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Kyrie Irving's Transformation Starts With Admission He Needs LeBron, Cavs' New Vets

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.

Grading The Deal: Cavaliers Trade For Kevin Love

The Deal: At present, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported the Cleveland Cavaliers will trade Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Miami’s top-10 protected 2015 first round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love. The deal cannot be made official until August 23 since that will be 30 days after Wiggins signed his rookie contract. We could also see some non-guaranteed contracts go to Minnesota to complete the trade and/or Anthony Bennett moving somewhere else in a deal that makes this a three-team trade.

The trade for Cleveland

While Kevin Love is not the best player in the league or even the best young player in the league, he was the best procurable player in the league for Cleveland. A Top-10 player right now at the age of 26, Love gives the Cavaliers a player who complements both LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in ways that will continue to grow with time and experience. Putting a monstrous pick-and-pop player with two of the better PNR ballhandlers in the entire league means the Cavs will be brutally hard to defend when even two of them share the floor and the full trio will be incredibly potent. Working in catch-and-shoot players like Mike Miller and potentially Ray Allen makes a ton of sense offensively and the Cavs should score as long as their current core sticks together.

Some may harp on Love’s defense, but they are operating from two mistaken ideas.

First, Kevin Love’s defense has gotten better. Even without playing with a rim protector at Center (a must for any team but even more essential for a team with Love), he did pretty well last season on that end. Many of us also underrate the importance of defensive rebounding in the overall equation since they actually end possessions. Love has been elite on the defensive boards his entire NBA career and sat fifth last season and third over the last three combined behind only Omer Asik and Dwight Howard.

On top of that, poor power forward defense can be more easily mitigated than other positions. We saw this with the Warriors and David Lee last season and numerous other franchises in recent years.

Unlike other recent superstar trades (notably Dwight Howard in 2012), the Cavaliers gave up quite a bit to acquire Love. Even though Wiggins was not the top player on my draft board (he was fourth) because his offensive game needs a ton of improvement that may never come, he should still be a massively useful NBA player with the maximum amount of team control in terms of years. Bennett could still be a contributor and would have fit nicely on this new-look Cavs team, something I talked about with Ian Levy on last week’s RealGM Radio podcast.

Despite the heavy price, the Cavaliers acquiring Love was a masterstroke because he is the best player they could have brought in at this time. Cleveland did not have the cap space to sign Love outright next summer and waiting carried more downside risk than some in the media have argued. Wiggins’ value has more shakiness than room to grow in the short term and another disappointing stretch from Bennett could have been disastrous for his standing in the league. More than any of that, making the trade now gives the Cavs a full training camp and season to see their core together. That time and development has real importance in a league where teams can take time to gel, especially with a creative new offensive coach in David Blatt who gets the full toolbox at the outset.

Grade for Cleveland: A- (upgraded to a straight A if Love signs a longer-term contract next summer)

The trade for Minnesota

While keepig Love long-term would have been the best case scenario for Minnesota, it certainly looked like that would not happen. Given that caveat, Flip Saunders maximized the value of his best player and got an excellent return.

Other than Nikola Mirotic, Andrew Wiggins was the best single piece available given Minnesota’s specific constraints. Bringing in a player with eight or more years of team control and four years of cost control makes a ton of sense for a franchise that has trouble bringing in quality players via free agency without horrendously overpaying them. Wiggins’ athleticism should allow him to become a quality defender early in his career with the potential to become even better on that end with the knowledge that comes from NBA experience. Even if he never becomes dominant offensively, Wiggins can look at Andre Iguodala as an example of how to become a pivotal player by maximizing his positives.

Bennett should be much better than what he showed on the court last season. As a draft prospect a little over a year ago, I saw a player with power forward size and a nice perimeter game that could keep more traditional fours off-balance. An uptempo system like Minnesota should run coupled with a rim protector in Gorgui Dieng should help the #1 overall selection in 2013 immensely. I fully expect Bennett to eventually become a rotation player, which definitely has value in the league even if his draft position may have led to higher expectations. Swapping him for a single year of Thaddeus Young would be a major mistake.

The pick from Miami should be in the low 20s, a nice sweetener in an already good trade for the Wolves. While the front office will actually have to hit on the pick, Minnesota has a fair chance at a rotation player with an outside shot at becoming a starter. In addition, making the Love trade during the summer should substantially improve Minnesota’s own selection and help them pick up an impact piece high in the lottery that fits with their new foundation.

Even though I would have preferred an offer built around Nikola Mirotic and either Jimmy Butler or Taj Gibson, we have no idea if such an offer was ever actually on the table before or after the draft. Even so, Minnesota picked up two cost-controlled lottery tickets with the talent to make it along with a potentially useful selection from LeBron’s former team. I am also happy that Minnesota did not use Love to offload other contracts since that would have been a comparatively inferior use of his value than better young talent.

Grade for Minnesota: A

The non-trade for Golden State

While acquiring Love may have been close to a done deal for the Cavaliers once LeBron James chose to return, it certainly appears the Warriors had a window to get a trade completed before then. Saunders reportedly liked their pieces but Golden State just could not make it happen.

Whether that failure came from not wanting to include Klay Thompson, thinking they could play hardball by waiting Minnesota out, refusing to take on Kevin Martin’s contract or some combination of the three it was a massive mistake. The Warriors now have to add extensions for Thompson and Draymond Green to their books next season with large contracts owed to David Lee, Andre Iguodala and Stephen Curry. In fact, barring some catastrophic event, Thompson and Lee will make less in 2015-16 than Martin and Love. Two years after declining a trade for James Harden, the Warriors passed a second time on an elite young talent to pair with Stephen Curry.

While there certainly was a chance Love would not have committed to the Warriors even if the trade happened before LeBron decided, the Warriors had the benefit of limiting Love to only teams with cap space next summer. While the Knicks and Lakers are in major markets, a move would have forced Love to leave a clear-cut playoff team and possible title contender for less money on a worse team. Very few superstars have made that choice in recent times. Heck, if the team really thought Love was going to leave after the 2014-15 season they could have sent him to Cleveland at the deadline for a package similar to what they sent to Minnesota which would have been a substantial upgrade for the Warriors.

The Most Mutually Beneficial Loan Of All-Time

LeBron James going from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and back to the Cavaliers is the most mutually beneficial loan of all-time.

LeBron and the Heat won two titles and were in the Finals as runners-up two additional times.

While all that outstanding success was happening, the Cavaliers accumulated assets by winning the lottery three times in four seasons as a very different type of NBA success.

Nearly everything you need to know about why LeBron left the Cavaliers in 2010 and returned in 2014 can be seen by examining at their draft history.

The Cavaliers drafted Luke Jackson at No. 10 overall in 2004, lost their 2007 first round pick in an ill-advised Jiri Welsch trade made by Jim Paxson shortly before he was fired that also took off their playoff protection for their 2005 pick that would have been retained had they been in the lottery.

Daniel Gibson was a one-dimensional shooter, Shannon Brown didn’t become a contributing player until he went from Charlotte to the Lakers and Danny Green was basically a D-Leaguer for a two more seasons until the San Antonio Spurs developed him into what he is today. J.J. Hickson showed some promise while LeBron was still there and was the player the Cavaliers refused to part ways with at the 2010 deadline and has bounced around since, while Christian Eyenga was a project in 09-10 and played in Poland last season.

The Cavaliers were short on standouts and blatantly failed to develop what was available, albeit a common problem for most franchises outside of the Alamo City.

The Cavaliers also had cap space to burn in 2005, which was spent on Larry Hughes after they were unable to get their preferred choice, Michael Redd, to commit to a deal.

Hughes eventually became Ben Wallace ahead of the 2008 deadline and then Wallace became Shaquille O’Neal almost at the beginning of LeBron’s final offseason with the Cavaliers.

Cleveland’s finishing piece ahead of the 2010 trade deadline was dealing Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Washington Wizards for Antawn Jamison, thought of as a stretch-four that would open up Mike Brown's uninspiring halfcourt offense.

By July 1, 2010, the Cavaliers were out of ideas and out of viable routes to get better with LeBron on the roster. Only five players, including LeBron, from the Cavs 2010 playoff roster remained in the NBA at the end of this past season.

Cleveland needed LeBron to leave in order to create a roster with a realistic shot of winning a title with LeBron. The prime of LeBron’s career would have simply whittled away on 55 to 65-win regular season teams that would consistently be figured out in a seven-game series against teams that had more than one superstar.

While we can go pick-by-pick between 2011 and 2014 that the Cavaliers made in a vacuum to replace Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett with Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond and Nerlens Noel or some other combination of picks, the franchise was aggressive in accumulating young players.

The Kyrie Irving pick was a product of the cheapness of Donald Sterling as the Cavaliers won the lottery with a pick that came from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for taking on the salary of Baron Davis that was amnestied anyways just a few months later.

The one G.O.A.T. label that most people can agree upon in awarding LeBron is that nobody is capable of making his teammates better given his multi-faceted passing ability and capacity of guarding nearly any player in the game. The roster can be figured out either in the short-term or after LeBron is given a chance to feel what is there. LeBron is basically a human performance enhancer for his teammates with their production to all increase with the open shots he creates.

Whether it is through the exiting pieces, or some sort of combination of forthcoming moves, the Cavaliers have the ability to build a lasting title contender around him fairly quickly. Most importantly considering his age, LeBron is going from the youngish athlete to the elder statesman. LeBron will surely embrace keeping his regular season minutes in the 35ish per game range and can begin to take some maintenance nights off as Dwyane Wade has over the past two seasons.

Irving just signed a max extension and is the one existing piece we know will remain a cornerstone.

Andrew Wiggins isn’t going anywhere unless it’s for Kevin Love. Even then, I’m not sure trading Wiggins is worth it unless the Cavs are getting an All-Star level rim protector back. Wiggins is basically the most athletic player to enter the NBA since LeBron and his ability to be an off-ball threat and shutdown wing defender makes him a potentially perfect fit on the wing beside him.

Waiters as a second unit shot creator and perimeter shooter for when the Cavaliers go small has clear value.

Bennett is significantly better than he showed as a rookie season in which everything went wrong first physically and then mentally.

Thompson’s fit with the Cavaliers is complicated since he’s also represented by Rich Paul and he doesn’t make sense since he’s an undersized power forward that’s not capable of stretching the floor.

Hopefully Anderson Varjeao stays healthy, while we already know the Cavaliers will have no problem signing cheapish shooters whether it becomes Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Troy Daniels or some sort of combination thereof.

There’s still a lot to figure out for David Griffin, David Blatt and Dan Griffin, surely in consultation with LeBron, but this is now a marriage that will last into the next decade when he’s entering his late thirties. LeBron couldn’t leave Cleveland for a second time and it is unlikely the situation will ever turn as bleak as it did in 2010. Nothing is mapped out for LeBron right now as it was when he joined the Heat, but he returns to Cleveland unburdened with two rings as an individual and with youthful athletic legs all around him as tides have turned from boos to cheers

James, now famously, has never been the highest paid player on his team and he will be now with the Cavaliers. James also has never played with anyone who is essentially younger than him physically. Most of his previous teammates with the Cavaliers are out of the league and Wade was only close to being his peer for a short stretch of their tenure together. The importance of James playing with a core from the generation younger than him is a vital component of his return.

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