Sep 30, 2013; Independence, OH, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving poses for a portrait during media day at Cavaliers Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Eric P. Mull-USA TODAY Sports

Kyrie Irving: The Evolution of a Leader

Here we are a week or so before the start of training camp, and I feel as optimistic about this season as any since the Decision. New coach, big free agent signing, two sweet rookies, Andy says he’s health, and Tristan Thompson figured out he’s right-handed. How did anyone watching him shoot free throws for since he played at Texas not think of that?

But the real reason everyone is excited is that this is the NBA, and we all know the NBA is a superstar league, and we have our very own budding superstar in Kyrie Irving. To listen to the pundits, it’s only a matter of time before Irving is starting in the All-Star Game and getting serious MVP buzz. And as we watch him play, all of that seems completely plausible. He’s pretty much unstoppable off the dribble, he’s completely cold-blooded in the clutch and he has that superstar presence that makes you think something good will happen just because he’s on the floor.

But superstars do something else in this league. They make the players around them better. That’s an intangible gift that doesn’t show up in the box score but is reflected in the won-loss record. Michael Jordan made B.J. Armstrong and Will Perdue look like championship-caliber players. Look up how many players from the team LeBron took to the conference finals here have starting jobs now. I can’t think of any. Once they lost the cushion of his presence, they were exposed as mediocre players.

How do great players elevate their teammates? First, by the example they set. They practice and prepare at a level the rest of us can’t contemplate, and they dare their teammates to keep pace. They work harder on defense than on offense because they know their natural talent will be enough to dominate on offense. They understand that their words and even their demeanor can make or break a coach and choose their words accordingly and that they can never be seen not buying into the program.

Superstars also make their teammates better by maximizing their own talent. By playing smart and using all the skills at their disposal, great players force other teams to pay so much attention to them that other players are ignored and can therefore thrive. Mo Williams didn’t suddenly learn how to play when he got to Cleveland and forget everything as soon as LeBron left. He just got six-eight open looks a game because defenses were keying in on LeBron that he didn’t get before or since.

It takes more than talent to make this happen. It takes mental toughness and a willingness to put winning ahead of personal goals. Sometimes it also takes putting a higher priority on being respected, even feared, than on being liked by your teammates. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant figured this out. I think LeBron figured it out to an extent the last two years in Cleveland, and definitely has in Miami.  I don’t think Carmelo Anthony, whose talent may match LeBron’s, has figured it out. I’m not sure about Kevin Durant, but he’s young enough that he may come around.

Which leads us to our question: Will Kyrie Irving figure it out? Specifically, will we begin to see signs this year that this is Kyrie’s team, that he has the toughness and drive that he will need to take this team to the top level of the NBA and possibly to a championship? To be fair, none of the great players I have mentioned figured it out at the age of 20. The only guys in recent history who have led teams to titles in their early 20s are Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. Johnson had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lean on, and Bird had a number of veterans. Realistically, it will take five years for Irving to be mature enough and tough enough to carry a team to a championship. That fits well with the Cavaliers’ plans, because it will probably take that long for the rest of the core players to become championship-caliber.

But there should be some tangible signs this year that Kyrie is beginning to evolve to that point. For one thing, he has a coach who has coached James and Bryant, who knows how superstars can impact a team and should therefore be an effective mentor for Irving. For another, there are real expectations for this team in 2013-14, and Irving has to realize that people will begin to doubt him if the Cavs fail to make the playoffs, fairly or not. Hopefully Irving has embraced that pressure and will arrive at training camp ready to be “the guy” who takes this team to the next level. The fact that he dominated the USA Basketball exhibitions and organized workouts for his teammates in Las Vegas this summer are very good signs.

What other signs can we look for? To me, we will know where Kyrie stands in his evolution into a superstar by watching his defense. We all know that Mike Brown is a great defensive coach. We also know that this team will spend most of training camp concentrating on the fundamentals of team defense, because Brown did that the last time to such an extent that it hindered the development of the offense. If Irving is truly the guy that can take the Cavs to a title, he will become an expert in Brown’s defense, work diligently in every practice to master it and excel at it during games, both in execution and effort. He may stumble now and then because he is still so young, but the overall change will be very noticeable. If Irving’s teammates see that defense is important to him, they will increase their efforts accordingly and the overall performance of the team will improve dramatically.

In my opinion, if the Cavs improve their defense to league-average or better, they will make the playoffs.  Mike Brown engendered a similar improvement the first time he coached the Cavs, improving from 13th to eighth in his first year in adjusted defensive rating and to fourth in his second year. It is not implausible that such improvement could happen even more rapidly this time around, given that Brown has more experience and, hopefully, two defense-oriented big men healthy and ready to deny the middle to opponents. But the NBA is a perimeter league, and NBA teams take on the attitude and personality of their best player. That means that the Cavs will only excel on defense if Irving makes it a priority.

So, while it probably is not fair to say that the whole season hinges on Irving, it is entirely fair to say that this season will tell us a lot about where Irving stands in his evolution as a basketball superstar, and we will have a much better understanding of whether he will someday be capable of leading a team to an NBA championship.    

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