After landing the first pick through the 2003 NBA Draft lottery the city of Cleveland was rejoicing. With the No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft that contained arguably the greatest draft class in NBA history, the Cavaliers went with hometown hero LeBron James. Or at least we thought he would lead Cleveland to the promise land.
After winning Rookie of the Year for the 2003-04 season James, who averaged 20.9 points, 5.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds in his rookie season, Clevelanders were prematurely celebrating the championship that many thought James would bring to the drought-ridden city.
Fans watched in amazement as they watched James posterize opposing players, freezing them in their tracks. His stat line improved tremendously as he averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists, leading the Cavaliers to the playoffs after his second year with Cleveland to five straight playoff appearances. In order to avoid torturing you with details of James’ final five seasons in a town starved of a championship for 47 years, we’ll fast forward to present time.
On Monday, May 14 Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving became just the second player to win the Rookie of the Year award while donning the Wine and Gold. Irving will accept the award in Cleveland on Tuesday as first reported by ESPN.com and The Cleveland Plain Dealer. It’s also important to note that Irving will most likely unanimously run away with the award, as no rookie (save Ricky Rubio who suffered a season-ending injury) played at such a mature level as Irving did throughout the 2011-12 NBA season.
But as cynical and pessimistic that Cleveland fans have grown over the years, why should we believe that Irving is going to be “that player” who can do something that LeBron James couldn’t? Why should Cleveland fans believe that Irving isn’t committed to the Cavaliers past the 2014-15 season?
My answer to those nagging questions that will leave Cavalier fans restless until Irving signs another (hopefully longterm) contract with Cleveland was formulated just by comparing what I saw James do on the court in the 2003-04 season and what I saw Irving this season. Irving wants to at some point become the best point guard in the league, but how he plans to do that is what gives me hope for the future of the organization.
Irving wanted the ball in his hands from the get go, leading fourth quarter comebacks with double-digit numbers in the final 12 minutes of multiple games this season (see video below), something I didn’t see in LeBron until later on in his Cavalier career. Irving thrives in the underdog role (Irving only playing 11 collegiate games certainly aroused questions) while James made his way to the NBA without hardly any questions about the success he would achieve.
That success includes three MVP awards, something that has only been achieved by eight players in NBA history. James received his most recent MVP award on Saturday, May 12 after beating out scoring champion Kevin Durant. It’s only fitting that James won MVP the same year that a player from his former team won the award that kickstarted a Hall of Fame career for the Akron native. Irving has that to look up to, but often shies away from being compared to the current Miami Heat star.
Irving shouldn’t have to compare his successes to LeBron’s. Irving shouldn’t have to compare anything he does to LeBron. Irving is his own person and as Cavalier fans we should be looking past the LeBron years. Staying bitter and trying to put their numbers side-by-side will just ensure that the scars from the summer of 2010 never fully heal. Irving and James play almost completely different styles of basketball, so we’ll leave it at that.
Irving has within him a level of determination that I have never seen a player in a Cavs uniform display in such a short amount of time. After the third game that I watched Irving play in, I knew for a fact that this young fella was special. After missing a potential game-winning shot against the Pacers on December 30, I knew for a fact that he was going to be a force to reckon with all season long.
As strange as Irving missing a shot and me proclaiming that he was going to make it in the NBA may sound, that missed shot showed me that fear doesn’t exist in the former Duke Blue Devils’ guard. He isn’t afraid of potentially missing a shot that could or could not have his teammates rejoicing. He will remember that missed shot for the rest of his career, as a reminder that in order to achieve great things in the NBA one must be a fearless leader with the determination of an eight-year veteran.
Head coach Byron Scott presented Irving with the opportunity to be “the man” in Cleveland and Kyrie took that opportunity and ran with it. When I “witnessed” Irving score 21 of his season-high 32 points in the fourth quarter of a 99-96 loss to the then New Jersey Nets, I knew that he was by far the best player on the Cavaliers roster and the best rookie in the league. He was worth every bit of that No. 1 pick, and then some. Kyridiculous officially became a part of my vocabulary.
Hard work this offseason will only help Irving improve on every aspect of his game as he accepted an invite to play for the U.S.A. Team Select, a practice squad for the U.S.A. Olympic team. Irving will be matched up against some of the best talent the NBA has to offer the first week of July, but the training doesn’t stop there. From July 13 to July 22 Irving, along with fellow rookie Tristan Thompson, will compete with the Cavaliers in the NBA summer league in Las Vegas. Irving wants to get better and he wants to make those around him better, and it seems as if he wants to do that as a Cavalier.
So let’s stop thinking about the LeBron-Cleveland era (there’s a reason why I didn’t post Irving’s 2011-12 statistics, but they’re here if you want them) and let’s look forward to Tuesday when Irving will accept his Rookie of the Year award in the city of Cleveland.
This city once again has a player who is here to make us forget about the past and get us excited for the present and future of the Cavaliers organization.