When PG Kyrie Irving was drafted out of Duke University back in 2011 he was widely recognized as the "future of the funk" as far as point guards were concerned. His ball handling ability was second to none and his quickness was legendary before he even set foot in Durham to play for Coach K. He was so ill that even a severe toe injury that would have caused the stock of other prospects to plummet didn’t affect him one bit. Quick as a cat and just as fast, Kyrie Irving was supposed to be the one to help bring Cleveland back to respectability following the departure of King James. However, after finishing below .500 in each of his first three seasons, it was easy to see that Kyrie wasn’t the “passing-est” point guard you ever did see. He averaged 18.5, 22.5 and 20.8 points, respectively, in his first three years in Cleveland and his assists per game topped off at around six per game in 2013.
As talented as Kyrie Irving has been, the man is simply not a leader and appears to have had some difficulty reconciling the difference between being the leading scorer and leading a team as a point guard. His much talked about feud with former backcourt mate SG Dion Waiters was all over the news last season and it was said that Waiter’s primary bone of contention was Irving’s refusal to pass the ball. Indeed it should go without saying that it’s rare for a team to generate wins when the best person on the team is a ball hog. I would even go one step further and say that former top overall pick Anthony Bennett’s difficulties in becoming acclimated to the NBA was due in small part to Irving’s style of play. He was clearly the best player on the floor during those dark and gloomy days and it’s sometimes hard for young players who are used to having the ball in their hands to figure out how to help their teams win in other ways.
Fast forward to 2014 and everything seemed tailor-made for Kyrie Irving to become a better all-around basketball player. LeBron James and Kevin Love arrived in Cleveland and the marginalization (and eventual trade) of Waiters transpired. Yet a funny thing happened on the Cavs road to respectability and they stumbled out of the gates to a 5-7 record. All of the preseason prognosticators who had placed them firmly in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals had to pump their breaks. As a point guard, Kyrie Irving had more offensive firepower running with him than ever before, but still only managed to tally 5 assists per game during the first 20 games of the season.
The Cavaliers didn’t become a semblance of what people hoped they were until LeBron James basically took over point guard duties from Irving. The former St. Patrick’s of Elizabeth star is still averaging 5.1 assists per game, good for a front court player but well below average for an elite point guard, especially one who possess the ability to penetrate indefinitely in the manner that Irving has displayed. In addition, Irving’s ball handling ability can be seen as something of a gift and a curse. Yes, he can dribble past just about anybody, as was apparent when he scorched the defensively stout Houston Rockets point guard Patrick Beverly for 38 points, but he’s something of a black hole. Once the ball goes in, there’s no way it’s coming back out.
But when you’ve got someone of the status of Kevin Love, never mind the fact that you’re playing alongside the best basketball player on the planet in LeBron James, there’s no way you should be averaging less than seven assists per game, especially when you possess skills like Irving. Clearly it’s not a skill problem, but a will problem, with Kyrie. Will he pass the damn ball or will he dribble 10 seconds off the clock before making a decision? Unfortunately, it appears to be the latter.
With the possibility that LeBron James will be out for at least another week with back and knee problems, it would be a good idea for him to take a backseat to former Dream Teamer Kevin Love right now. That way, it doesn’t become such a strain for him to do so when LeBron returns. Why? Well, because Love can score without dribbling the ball a million times and, since his teammates know he is one of the best passing big men in the NBA, they might be more willing to move and cut as opposed to watching Irving pound the ball into the ground. Love as a primary offensive weapon factor has been illustrated in the last three games as he has averaged 25 points, 15 rebounds and 3 assists per game. Though each of those three games were losses for the Cavaliers, Love’s ability to score with his back to the basket and score over 20 points per game within the flow of the offense cannot be understated.
As much as I like Kyrie Irving, he’s just not as good as Kevin Love at doing anything other than dribbling the basketball and, the last time I checked, dribbling wasn’t a stat. With the recent additions of center Timofy Mozgov and guards J.R. Smith and Imam Schumpert, it’s a very good idea for coach David Blatt and King James to try and convince Irving to be more of a floor general. It’s easy to imagine a nightmare scenario in which the chuck-and-duck style of J.R. Smith becomes contagious and a team full of youngsters becomes disenfranchised at their inability to get more involved in the offense.
While it is clear that Irving has become a better teammate and floor general this season, the Cleveland Cavaliers will not make it very far unless Irving understands how to sacrifice his scoring to become a pass first point guard.