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Orbiting Cleveland: Kyrie Irving's rise to greatness

Orbiting

hi-res-183664824-kyrie-irving-of-the-cleveland-cavaliers-brings-the-ball_crop_exactAt some point this season, Kyrie Irving made the jump from very good NBA player to great one.

Maybe that moment was Nov. 10 when the All-Star point guard scored 32 points on 11-of-21 shooting while recording nine assists and just one turnover in helping the Cleveland Cavaliers earn a 118-111 win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Or, perhaps, it was Dec. 9. In a night that offered quite the juxtaposition from what we had come to expect from previous seasons, Irving gladly took a backseat after realizing his shot was not falling, finishing with 13 points and 10 assists as the Cavs grinded out a 105-101 win over the Toronto Raptors.

No, let’s be honest. Irving’s real graduation into the elite class of NBA players came on Jan. 28. That was the evening in which Irving scored 55 points, the second-highest total in Cavaliers’ history, while leading the team to a 99-94 win over Western Conference power Portland. To cap it off, he did it all while teammate LeBron James sat on the sideline.

Truth be told, Irving has looked outstanding in almost every facet this season. There was supposed to be a learning curve for him and James, but if there was one, then we must have missed it.

Last season, phrases like this could be heard to describe Irving: “He plays no defense,” “He lacks leaderships,” “Is he even worth a maximum contract?”

It’s almost comical to think how foolish those type of statements seem now. This past June, in what was actually the first edition of Orbiting Cleveland at Everybody Hates Cleveland, I suggested that patience was needed with Irving. I wrote:
“However, hopefully his biggest flaw is something that will correct itself naturally — age. As noted above, Irving is still very much a young man, and he obviously has much growing up left to do. That is not an excuse for some of his shortcomings, but it does serve as a possible explanation. Who knows, if Irving were two years wiser, then perhaps we would not be hearing these stories about how he’s in a rush to get out of town. His rift with Waiters might also have been kept in-house. When all is said it done, it appears likely that the Cavaliers will go ahead and offer Irving a maximum extension. Pluto has already reported this much, and it would appear to be too big of a risk for them to not make such a move.”
We do now know how things played out. Irving signed an extension right after midnight on the first day he was able to, and it ended up being the first domino that fell in leading up to James’ announcement that he would return to Cleveland.

It’s hard to believe that one man can grow up so much from one season to the next, but Irving seems to be proving that point. His commitment to defense is perhaps the most refreshing change that we have seen.

Overall, Irving has an offensive rating (An estimate of points produced [players] or scored [team] per 100 possessions) of 116 when he’s on the court compared to a defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) of 108. At no point in his four-year career, has he ever been a more efficient basketball player.

In the simplest of terms, consider some of these traditional statistics. Irving is averaging 21.7 points, 5.2 assists and a career-low 2.3 turnovers per game. His scoring is a notch below his career-high of 22.5 in 2012-13, but his efficiency is light years ahead of where it’s been in previous seasons.

Irving is averaging 16.7 field goal attempts a game, which is the lowest total since his rookie season (14.6). However, his field goal percentage of .464 is nearly on par with what he posted as a rookie, but he’s now averaging two more shots per game than he was in that season. Irving’s true shooting percentage (A measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws) is a career-high .577. In the past three seasons, it has been .533 (2013-14), .553 (.2012-13) and .566 (2011-12).

There is supposed to be an adjustment period when a ball-dominant player like Irving teams up with the ball-dominant James. At least that’s what they told us, and that’s what Dwyane Wade experienced in Miami.

However, Irving has made it look so easy. He has managed to make this transition while also improving his shooting and taking better care of ball.

Now, statistically speaking, Wade’s transition was not as difficult as most believe, but let's compare it to Irving's. Take a look for yourself:
Player, seasonGPMPGFGAFG%3P%APGPPGPER
Dwyane Wade 2009-107736.318.20.4760.3006.526.628.0
Dwyane Wade 2010-117637.117.10.5000.3064.625.525.6
Kyrie Irving, 2013-147135.217.40.4300.3586.120.820.1
Kyrie Irving, 2014-155637.316.70.4640.4045.221.721.0
A few things do pop up when comparing his first season alongside James to Irving’s. While Wade’s field goal percentage did improve for the better, it was not as sizeable of a leap as the one experienced by Irving.

Also, Irving has seen his PER grow by nearly a full point while Wade’s fell by almost three. The greatest proof of how quickly Irving has adapted to playing alongside James is this.

In his first season with James, Wade saw his scoring drop by about a point a game, which makes sense considering he was no longer guaranteed as many shots per game. In comparison, Irving’s scoring has increased by almost a full point and he’s attempting less shots per game than last season.

So, to review, Irving is attempting less shots per game but scoring more points. You do the math.

All season, Cavalier fans have complained about how it has been such a process for Kevin Love to adapt to playing alongside James. However, let's remember to count our blessings. We also expected there to be an adaptation period for James and Irving, but there really was not one whatsoever.

There is no understating how important Irving is to the Cavaliers, both in the present and future. After losing 105-103 to Houston in overtime on Sunday, the team has now lost back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 11 and 13. What’s the common denominator in both of those losses?

No Kyrie Irving. The Cavaliers are actually 1-4 this season when Irving is not playing.

The star point guard is currently out with a strained left shoulder, but thankfully it does not look serious. He will be reevaluated before Tuesday’s game against Boston, and it looks as if there is a good chance that he will suit up.

That’s a good thing because it’s hard to believe this team has any chance of making a deep playoff run without Irving. Plenty of players have been an integral part of the Cavaliers’ success this season. Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson — all have played their role exceptionally.

However, of all the factors that have led to the Cavaliers now becoming the beast of the East, none is more significant than the progress made by Irving. He’s no longer the happy-go-lucky baller that we became accustomed to in previous seasons. He’s a bonafide superstar, and get this: He's only going to get better.

Irving does not turn 23 years old until March 23, and he’s far from his prime.

As we all know, LeBron James remains the best player on the Cleveland Cavaliers and in the entire NBA. He asserted that fact this past Thursday when he scored 42 points en route to demolishing the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors 110-99.

However, there will come a time when that will change.

It won’t be this month.

It won’t be this year.

It won’t be next year.

It probably won’t be the year after that either.

But one day, in the not-so-distant future, the best player on the Cleveland Cavaliers will not be named LeBron James.

That man will be named Kyrie Irving.

Orbiting Cleveland is the regular Monday column from EHC Managing Editor Steve Orbanek. You can contact Steve via email at orbaneks@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @orbaneks.
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