It wasn't hard to understand why Kyrie Irving was ecstatic when he signed a contract extension with the Cavaliers in July. Irving was coming off the third losing season of his three-year career, but things were finally looking up in Cleveland. The Cavs fired Mike Brown after one disappointing season and brought in revered European tactician David Blatt. David Griffin, a promising executive, had taken over for former GM Chris Grant, who failed to put the Cavaliers on a steady rebuilding track. Cleveland even won the lottery, again, and used its pick to select Andrew Wiggins, a player with superstar potential. And then there was the contract itself. In signing a five-year, $90 million deal, Irving ensured he’d have long-term security and be among the most handsomely paid point guards in the league.
If Irving was happy then, it’s safe to assume that future events made him even more bullish about his future in Cleveland. Less than two weeks after Irving inked his new deal, the best player on the planet announced, in an essay published on SI.com, that he was returning home and joining Irving on the Cavs. Then on Saturday, as if adding LeBron James wasn't enough, Cleveland acquired star power forward Kevin Love in a three-team trade that sent Wiggins and Anthony Bennett to the Timberwolves. Now, instead of bracing for the prospect of leading Cleveland on what figured to be a slow, two-steps-forward-one-step-back march toward championship contention, Irving is poised to compete for a title this season, with two top-10 players and an improved supporting cast at his disposal.
“Now that the game is just going to be fun out there, every game is going to be packed, every game is going to be meaningful,” Irving said in an interview with CavsTV on July 16, before an agreement on the trade for Love had reportedly been reached. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Greater expectations, however, invite greater scrutiny. Now that Irving is playing important games with a championship-caliber team, his play will be analyzed through an entirely different lens. No longer is he the overburdened star carrying a lackluster team through dreary stretches in February and March. Now, Irving is but one important piece of a potentially elite outfit whose performance will be held to a higher standard than he’s used to. The question won’t be whether Cleveland is improving or making strides or positioned well for the future – but how it stacks up with other top teams in the league. Make no mistake: the Cavaliers are primed to win big right away, and they’ll be expected to deliver. That outlook stands in stark contrast to Irving’s previous three seasons.
Questions over Irving’s true value will likely rise. Critics will point to his dodgy defense, which was on display during Team USA's win against Puerto Rico on Friday. Point guards like J.J. Barea and Carlos Arroyo blew by him on multiple occasions. Further, for all the pizzazz and verve Irving offers as a ball handler – and all the attention that style has attracted toward his viral commercial alter ego – there are other aspects of his offensive repertoire that could use some work. And while Irving has compiled several accolades since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2011 (Rookie of the Year, two All-Star game appearances, including the 2014 game's MVP) there remains some debate over where he stands among other top point guards, particularly when evaluated with greater statistical rigor. Is he a gifted offensive force with a flashy handle or, as some critics charge, an inefficient scorer who can’t guard anyone? Irving has also missed a not-insignificant amount of games dating back to his lone season at Duke due to an assortment of injuries.
All of which must be taken into consideration when trying to gauge how the new-look Cavaliers will come together. Irving, a ball-dominant guard, will need to make adjustments to accommodate James and Love, both of whom will command a large number of shots and touches. That’s without accounting for Dion Waiters, another player accustomed to operating with the ball in his hands. Now that Irving won’t be required to score as much, can he shift more of his effort toward becoming a better facilitator? Will he be as effective playing off the ball more often? Of greater importance, perhaps, is what, if anything, Irving can do on the defensive end for a team that played subpar D last season and just traded away a rookie with huge upside as a wing perimeter stopper for a big man with defensive questions of his own? If Cleveland struggles defensively, and Irving doesn’t improve on that end of the floor, rest assured he won’t escape criticism.
Big picture, those are minor concerns compared to the overwhelmingly positive developments for Irving over the past few months. It wasn’t so long ago, you’ll recall, that Irving was rumored to be unhappy with his situation in Cleveland, with some raising questions over whether he’d refuse a long-term commitment and seek to play elsewhere. Now, after an eventful summer that saw the Cavaliers morph from punchline to powerhouse, Irving finds himself at the precipice of something he probably didn’t consider possible as recently as last season. Not in Cleveland. Irving will enter the upcoming season on a star-laden team with championship expectations -- the Cavs are Vegas favorites at 5/2 -- and no one is questioning Irving’s happiness. To say his fortunes have changed for the better would be as big an understatement as saying the Cavaliers had a productive summer.
Watching the rest of Irving’s career unfold will be far more intriguing than previously imagined -- especially from his point of view.