Stop making Kyrie Irving into someone he's not.
Strong rookie and sophomore campaigns deserve recognition as forerunners of hope and potential, not defining models for the player Irving is.
Right now, the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard is not a top-10 starlet. Is he a fine floor general? Yes. A superstar? No doubt. Increasingly overrated? That, too.
ESPN got the ball rolling when they named Irving the eighth-best player in the NBA, ahead of players like Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, Kevin Love and Carmelo Anthony, among others. Additional hype preceded his league rank thanks to the acquisition of Andrew Bynum, recovery of Anderson Varejao and presumed development of Dion Waiters. Even Jarrett Jack's arrival generated an upsurge of emotions.
Pundits were high on the Cavs, a team one summer away from potentially rekindling a fire with an old flame by the name of LeBron James. Piloted by Irving, replete with impact players and inhabiting a progressively incalculable eastern conference, the playoffs were within reach.
Irving is now a victim of these devil-may-care assumptions. His ascension into superstardom, legitimate superstardom, should have been gradual and unhurried. Carrying the burdens of a reeling franchise just a few years removed from the days of King James and coming off an All-Star worthy campaign, his status, along with the expectations that come with it, changed abruptly.
Still adjusting to life near the top and with ample room to grow, Irving is portrayed as someone he isn't and being held to a standard he's not ready to meet.
Source of Optimism
In spite of injuries, Irving put together a fantastic 2012-13 season.
His 22.5 points, 5.9 assists and 1.5 steals while shooting 39.1 percent from deep per game made him the youngest player in NBA history to eclipse said metrics. Superlative numbers earned him an All-Star selection. As a sophomore. At the age of 20. He joined LeBron as just the second player in 15 years to make an All-Star appearance before his 21st birthday. A 19-year-old Kobe Bryant was the last player to do so in 1998.
With that, a savior was born. The Cavs didn't have a superstar-in-waiting; they had a superstar. Instant gratification to offset the suffering they incurred since 2010. What a relief.
Then came the offseason, where things got even better.
Cleveland surrounded its paragon of point guards with help. Not the kind of supporting cast that would land the Cavs a No. 1 overall pick for the third time in four years, but an actual team, capable of making some noise in an up-for-grabs, I-cannot-believe-the-Milwaukee-Bucks-think-they're-good eastern conference.
Finally, there was the finishing touch; the make-out session with Kate Upton following the make-out session with Blake Lively: Irving was recognized as a top-eight lion.
The outlook in Cleveland hadn't been this bright since LeBron's receding hairline could still see the tip of his nose. Things were looking up and Irving's star had exploded. Code Supernova was in effect and it felt Happy Gilmore happy-place good.
Regression might not be the right word. But it's close.
The 2013-14 campaign, however early, has not been kind to Irving. Numbers across the board are down. In some instances, way down. Like the Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man-has-fallen-and-cannot-get-up down.
Take a look at his percent differentials in key statistical categories since he's entered the league:
Between his rookie and sophomore campaigns, Irving was able to improve in many areas while staying strong in others. Between his second and third seasons, the trend has taken a turn for the worst.
Knowing it's still early, this isn't justification for throwing out red flags like you're coaching an NFL game being officiated by replacement referees. Irving is still averaging 21.3 points and seven assists per game on the year, and you cannot expect him to improve in every area every season. There are only so many points he can score, after all.
This is also only his third season–a time for growth, a time for maturation. For drumming up your numbers. Irving, however, is struggling. Mightily. His shots aren't falling as frequently and he's coughing the ball up (3.5 turnovers a game) more than ever before. Granted his usage rate (31.5) has never been higher, but it's climbed by just 4.3 percent compared to last season (30.2).
The Cavs as a whole aren't faring as well with him on the floor, either. Their offensive rating (96.4) with him in the game is significantly lower than that of last year (102.6).
Is it fair to expect more out of him and out of the Cavs under him when he's still so young and the team so new? Not unless he's, you know, the eighth-best player in the NBA or something. Which, according to that trusty ESPN ranking, he is.
Even though he really isn't.
Boy Amongst Men
This is mean; I know. Irving isn't really a boy. For the most part, he plays like a man. But he's still so inexperienced and raw.
Of all his fellow top-10 luminaries—again, using that ESPN rank as reference—Irving is the only one under 24. Impressive. He's also the only one playing on a sub-.500 team. Not so impressive.
There can be superstars on losing teams, that's for sure. John Wall's $80 million richer because of such a thing. But superstars, top-10 dignitaries, are supposed to have a profound impact that can only be measured in the form of winning.
I'm not talking strictly championships, either (you're welcome, Steve Nash). Players like Anthony—who was ranked seven spots behind Irving—are naked from the wrist down. Standing next to LeBron or Kobe, that can be embarrassing or emasculating. Only, it isn't.
'Melo has led every single one of his squads to a postseason berth. His teams win. Not championships, obviously, but they're consistently relevant.
Ah yes, Chris Paul—Irving's living, breathing and walking career trajectory. His ceiling is supposedly similar, and I would agree. Right now, though, he's not even close. There is barely a comparison. Irving cannot carry an entire team the way Paul can. The way Paul did when he was at a similar stage in his career.
Pitting him against the Pauls and Hardens of the NBA appears unfair. Typically, I'd agree. In this case, I don't.
If we're going to coin Irving a top-10 star now, these are the types of comparisons he must withstand. He has to be like the rest of his "peers." There must be plenty of similarities between Paul and himself. The two of them must be on an even playing field.
But they're not, because Irving isn't on the same plane as Paul. Or Durant. Or Harden. Not yet.
Irving Is the Future...Let's Keep It that Way
Don't ever postpone brilliance. More importantly, don't rush it.
The last few minutes have been spent pointing out flaws of Irving's that aren't really flaws at all. They're merely holes in a particular narrative.
Irving is not an established superstar and it's foolish to believe otherwise. Barely two seasons in, he's still learning the ropes, adjusting to his role as a leader. That's an ongoing evolution. And he's undergoing it while also familiarizing himself with two bigs constantly taking up space on the block, forcing him to vary his rim attacks. He's embarking on the next part of his career next to Waiters, who needs the ball in his hands to be effective.
He's still trying to find himself as his Cavaliers do the same.
"He’s trying to figure it out," one teammate said of Irving as a leader, per Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. "He’s trying to figure out where that line is."
Similarly, we must understand where the line between promising star and overrated superstar lies. This is only Irving's third season. Give the kid a break. Give him time to figure it out.
Ballooning expectations have made Irving out to be someone he's not. Someone he'll eventually be, but isn't even close to figuring out right now.
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