Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and the importance of where you play


Dec 17, 2013; Cleveland, OH, USA; Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard (0) dribbles against Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) in the first quarter at Quicken Loans Arena. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Portland’s Damian Lillard took the life out of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night, nailing a dagger of a three-pointer from 30 feet out that gave the Trail Blazers a 119-116 victory at Quicken Loans Arena. For the night, the second-year player was 8 of 12 from behind the arc, finishing with a game-high 36 points and, in the process, outplaying his Cleveland counterpart Kyrie Irving.

Irving, in fairness, played a rather good overall game. His shooting wasn’t spectacular by any means (9 of 22, 3 of 7 from deep) but he had 10 assists, none of which was more beautiful than his pass to Anderson Varejao late in the fourth quarter, a pass that resulted in a basket that could have potentially sent the game into overtime.

But then Lillard got the ball on an inbounds pass, and you know the rest: Lillard pulls up from three feet behind the arc, nails the shot over Alonzo Gee and mean mugs his way off the court with his teammates and shook Robin Lopez’s hand to boot. And when Irving missed a deep three from the left wing that would have tied the game with 0.4 seconds left on the clock, the former Weber State star officially had his second game winner in back-to-back games.

For better or worse, these two guards will be forever linked and compared as long as they are both active NBA players. They are the last two winners of the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. Both stand 6’3” and weigh around 195 pounds. Both are capable of getting hot and torching teams from all over the floor, making fans swoon over their abilities. And both players still have room to grow – a scary thought for teams that will have to play them over the next decade or so.

But that is where the comparisons do (and should) end. Despite the fact that Irving has been in the NBA longer than Lillard, it is fair to note that Lillard, at 23, is two years older than the 21-year-old Irving. He also played four years of college ball at Weber State, which made him more NBA ready than most prospects coming out of college. He plays the game cool, calm and collected at all times, with a distinct confident swagger to his step. Irving played a total of eleven college games due to injury. And, no, it doesn’t matter that those eleven games were played for the Duke Blue Devils under Mike Krzyzewski, one of the best basketball coaches to ever walk this Earth and definitely better teacher than Weber State’s Randy Rahe. Eleven games is not an appropriate amount of time for a player – even if he is as naturally gifted as Irving — to grow and blossom. As a result, he tries to do too much and make up for the flaws of his teammates when he too has a number of chinks in his armor, namely his non-existent ability to defend the pick & roll with any amount of consistent effectiveness.

In short, no matter how good Krzyzewski is as a coach and how talented Irving is, Lillard has had so much more court time than Irving (who also battled injuries once entering the NBA), giving him a chance to mature as a player while Irving is still somewhere in his development curve.

But also take note of where both Irving and Lillard are playing basketball and what position in the draft they were taken in. Irving, at 19, was the top overall pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers, just under two years removed from the “The Decision” and owned by a man who has made more headlines for writing an angry, impulsive letter than building a winner. From day one, Irving was pushed to be the savior of the Cavaliers franchise, with the pressure of a city and his owner on his back every step of the way.

As for Lillard, he was the sixth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, taken by a Portland franchise that wasn’t counting on him to erase the memories of a star who spurned them for warmer weather. Like any reasonable franchise, the Blazers asked their pick to simply join in on their rebuild, and from there, they slowly started to get to where they are now. It also helped that awaiting Lillard in Portland was LaMarcus Aldridge, a top-five power forward who, this season, has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate on a team that currently holds the best record in the NBA. And throughout this all, you haven’t heard a peep or even a tweet from Portland’s owner (who, for the record, is the co-founder of Microsoft).

For what it’s worth, I’d take Irving over Lillard if asked to pick one to be my franchise point guard. I truly think there is something special there with Irving and there is no one like him in the league when he gets going. Lillard is great, cold-blooded and a shade better on defense, but I’d take Irving long term. I think he can be a true superstar, and I can’t say the same about Lillard.

But it shouldn’t be a shock that Irving has struggled so far in his third season while Lillard has continued on the up and up. He has Aldridge and several other high-level pieces that mesh with his skillset around him on the floor at all times. Irving, on the other hand, is coached by Mike Brown, who is on his third NBA job, has yet to consistently run a functional offense and gives Matthew Dellavedova minutes at a position he shouldn’t even be playing. His general manager (Chris Grant) is probably on the hot seat for making picks no one has expected and that don’t necessarily fit well alongside Irving. His two biggest free agent signings are Jarrett Jack (a high-usage guard who, with Dion Waiters’ move to the bench, has become less valuable to this Cavaliers team) and Andrew Bynum, the center who this season publically admitted that he’s considered retirement and losses all effectiveness when the Cavaliers (or their opponents) play a up-tempo style. And that just lists a few of the Cavaliers’ many issues.

And this last bit cannot be stated strongly enough: Irving has the pressure of the city and his owner on his shoulders. Cleveland is a city that, on Sundays, is 70,000 strong at Cleveland Browns Stadium to watch the Browns continue to be largely inept, while in the summertime, they only sporadically show up to watch the Indians, the team that was the city’s best shot at title under the leadership of Terry Francona. This city has craved a winner for a long time now (since 1948, to be exact) and, due to several almost complete seasons, Cleveland wants that title right now and its fans will continue to be the impatient collective they have been for years until they get their title. Every hope and dream of every Cleveland sports fan is on his shoulders, and it’s been that way since day one. It’s a burden that was placed his shoulders the moment he was selected at the top of the 2011 NBA draft and announced heir to throne after King James abdicated in an overly public manner. And this doesn’t even begin to discuss the reckless playoffs promise Dan Gilbert has now made on to the fan base several occasions, which put more uneeded pressure on Irving to win right now. That’s an unfair weight for any player to have on their shoulders – especially when some of his teammates are nowhere near NBA rotation quality.

And if it weren’t for how truly horrid the Eastern Conference has been this season, the Cavaliers, with their 37.5 winning percentage, would once again find themselves on the outside looking in at the basketball that really matters when May comes around. But in what is both sheer luck and misfortune, the Cavaliers have a real shot at making the playoffs this year while still being a fairly average (if not below average) basketball team. Portland, if case you happened to forget, is amongst the best teams in the league and they did it slowly and correctly, without their owner or their city putting too much on their young point guard.

Since their rookie seasons, both Irving and Lillard have been remarkable on the court and deserve the praise that has been put upon them. Again, these two players have bright futures and should be staples of NBA highlight reels for the next decade. But we should have seen the outcome of the game coming, if only because of where they were drafted, who their teammates are and, perhaps most importantly, what city they play in.