– Chris (Sik0) Simmons (find me on twitter @sik0simmons)
Kyrie Irving and the Cleveland Cavaliers are at an unusual crossroads. Things changed for him when LeBron bolted home in the summer of 2014. Kyrie Irving would re-sign a week later and it seemed as though Cleveland would become a Miami–redux, but with better shooting and more youth. Irving’s stats recovered a bit, but his time as primary ball handler dropped dramatically and his assist numbers have declined each season since.
This was to be expected, simply charged as the cost of being LeBron James’ teammate on his hometown squad. However, what Irving couldn’t have expected was that LeBron came home to play point guard. Since coming back to the Cavs, LeBron’s usage rate has jumped a total of 6%. That’s a huge jump which has forced Kyrie Irving off the ball. The result? Kyrie has been shooting more shots than ever this season but scoring at a lower percentage. This wouldn’t be a problem if Irving was a spot up, hang out in the corner kind of player but Irving has proven to be so much more than that. It creates the round hole square peg conundrum that always shows up at inconvenient times.
In the last two years Kyrie Irving has produced twenty games with 20+ points but five or fewer assists. Many of those games have ended with complaints of Kyrie over dribbling and keeping his head down. Upon further digging, well over half of Kyrie’s assists have come when the Cavs are leading their opponent. Furthermore, Matthew Dellavedova and Kevin Love both have more assists to LeBron than Kyrie Irving. It can partly be explained by Irving missing significant time to open the season, and by LeBron shooting a lower percentage than his usual sterling standard. However even when they played a full season, former HEAT PG Mario Chalmers finished 2014 with more dimes (89) to LeBron than Kyrie did last season (67).
Part of the disconnect may be inexperience with another blue chip player on Kyrie’s part, which would be a fair stance to take. It could also be that less time on the ball equates to lower assist number across the board. However much of it has to do with Lebron having never played with a true point as skilled as Kyrie. As a result Kyrie simply doesn’t have the ball often enough to both look for Lebron and also get his shot efficiently. Just last week against the Brooklyn Nets, on a night where LeBron missed just one shot through three quarters, he received only one assist from Kyrie who went 6/22 in the loss. Even if the season stats don’t show it, this is a serious sign of dysfunction. There are times throughout this season where LeBron goes games(!) without receiving a pass that leads to a score from Kyrie.
When the Cavs brought David Blatt on in the summer of 2014, they did so expecting that they would have a very young team helmed by their rapidly ascending, ball dominant scoring point guard. When LeBron came back everything changed and the ball went from Irving’s hands to LeBron’s. You can see it on a play by play basis where LeBron decides to bring the ball up and run the offense. When this happens Kyrie Irving tends to hang in the corner waiting on a pass that he is going to shoot from 3. In effect, LeBron’s on ball dominance neuters some of the potency of having one of the best young point guards in the game.
Does all of this mean that Kyrie is destined to depart Cleveland via trade demand? Not likely, or at least not likely that we would hear about such demands. Why? As an outsider at times it seems as though the Cavs are figuring it out; and then games like the Nets game last week happens. The Cavs are not Kyrie’s team, and he might not be mature enough or established enough to find his game in this new environment. For a player like Irving, so early into his career, all he has known is being “The Guy.” That’s different now and he’s not exactly adjusting the way we thought he would. To make matters worse, “The (old) New Guy” continues to make headlines by claiming to want to form another super team with All-NBA PG Chris Paul, among others.
With the team in “Win-Now” mode, perhaps their patience with Kyrie’s negligible defense, desire to shoot, and lack of synergy with LeBron could run short in pursuit of a ring. An early exit from the playoffs, coupled with a few self-interested playoff performances could easily get the pendulum swinging on a franchise as erratic as the come. These are the same Cavs that actually swung the Wiggins/Love trade with the Warriors considered him for Klay Thompson.
If that’s the case, wouldn’t it make sense for Kyrie to survey the league and wonder how he would fare with a post- oriented big like Demarcus Cousins? Or maybe he looks over to Lakers and sees a golden chance at reclaiming his status as chief guard and face of the franchise. Either way, he’s at a crossroads: ride LeBron’s coattail until he retires (who knows when that will be) or jump from a ship that was given to you but hijacked by its old captain. It’s a difficult decision for anyone, and there is no right answer for him. The next six months will tell a lot about what he’s thinking. Winning can only help him decide but so much. Everyone wants to win, but at what cost?