in my opinion that is more important than all of those issues. And that’s the man who is going to grace the cover of NBA Live 14…Mr. Kyrie Irving.
No one player is more important to the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers than Kyrie Irving. The health of Bynum and Andy and the progression of Dion and Tristan don’t matter nearly as much as the heights that Kyrie will reach this coming season. How high Kyrie goes will be a direct factor in how high the Cavs go.
We all love Kyrie. We understand that he’s a phenomenally talented player. We love watching him whirl and scurry around the court, evading defenders like a rabbit eluding a predator. We sit captivated as he sizes up his defender with the ball in his hands at the top of the key and game on the line. We go nuts when he comes through as he does seemingly more often than not. We boasted during All-Star weekend, as the national media fawned over him, that he plays for Cleveland!
And yet, I’m not sure that we quite realize how great Kyrie can be. We have a head knowledge of his potential but I don’t know if we fully grasp that he truly has the potential to be one of the best players in the NBA. And that could be happening sooner rather than later. Like as soon as this year.
Obviously he has to stay healthy, but if he can then the sky is the limit with Kyrie’s potential. The fact that he can get to rim at will, and finish with either hand when he gets there better than almost anybody, coupled with his deadly shooting ability makes him almost impossible to defend. His quickness and control of the dribble set him apart from even the best of NBA players.
Nearly every time that Kyrie steps on a basketball court, he’s the best player on it and there’s really no doubt. It’s obvious in mere minutes that his talent is superior to the other guys running around in jerseys. That was on full display on Thursday night as Kyrie dazzled the crowd in Vegas while competing for USA Basketball. Irving scored 23 points while putting on an incredible display that showcased all his skills from and-one flips at the hoop to dead-eye shooting. In a game that featured the best young players in the NBA, Kyrie was head and shoulders above all of them.
Kyrie burst onto the scene as a rookie and immediately had everyone taking notice. There wasn’t another rookie in his class who stood out nearly as much as Kyrie did. In his second season he made the jump from Rookie of the Year to All-Star and, again on a stage with the best players in the league, he stood out above the rest. Going into year three Kyrie is primed to make another leap to being a superstar. It’s an unofficial title that is bestowed upon players whose game transcends even greatness. There are a lot of guys who could star on just about every team they play for. But there are a select few guys in the NBA who can carry the load of driving a team to success on a daily basis, who other teams legitimately fear, who’s the best player on the court every night, and who with the game on the line has the belief of every fan that victory is a sure thing because the ball is in his hands. Those are the elite. Those are the superstars. And Kyrie is unquestionably one of them.
The NBA is driven by those stars. Just about every year you can look at the conferences and figure out who the best players are and often the team standings fall in line with the ranking of those stars. Look at this past season…who were the best players in the Eastern Conference?
1. LeBron James
2. Carmelo Anthony
3. Dwyane Wade
4. Paul George
Now look at how the standings broke down. Notice anything?
1. Miami Heat
2. New York Knicks
3. Indiana Pacers
Now it doesn’t always work out exactly like this. Sometimes you may have a team with one star surrounded by crap players that keeps them down. Or you might have a team like the Pistons of the early 00’s that was great in spite of their lack of superstars because of the totality of their talent of cohesiveness of the pieces. That could be the case with a team like Brooklyn this season. There was a time when you could make the case to call Deron Williams a superstar, but that hasn’t been the case for at least three years now. Same can be said for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Joe Johnson is a great player but he’s certainly not a superstar. They have amassed a lot of talent on that team so it will be interesting to see how they all come together and if they’ll be able to gel into a true championship-contending team.
Leaving Brooklyn as an outlier I expect the rest of the Eastern Conference to shake out much like it did this past season. What needs to be determined is where the Cavs fit into that mix. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com has the Cavs currently slated at No. 8 in the East for next year, noting the question marks that I brought up at the beginning: health, progression, etc. But let’s cast our eyes ahead and try to forecast who the best players in the East will be next season…
5. Derrick Rose
That’s right. No need to adjust the resolution on your computer screen. At season’s end Kyrie could be looked at as the second best player in the Eastern Conference. Obviously I’m a huge homer and completely biased but I truly believe he has the ability to rise to this level even as soon as this year. Don’t forget, it was in Derek Rose’s third season that he was named NBA MVP. I’m not saying that Kyrie will win MVP honors or anything but I see his rise mirroring that of Rose’s first three seasons: ROY–>All-Star–>Superstar.
When you really look at that list, is it that inconceivable that it could shake out that way? Obviously LeBron is the best, no one is questioning that. Melo is great and could certainly retain that No. 2 spot but the Knicks haven’t really made any strides this season to get to the next level. We could see complacent Melo make an appearance to where he just kind of floats through the season. Paul George is obviously a player on the rise as we saw in the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s had a steady climb to the level where it’s not crazy to call him a superstar. He certainly played like one in the playoffs.
With Rose, I don’t know what to expect. He was a phenomenal player two years ago and I realize that medical science has taken us to a place where Adrien Peterson can tear an ACL in Week 16 and then come back for Week 1 the next year and put up an MVP season. But the fact that Rose missed all of last season and that despite being cleared to play he still didn’t feel comfortable has to mean something. Not every player responds to injuries the same way. And so much of coming back from an injury like that is mental. If Rose isn’t 100% confident in his new knee then he won’t be the same player. He’s a terrible shooter so he relies heavily on his quickness and explosiveness. Without that what is he? The health and comeback of Derrick Rose will be a big story in how the East is shaped.
And then there’s Wade. I hate Dwyane Wade. I won’t lie about it. So again, I’m biased. But if you watched the Heat over the past 12 months you know that Wade isn’t the same player he used to be. I’m not sure that you can call him a superstar anymore. On some nights he can put up a performance where he looks like the old Dwyane Wade. But he can’t do it consistently anymore. And if you can’t, or don’t, bring it every night then I’m sorry, you don’t belong in the discussion of the elite players in the league anymore.
Kyrie can definitely be in that conversation. He’s already one of the top five point guards in the league by almost everyone’s estimation and he can only get better. The talent and the ability are staggering with this kid. And if he’s motivated to be great, then it’s basically a done deal as far as I’m concerned.
The last few weeks of this past season it was pretty clear that Kyrie was just going through the motions. Really everyone on the team was. They were out of it, the team had quit on the coach, and they were blowing leads left and right. That will not be the case this coming season. The added talent will make the grind a little more bearable and the weight on Kyrie’s shoulders to carry the team every night a little less. They’ll also be in playoff contention so that should keep everyone engaged. This is where all those other questions come into play. Will Andy and Bynum be healthy to anchor the defense and run the pick and roll? Will Tristan continue to develop his offensive game? Will Dion become an improved wing defender capable of taking on bigger challenges at that end? If these things come to fruition then it will make it easier on Kyrie and allow him to do what he does best: get buckets.
Derrick Rose had the privilege of joining a team in the 2008 Bulls that actually wasn’t terrible. They had gone 33-49 the previous season, only the ninth worst team in the NBA. In his first two years in the league they had a .500 record. In year three, Rose’s MVP season, they had a 21-game jump in wins and finished with the best record in the NBA. Part of that improvement has to be attributed to Tom Thibodeau who took over as head coach that season. Can Mike Brown have a similar impact on this year’s Cavs team? I think so. But that’s a discussion for another day.
If you put Kyrie and Rose’s numbers side by they’re pretty similar in their first two season’s progressions (points/assists):
This is Rose year three—25.0/7.7
I expect a similar jump for Kyrie. With better/more capable teammates around him his assist numbers should naturally go up. And then as he continues to grow and develop as a player his scoring will as well. Kyrie at this stage of their careers is a better scorer than Rose was. And Rose also didn’t have anything close to Kyrie’s shooting ability. I could go on, but I feel I’ve made my point.
If Kyrie can make the jump that Rose did in year three and become a guy who scores 25 a night while handing out 7 or 8 assists then he will absolutely be in the discussion for the second best player in the East. And if he’s playing at that level it’s going to make the Cavs a really tough team to beat on a nightly basis. Then when you think about how Mike Brown is going to improve the defense the team is obviously going to win more games just because of that. So to say that the Cavs could finish as high as 2nd in the Eastern Conference isn’t all that crazy of an idea in my humble opinion.
Kyrie has the ability to be one of the best players in the NBA. He is primed and ready to make the leap from All-Star to Superstar. So while all of those other story lines are fun to talk about and debate, don’t forget the real key to success for the 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers…Mr. Kyrie Irving.
 I wrote about this at the time but feel like saying it again… If the NBA and media people are going to call it “winning” the lottery then they shouldn’t be upset when people celebrate. That’s what happens when you “win”…you celebrate. [climbs down off soap box]
 Read back that last sentence and imagine that Stephen A. Smith is saying it. It instantly become at least 36% more entertaining. And yes, it troubles me that I penned something that I could image coming out of Stephen A.’s mouth. When I start writing like Skip Bayless I’ll know that something needs to change.
 When we look back at history and see how No. 1 picks do early in their career it’s often a little skewed because we assume that they all are joining equally crappy teams. That’s not always the case. Look at this Bulls roster from 2008-09. It makes the rookie transition a little easier when you’re joining a team that already has Deng, Noah, Hinrich, Larry Hughes, Ben Gordon, and Drew Gooden. Kyrie had Anderson Varejao, Antawn Jamison, and uh…um…yup. But seriously, look at this roster. Wow! That was a bad team.
 So basically the extra assist that Rose was getting a game, Kyrie was just scoring for himself.
 I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, especially since I’ve been comparing Kyrie to Rose, if Rose comes back fully healthy then the Bulls will be the second if not first best team in the East. Don’t forget how impressive they were in 2011 and 2012. But that’s if the guy who missed a full season with a knee injury who relies heavily on his athleticism can come back fully healthy. Which I’m not sold on.