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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.

15 Most Anticipated Games Of 14-15 NBA Season

The release of the NBA schedule lets us put some dates on some of the more compelling matchups that will take place during the 2014-15 regular season. These are the 15 that I am most looking forward to (no repeats allowed): 

Knicks @ Cavs (October 30): The easiest call on the list. LeBron James returning to Cleveland will be the story of the season until the Cavaliers' season ends and possibly even after that.

Thunder @ Clippers (October 30): While maybe more symbolic than anything else in a season where the team has to deal with a hard cap, the first game for the Los Angeles Clippers without a certain former owner who will remain nameless holds great importance for the franchise and the league as a whole.

Kings @ Suns (November 7): Isaiah Thomas has been an amazing success story who ended up being basically cast aside by his former team and replaced by a guy he should be able to torch. I am already excited for this one.

Hornets @ Pacers (November 19): This lost more than a little luster with Paul George’s injury but still brings the intrigue, especially if the Hornets have a better record a little less than a month in.

Mavericks @ Rockets (November 22): While I am not sure a player gets a revenge game against a team that did him a huge favor by declining a cheap team option, it will still be fun to see former role player Chandler Parsons battle stars Dwight Howard and James Harden.

Cavs @ Thunder (December 11): Despite being early in the season, this has to be the front-runner for the loudest MVP chants of the year. Oh yeah, Durant vs. LeBron too.

Thunder @ Warriors (December 18): Despite not facing each other after mid-January, these teams played two of the best games of last season and a Thursday tilt on TNT just a week before Christmas could continue the streak.

Trail Blazers @ Rockets (December 22): Damian Lillard and the Blazers’ first game in Houston since the most memorable shot of the playoffs.

Cavs @ Heat (December 25): Even though it should not be anything too groundbreaking, LeBron’s first game against the franchise he won two titles with merits inclusion.

Warriors @ Clippers (December 25): While not nearly as vicious as rivalries in decades past, these two teams legitimately do not like each other. It will also be a nice test of how the Warriors will be different under new coach Steve Kerr.

Timberwolves @ Bucks (January 9): A game that should have been on Opening Night pits two of the more entertaining young cores in the league featuring the top two picks in this year’s stacked draft in Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.

Cavs @ Warriors (January 9): You heard it here first: If healthy, Kevin Love drops 40+ in this game.

Thunder @ Wizards (January 21): I bet this makes a whole bunch of people in Oklahoma sick to their stomachs. Get ready, folks.

Cavs @ Bulls (February 12): The two best teams in the East playing after a few months to gel.

Spurs @ Pelicans (April 15): In what could be a beautiful touch, the best Power Forward of all time finishes what could be his final regular season against the current player most likely to eventually take that crown.

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.

Why Monta Ellis Could Soon Be Searching For Next Change Of Scenery

Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.

An Economic Argument For NBA Expansion

When considering in the benefits of a substantial up-front payment from the expansion fees (including factoring in the time value of money) and the threat of bubble in relation to team values, it would behoove the owners to reincarnate the Sonics and a second franchise.

Finding Terrence Jones In Morey's Disappointing Offseason

Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.

How Lance Stephenson Will Make Everyone In Charlotte Better

Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.

Daryl Morey, Major Markets & The Fierce Urgency Of Now

Daryl Morey and the Rockets created a good but not perfect enough situation to lure Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh. His strategy of flexibility and asset accumulation would work in one of the NBA's major markets.

Grading The Deal: Carmelo Decides To Stay With New York

The presence of Carmelo Anthony is unlikely to bring a star from the younger generation to the Knicks. Despite his status as a famous and talented player, a franchise in a massive market should have understood the gigantic advantages given to them in the current CBA and aimed higher to build a championship foundation.

The Most Mutually Beneficial Loan Of All-Time

LeBron James needed to leave to win a title and the Cavaliers needed that departure for him to return to win one for Cleveland. Nothing is mapped out for LeBron right now as it was when he joined the Heat, but he returns unburdened with two rings and with youth around him.

Buying Low On Meyers Leonard

The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's with Tyson Chandler as their patron saint, which is why it is too early to give up on Meyers Leonard.

Re-Signing Kyle Lowry As The Final Piece For Toronto

With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.

Grading The Deal: Warriors Sign Shaun Livingston

In signing Shaun Livingston, the Warriors fixed their single largest flaw from last season with a player who makes complete sense with their best player.

Team-By-Team Analysis Of The 2014 NBA Draft

With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.

Leroux's 2014 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down which teams had Great, Good, Enh and Bad drafts with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid going in the top-3.

2014 NBA Draft: The Underrated

The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.

2014 NBA Draft: The Overrated

Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.

Top-13 Of The 2014 NBA Draft

The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this year’s draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.

Draft Report: Aaron Gordon Of Arizona

Aaron Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. He’s the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense.

The Tough Trade-Off

Specialists have recently had a bigger role in the NBA. An underlying factor behind these shifts could end up coming to the forefront with the 2014 draft class: the player’s impact has to be high enough to justify coaches and other players working around their flaws.

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