Kyrie Irving's All-Star Game MVP will either be a springboard or a stumbling block for the rest of his season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Figuring out which is a task as complicated as understanding the 21-year-old point guard himself.
Here's what we know for sure, though: On a night full of the NBA's biggest stars, Irving shone brightest.
His 31 points, 14 assists and five rebounds on 14-of-17 shooting were hard to ignore. The way he attacked off the dribble and set up teammates with deft passes made him look like some supercharged version of Chris Paul with an added hunger for buckets.
But we've seen Irving dominate All-Star Weekend before.
In 2013, he shook up expectations (and Brandon Knight) by stealing the show in the Rising Stars Challenge and winning the Three-Point Contest. Obviously, his achievements in this year's February exhibition are more significant; he established himself as a player who could do more than terrorize young competition and shoot accurately off a rack.
He proved he had the talent to belong with the big boys. More than that, he showed he craved that recognition.
Nobody played harder than Irving in New Orleans. Nobody pushed the ball up the floor with more purpose, and nobody looked to put his stamp on the game more than he did.
The MVP was a deserved, somewhat predictable result.
But it came in the midst of a season in which Irving has been far from a smiling, trophy-hoisting star. In fact, it was the unquestioned high point of a nearly lost year.
The Cavaliers have been an epic disappointment this season, plagued by infighting, poor coaching and an ugly brand of basketball on both ends. Irving's numbers are down across the board, with his shooting percentages taking the most notable dips.
Worst of all, he's been showing troubling signs in the leadership department. As the best player on his team, it's imperative his body language and demeanor stand as examples to the rest of the guys wearing Cavaliers jerseys.
But he's quiet, impassive and sometimes downright mopey. Flip on any Cavs game and you'll see a young player exhibiting almost no outward indicators of joy or general positivity. Basketball is supposed to be fun, especially when you're as good at it as Irving is.
This year, he hasn't had much fun at all.
But the Cavaliers seem to be turning things around after a front-office shakeup, so maybe Irving's MVP will add some momentum to the effort. Winners of four straight heading into the break, the Cavs could benefit greatly from a happy and committed Irving.
On personal level, the MVP award has to feel good for Cleveland's point guard. Perhaps it'll give him a little extra confidence. Nobody's ever accused Irving of a lack of self-assuredness, but being officially recognized as the best player in a game comprised solely of the NBA's elite can't hurt.
Even LeBron James was gushing about Irving's big night:
Recognition from peers is always a plus, and the Cavaliers need all the good vibes they can get.
Again, though, it's hard to get past the notion we've been in this exact spot before. Irving didn't "blow up" when he hoisted his MVP trophy because, according to everyone who's been watching, he already blew up last year.
SB Nation's Paul Flannery wrote this immediately after Irving dominated All-Star Saturday in 2013: "If not now, it will be soon. The world is waiting for Kyrie Irving to lead the next generation of stars, and it's only a matter of time."
Well, the Cavs went on to miss the playoffs by a laughable margin in 2013, and Irving didn't exactly set the world on fire. He struggled mightily to shoot the ball, battled injuries and saw his scoring average drop by 3.5 points per game after the All-Star break in 2013, per ESPN.
That's no knock on Flannery. Everybody thought they were watching the birth of the next great thing. Irving was a star in the making. He had the perfect demeanor and was well spoken and an absolute killer on the court.
But his bouts of casual play persisted, often bordering on lazy. He never seemed to get up for entire games the way he did for those highly visible exhibition contests. In fact, even Irving's penchant for fourth-quarter scoring outbursts (something he's carried through into this season) could be viewed as a microcosm of his tendency to only muster maximum effort when it suited him.
And there are now serious questions about Irving's overall priorities, per Jason Lloyd of The Akron Beacon Journal:
If Irving truly wants to lead, if he truly wants to evolve into the best player in the game, as he said at the start of the season, then it’s his job to police the locker room. Instead, he’s talking about his “brand.”
When he was asked again last week about bypassing the chance to play for Australia in the Olympics a couple of years ago to preserve his chance to play for Team USA in 2016, Irving said “It was a big decision, not only for myself but for my family and my brand. That’s what it boiled down to.”
You know what will really help Irving’s brand?
Over a brief career, Irving has fashioned a reputation for himself as a supremely talented player who coasts and surges according to his own inscrutable motivations.
There were plenty of jokes about that reputation during this year's All-Star Game.
His defense found itself in the crosshairs:
His curious lack of urgency during the regular season was next:
And, appropriately, we heard about Irving's habit of getting up for "showcase events":
Maybe those slights will serve as motivation. That's certainly what the Cavaliers are hoping right now.
Then again, what if Irving's All-Star honor only frustrates him?
Remember, part of the reason he had so much success on Sunday was because his teammates had the talent to make his life much easier. When he drove, guys like LeBron James and Paul George cut into the right spots, setting themselves up for easy passes.
When Irving pushed the ball, thoroughbreds appeared on all sides, creating an embarrassment of options on the break.
When he gets back to Cleveland, the contrast will be overwhelming.
Plus, he won't be able to replicate the freedom he felt in the All-Star Game—largely because nobody played a shred of defense in the up-and-down affair, but also because Mike Brown's offensive system is a joke. There's no movement, and his scheme makes things extremely tough on Irving, who has to create offense out of whole cloth.
In fact, if the Cavaliers aren't careful, Brown's ineptitude could help the organization lose two of its biggest stars.
I guess that'd just be one more thing Irving and James have in common.
Then again, maybe Irving's big night arrived at the perfect time. Perhaps he'll do a better job of sustaining the momentum he's built. It's not too late for the Cavaliers to make a serious run up the playoff standings in the East. If Irving harnesses the moment, he could avoid fading away like he did last time around.
Relatively speaking, the conditions in Cleveland are better than they've been in the past couple of years. Anthony Bennett recently showed signs of life, the team seems reinvigorated after Chris Grant's ouster, and even Dion Waiters seems ready to act civilly:
At the very least, Irving's MVP should give the Cavs some assurance they've got a guy with the kind of talent around which they should build. There's no doubt Irving has the skill to be a leader, to stand out—even against the best of the best.
Now that the Cavs are certain that talent is in there, all they have to do is create the kind of environment necessary to make it come out more often. They have to give Irving help—better help than he has now. Just as importantly, they have to challenge him.
Cleveland must demand more from its biggest star, because it knows he's capable of meeting that demand. After watching him dominate the All-Star Game, there can't be any doubt about that.
If Irving returns invigorated and the Cavaliers find a way to keep him committed and hungry, the breakout we heard so much about last year could arrive at last.
Finally, there's something to remember as we wring our hands over what the MVP means for Irving, his future and the future of his team: He's 21 years old.
Irving isn't remotely close to being a fully formed player or person yet—no matter how slick his crossover looks or how polished he sounds in interviews. He's got plenty to learn.
Winning the MVP didn't say anything new about Irving. What he does next will speak volumes.
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