For the last four months or so I’ve walked around with a bit of an uneasy feeling in my stomach. No, it had nothing to do with all the Mexican food I ate on my trip to California last weekend, although that certainly didn’t help. Nope, that gnawing feeling, deep down in my gut had to do with Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Weird, right? Why would a sportswriter living in the Northeast make himself sick over a team he had no affiliation with, and a player he couldn’t really care less about?
Well, it all started last summer, when like most of you, a little soft spot developed in my heart for the Cavs and their fans. I wouldn’t quite say I was the fan of the team this past season, but there weren’t many nights I was rooting against them either. As bad as they were, the Cavs turned into my secret little obsession this winter, almost like when a middle-aged homemaker sees an ad in the paper for an abandoned dog, and can’t help but get sympathetic. For a guy with no affiliation with the team, I watched the Cavs more than just about other team in the league. Which wasn't particularly easy, you know, since they ended up with 19 wins and all.
I watched on opening night when Cleveland shocked the Celtics at home, and watched when they jumped out to a respectable 7-9 start. And I still contend that had they stayed healthy and not lost Anderson Varejao and Mo Williams for big chunks of the year, the Cavs would’ve been a fringe playoff contender. You can’t tell me that if Mo and Varejao had played 75 games each, Cleveland couldn’t have been at least as good as the Pacers or 76ers. I just won’t buy it.
We’ll never know that of course, since the Cavs didn’t stay healthy, and fell from fringe playoff contender to simply a basketball abomination. They set an NBA record by losing 26 games in a row at one point, a stretch that lasted nearly two months.
But like everything else on this big blue marble we live on, that losing streak happened for a reason. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Had the team stayed fully healthy, as I already said, they probably would’ve been battling for one of the last few spots in the playoffs, which is a precarious situation to be. Its one thing to be really good in the NBA, and it’s another thing to be really bad. But being in the middle? Not as sweet as it sounds, especially since most teams feel obligated to keep competing, even if it might be best for the organization to blow things up and start over.
With that losing streak though, it allowed the Cavs to get away from the middle of the bell curve and start rebuilding early. At the trade deadline, they moved Williams to the Clippers in exchange for the last 2 ½ years of Baron Davis’ massive contract (not to mention the massive beard and waistline that came with it), and the Clippers unprotected first round draft pick for this year. Not quite a haul to make Red Auerbach give a thumbs up from the grave, but not terrible either. For the Cavs it was about getting younger and that pick certainly helped. Again, it’s about staying out of the abyss between “really good,” and “really bad.”
So in the end, where did all that leave us? Back at last night, and back with my upset stomach.
Because here’s the thing: While it’s great having two lottery picks in almost any given year (if you include the Cavs own selection), this isn’t one of them. Even before the early entry list went final, this was a class short on superstars and filled with talented, yet flawed players. From those who are too short or too slow (Think Jared Sullinger and Jimmer Fredette) to those without a defined position (Derrick Williams and Kemba Walker) and some who will be good…but aren’t quite there yet (Think Perry Jones and Harrison Barnes), this draft was due to be one of the weaker ones in a long time. And when you add to the fact that Jones, Barnes, Sullinger, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones and North Carolina’s John Henson decided to return to school, a weak draft turned into “Gawd awful” overnight. By the end, the 2011 NBA Draft became about one man, Duke’s Kyrie Irving, the only “can’t miss guy on the board.” You either got him or you didn’t. For the really bad teams, draft success and failure hinged on the bounce of a few ping-pong balls.
Going back to my original assertion though, I stand by what I said: Irving is can’t miss.
I don’t care what anyone else says. It doesn’t matter to me that Irving doesn’t have the strength of Deron Williams. Or the speed of John Wall. Or the almost telepathic court awareness of Chris Paul or Steve Nash. Irving is elite. He will be an All-Star.
Just trust me on this one, would you? Because at the sake of sounding cocky (and believe me, this is nothing to brag about… it is borderline pathetic), I’d comfortably put myself in the 95th percentile of all college basketball fans. I’m not saying I watch more college hoops than everyone else on Earth. Just most. I’m there from the preseason tournaments in November, through the doldrums of December, and all the way til the end, when every frat dude and office secretary fills out a bracket in March. I’m one of the last remaining college basketball diehards there is.
And with all due respect to the Jimmer, and the Kemba and the Jared Sullinger and everyone else who made an All-American team this season, when he was healthy, Kyrie Irving was the best player in college basketball this year. By far. It wasn’t even close.
The guy can do just about anything you need your point guard to do. He’s not an uber-athlete, but is quick enough to get to pretty much anywhere he needs to on the court, and was certainly able to get by any defender at the college level. He can make a jump shot if you leave him open. And despite averaging 17 points a game when healthy for Duke, he’s true point guard in every sense of the word. Don’t let the stats fool you, Kyrie is more concerned with keeping his teammates happy that filling up the box score himself.
Speaking of which, one of his best skills is one that all the truly great point guards have, and that’s the ability to make things easier for everyone else when the ball is in his hands. Again, I’m not saying he’s as skilled as Paul or Jason Kidd, but court-vision and unselfishness are two skills you can’t teach, and Irving has both.
As an example, maybe my favorite Kyrie Irving stat is as follows: in the eight regular season games that Irving played, Duke’s best big man Mason Plumlee had four double-figure scoring games. To which I know what you’re thinking, “What does that have to do with Kyrie?” Only that, when Irving went down against Butler in the first week of December, Plumlee scored double-digits just four more times the rest of the regular season. If Irving hadn’t gotten injured, could we be talking about Plumlee as a lottery pick in his own right? I don’t think it’s absurd to say.
The other thing about Irving that can’t be understated is that the guy is a natural born leader. Which turned out to be the most fascinating dynamic of the early part of Duke’s regular season: Kyrie stepped onto the campus of the defending National Champions, onto a roster with two seniors and a junior in the starting lineup…and was the unquestioned leader from Day One. No questions asked. No locker room bickering. It was Kyrie’s team. That only happens when you’re both talented and born to be a leader. And Irving is both.
Of course in an interesting irony, it was that same dynamic which led to Duke’s downfall in this past NCAA Tournament. When Irving came back, you could see the paradigm shift.
Irving had clearly been the leader of the team when it was at his best, but after sitting out nearly three months it was Nolan Smith who stepped up and became an All-American. When Irving did return to the lineup, it was almost like when a recently divorced husband brings a new girlfriend around his ex-wife for the first time (Only without all the hostility), really, nobody knew how to act. Should they let Kyrie run the point? Play him off the ball? Defer to Nolan? It was the greatest paradox you could think of: With Irving on the court it gave Duke the best team in the tournament. Without him on the court it gave Duke the best chance to win.
The Blue Devils never did figure things out, ending their season with a loss to Arizona in the Sweet 16. Still, doesn’t it say something about Kyrie that after Smith had an All-American season he was still willing to defer?
As we start to wrap up, allow me to dream for a second.
The Cavaliers won the Kyrie sweepstakes Wednesday night, thanks to that unprotected pick by the Clippers (I’m hesitant to call the Clippers dumb for leaving it unprotected, only because we don’t know if the Cavs insisted on it, or because, well, the Clippers are just dumb), and when you combine that with those previously mentioned 26 losses in a row, it means Cleveland has the fourth pick in this draft as well. Who they get remains to be seen. Maybe it’ll be Turkish big man Enes Kanter, who many believe was the best 19-year-old anywhere in the world last year. Or this Bismack Biyombo guy, who’s a hotter name than Katy Perry right now.
And while that probably won’t get the Cavs in the playoffs next year, it might again be the very best thing for them. With all the players returning to college, and a strong freshman class, the 2012 draft just might be the best ever, and Cleveland could be drafting in the lottery again then too. Mix in J.J. Hickson, a trade exception from Miami, a veteran or two, and all of a sudden, maybe you’ve got a hot, young Oklahoma City-ish young nucleus in a few years.
Regardless, at least the anxiety is over.
After four months of waiting and worrying, the team that most desperately needed the first pick got it, in a particularly shallow draft, where the No. 2 pick might as well be No. 200. Again, it was Kyrie Irving or bust, and guess what, Cleveland didn’t go bust.
Now, let’s just hope the Cavs don’t do something to screw this pick up here.
Uh oh. My stomach kind of hurts again.
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