CHICAGO – Everywhere now, people probe into Kyrie Irving and his intentions as a leader. They tell him he’s been a leader on the Cleveland Cavaliers, that now is his time in the sport, and these people keep speeding the clock on his maturity beyond reality. Cleveland lucked into Irving in 2011, a franchise cornerstone to replace another, but the locker room lacked guidance and accountability and unveiled flaws of an unrefined twenty-something.
Across the NBA, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant heaved praise on Irving at such a young age, as such a genius scorer and wizard of the ball, and only he understands the truth. He knows he’s been no leader, no influence for players, but just a one-and-done collegiate athlete given apprentice status and ownership of an underdeveloped program.
“I haven’t been a leader – not at all,” Irving told RealGM.
Team USA’s practice ended the other day at the Quest Sports Complex, and Irving sat in a chair near the back of the gym, taking photo requests as a Nike representative hovered nearby. His arms tugged around surrounding seats, his knees prepared for icing, and his mind synchronized with Mike Krzyzewski’s approach in this World Cup.
He swears he’s unconditionally focused on USA Basketball, but away from here LeBron James has long since returned and helped bring Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and James Jones to Cleveland. Kevin Love is coming, too. The Indiana Pacers pushed hard for Marion, and sources say they laid out a $1.7-plus million offer and an outline of a significant role in discussions with the free agent veteran.
Irving is an unquestioned talent, and he admits his ongoing lessons about turning personal accolades into team success – knowing how desperately he needed this roster upgrade, in talent and professionalism.
“Everybody asks me if this is my year to be a leader … I haven’t been so far though, not at all,” Irving said. “I’ve just been a kid trying to figure it out. There’s no perfect way to be a leader, and coming in as a 19-year-old kid and having everything bearing on your shoulders, there are a lot of ups and downs. Now it’s about being the best every single day and not being afraid.
“I’m more than excited with our new veterans. I’m really excited just from the standpoint of how the locker room is going to go and how to really be a professional. I’m not saying that the veterans that we had weren’t professionals themselves, but we didn’t have enough. Given the right and wrong things to do in the league, I’ve had to learn on my own and that’s what some of us been doing.
“Now, we have guys who’ve been in the league for years, guys who’ve won championships and have had to give a piece of their game for the greater good of the team. It’s something I admire and something I’m going to learn from.”
Moving past the vision under the old management regime, the Cavaliers essentially will have replaced Anthony Bennett and Andrew Bynum for James and Love in one summer, replaced a top-heavy bench for capable shooters ready for the game’s clutch moments. Irving has tremendous respect for Luol Deng, but Deng arrived too late and too unproductive in January and left as a free agent.
And out went Mike Brown; in came David Blatt, a creative offensive coach abroad. When hired, Blatt reached out to Irving and swiftly laid out an initial game plan. “My offense is tailored to you, to all my players, and what your strengths are,” Blatt told Irving.
Irving says his decision to re-sign with Cleveland on July 1 was simple, and yes, a five-year, maximum-salary deal brings ease to that choice. Yet, Irving is adamant: “I had nothing to do with the [coaching search].” No input and consultation needed, he says, and David Griffin had been entrusted with the hiring process.
Blatt is unproven in this league and must gain fresh trust, but this is unmistakable: The Cavs’ most critical relationship will lie between their best, James and Irving, and the depths to which both push themselves forward or push apart.
James has traveled the world for training and promotional events, and Irving’s committed to Team USA, so dialogue hasn’t progressed about ways they’ll blend on the court next season. After the FIBA games, Irving plans to exchange more calls and texts with James and engage in workouts together. They’ll need a quick course in chemistry, because an NBA title could be had out of the Eastern Conference, not just a retooling year.
For now, Coach K drills his former Duke point guard for better efforts on both ends and Irving insists everyone else receives the same treatment. For now, some of Blatt’s old games light up on a video screen for Irving.
Irving has studied those Russian national teams pass and cut in past World Championships and Olympics, has studied the crispness of recent Maccabi Tel Aviv clubs, searching for strategies to become more efficient in scoring and passing next season.
“I didn’t know [Blatt] before, but I’ve watched plenty of film on him,” Irving said. “When I watch tape of coach’s offense, he gives his guards freedom. I’m just going to learn from him and our veterans, and put everything into my game. [Blatt] gives a lot of freedom to make plays. That’s what you want from a coach.
“You want a coach that not necessarily will roll the ball out and tell you to go get it, but somebody who’s going to have some structure and let you make it happen instead of him trying to make it happen.”
Surely, Irving viewed the transformation of John Wall once former NBA champions and conference finalists took charge of him and challenged his capacity to lead last season. This duty came too swift for Irving in the NBA. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t a leader of men in his first three pro seasons, and he had erratic moments as an A-list star. And suddenly, here come LeBron James and Kevin Love, future Hall of Famers arriving into a defective locker room, and no one needs them all more than Kyrie Irving.