"The third year is a big year for a person in my position -- kind of on the cusp, on the fence between being good and great."
That’s Kyrie Irving, just before his disappointing 2013-14 season. Like just about everyone else, Irving saw himself in the lineage of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose: young players who became MVP candidates and led their teams to the playoffs in their third seasons.
Irving accomplished neither in 2013-14. His personal production and his team's performance both stagnated, and the rancor among Irving, his teammates and his coaches could be felt through the TV. Instead of ushering in an era of dominance as a do-it-all point guard, he ranked 37th in WAR at his own position. By summer 2014, Cleveland Cavaliers expert Brian Windhorst was calling his attitude "defeatist," and statistics guru Nate Silver used him as an example of a player who shouldn't receive a max contract.
For someone who had so many trophies -- rookie of the year, All-Star MVP, 3-point Shootout champion -- Irving had won very little. His Cavaliers have never had a record over .500 other than starting the past two seasons 1-0. There were even rumors that LeBron might not want to come to Cleveland unless the Cavaliers dealt Irving. Routinely characterized as selfish, weak spirited and overrated, the Kyrie Irving brand limped into the 2014 offseason.
Yet after this summer, it's almost hard to remember that Irving was so recently so ridiculed. The tsunami of coverage the accompanied James and then Kevin Love joining the Cavs washed that all away.
Irving has helped himself, too. His performance in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup was in step with the paths current NBA greats have taken -- most notably Durant, who torched teams throughout the same tournament four years ago.
Irving has a knack for shining brightest when he's next to other stars. Even among luminaries such as Stephen Curry and James Harden, Irving's talent stood apart. Though his coordination and quickness are undeniably special, Irving has impressive but not exceptional explosiveness -- he's no Rose. Instead, he has an unmatched gift for deceptive dribbling and Steve Nash's ability to carve into the heart of the defense even when he doesn't appear to be moving full speed. He just gets where he wants. Irving's elusiveness is such that defenders can appear to be participating in a choreographed routine that ends with Irving at the rim.
It's untrue to call Irving's international play a revelation; this guy was a better rookie than James was. It was a reminder, in both a good and a bad way. He controlled the pace and mesmerized his defenders. He pressured the ball and sprinted into closeouts. In his committed, commanding performance leading a team full of stars, Irving showed why the Cavaliers and their fans had a right to be disappointed in his previous season.
So maybe he still takes bad angles on defense and it's possible that he is drawn to screens as though by magnets, but is there anything better than Irving walking down his man at the top of the key with a live dribble? There's a certain definition of talent that focuses more on what a player can do rather than what he does. In Irving's game, as in no other young guard's, unexpected method mingles with seemingly inevitable result.
This summer Irving didn't prove he is ready to carry an NBA team (how could he?), but there is no doubt his talent is unmatched among his generation of guards. With Love and James by his side for the foreseeable future, will anyone even remember Irving's underwhelming seasons?
You would forgive the casual fan who really has no idea what Irving's game is about. The Cavaliers played on national TV a total of 10 times in his first three seasons, a rust belt team struggling in obscurity. This season Irving's game will be broadcast nationally 24 times, including five of the 15 showcase games on ABC.
No one outside of Cleveland, and likely few die-hard Cavs fans, will remember Irving slumping his shoulders after a bad turnover or getting torched by D.J. Augustin. These moments, like Kobe Bryant's demands to be traded from the Los Angeles Lakers, will likely end up as blips in Irving's professional legacy.
It’s not exactly an NBA title, or even a playoff berth, but you can add The Summer of 2014 to the list of things Kyrie Irving has won.