LeBron James’ Return to Cleveland Cavaliers Forces Kyrie Irving to Mature

Has Kyrie Irving been a leader during the early portion of his NBA career? 

Absolutely not, and he’ll tell you that himself. 

“I haven’t been a leader—not at all,” the talented point guard explained while speaking with Shams Charania of RealGM.com

It’s a refreshing bit of honesty from Irving, who has been at the center of a great deal of controversy over the past calendar year. The dysfunction in the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room? He was apparently a part of it. The lack of defense? Problematic and unchanging, even when it was public knowledge. 

All that’s in the past, though. 

With LeBron James in the fold, Irving is being forced to mature quite quickly, and that’s undoubtedly a positive for the new contenders in the Eastern Conference. If he can become the star he was meant to be—and has often looked like—that’s just one more weapon in an already deadly arsenal. 


Win-Now Mentality

Irving never really had a chance to compete in the past. 

When he was selected at No. 1 in the 2011 NBA draft, the Cavaliers were still reeling from the departure of James, who had taken his talents to South Beach one offseason prior. The result had been a horrific season, one filled with 19 wins and 63 losses, good for the NBA’s second-worst record and the eventual top pick. 

Irving was expected to be great, but he wasn’t a transcendent prospect capable of immediately transforming his squad into a contender. Instead, he was just a 19-year-old kid with precious little experience playing basketball at a high level. Remember, his time at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski was limited by that pesky toe injury, one that held him to only a handful of games throughout his lone season in Durham. 

In fact, let’s take a gander at how the ESPN forecasting team predicted the Cavs to fare over the last few years (looking at winning percentages rather than wins due to the lockout-shortened nature of the 2011-12 campaign, which was Irving’s rookie season): 

What changed this offseason?

Just the return of James and the arrival of Kevin Love, who technically still hasn’t been traded but will be as soon as Andrew Wiggins is allowed to be dealt. With the addition of two superstars, as well as the expected growth from Irving and the other young pieces in Cleveland, there’s finally hope in Northeast Ohio. 

For the first time since Irving joined the NBA, the Cavaliers are expected to finish above .500. Last season, ESPN’s forecast had them squeezing into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed, but that was due more to the overall putridity of the Eastern Conference than the strength of Cleveland. This year, missing the playoffs would be nothing shy of a complete and utter disaster.

Now, there are no more excuses. 

Irving is now a key piece on a team expected to compete for a championship, and James will inevitably hold him to the highest possible standards. Dysfunction in the locker room will no longer fly, and neither will a distinct lack of effort during meaningful possessions. And given the importance of every game this upcoming season, there’s really no such thing as a meaningless possession, save for garbage time, when Irving likely won’t be on the floor. 

The time for being a kid is over. It’s time to morph into a valuable contributor on a potent roster, one who’s going to hold himself to nothing short of excellence night in and night out. 

The Duke product hasn’t been forced to do so in the past, but now he has James to help him out. The same James who became a seasoned leader during his time with the Miami Heat, winning championships, motivating teammates and helping everyone around him work as hard as possible. 

Fortunately, the incumbent recognizes the value of the new arrivals, as he told RealGM

I’m more than excited with our new veterans. I’m really excited just from the standpoint of how the locker room is going to go and how to really be a professional. I’m not saying that the veterans that we had weren’t professionals themselves, but we didn’t have enough. Given the right and wrong things to do in the league, I’ve had to learn on my own and that’s what some of us been doing.

Now, we have guys who’ve been in the league for years, guys who’ve won championships and have had to give a piece of their game for the greater good of the team. It’s something I admire and something I’m going to learn from.

Irving doesn’t need to become a leader, but he does need to become a mature basketball player in order to thrive alongside a certain four-time MVP. He’s aware of that, which is a fantastic first step.


Need for Defense

One of the most problematic effects of Irving’s on-court immaturity in the past has been his distinct lack of defense. That’s especially true because it’s been a lack of desire and discipline holding him back, not his physical tools. 

The dynamic floor general undoubtedly has the physical tools necessary to play at least adequately on the less-glamorous end. He has the lateral quickness, the speedy hands and the basketball smarts he needs at his disposal, but something just hasn’t clicked between the ears. 

That’s the only possible excuse for plays like the one you can see below, when Irving momentarily falls into the bad habit of ball watching and loses his man due to sheer laziness. 

Had he been focused and motivated, he easily could’ve gotten around a weak screen, fighting over it quickly to deny the pass or ducking under the pick and recovering to Damian Lillard without breaking a sweat. But that’s not how Irving played during the first few seasons of his career, likely because he didn’t have to. 

At the lowest point of the Cavaliers’ season from hell this past go-round, Irving was drawing one bad review after another as his future in Cleveland was constantly questioned. Take what ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst wrote, for example: 

You don’t need any inside info, just read Irving’s demeanor recently. Just when he was expected to take the third-year leap that so many stars before him have made, Irving seems to have played much of the season with a frown. His stats are down, but more troubling his effort level and leadership have been inconsistent, to say the least.

This traces to what seems to be a growing displeasure with coach Mike Brown, who he has not clicked with in the least. Irving is unhappy with how Brown runs the offense and Brown is unhappy that Irving’s interest in the defensive end has eroded massively in recent weeks.

That’s not going to be the case any longer. 

Not with LeBron helping motivate him on a daily basis. Not with David Blatt demanding perfection before, during and after each game of the season. If you’re unfamiliar with Blatt‘s motivational skills and techniques, this is all you need to see: 

Convinced? I thought so. 

But beyond that, Irving has to mature into a player who will try on defense because the Cavaliers so desperately need for him to do so. There are going to be major liabilities attempting—and often failing—to protect the rim at all times, as Tristan Thompson, Love and Anderson Varejao all struggle in that area. 

It’s up to Irving to keep players from gaining penetration, doing his part to ensure there’s one less liability on the court at all times.

Defense wins championships, the old maxim goes. Now that there’s a distinct shot at one, the 1-guard has to realize the value of buying in. And if he doesn’t, for the first time in his career, the microscope will truly be focused on his performance.

James’ arrival—as well as the potential of this team—forces that issue.


Already Necessary

“I’ve just been a kid trying to figure it out. There’s no perfect way to be a leader, and coming in as a 19-year-old kid and having everything bearing on your shoulders, there are a lot of ups and downs,” Irving explained to Charania. “Now it’s about being the best every single day and not being afraid.”

Even if the other factors weren’t in the picture, this would still be a good time to expect maturation from the developing point guard. 

No longer is he a 19-year-old kid. He’s a grown man who will turn 23 years old during the 2014-15 campaign, and he already has three seasons of professional basketball experience under his belt. He’s been around that proverbial block a few times. 

The third year is often when young players make the leap, but Irving didn’t do so. He could very well remedy that in his fourth season with the Cavaliers, especially now that he’s received a max contract extension. 

Surely, Irving viewed the transformation of John Wall once former NBA champions and conference finalists took charge of him and challenged his capacity to lead last season,” Charania writes. “This duty came too swift for Irving in the NBA. He wasn’t ready. He wasn’t a leader of men in his first three pro seasons…”

What isn’t mentioned is the similarity of the contract circumstances. 

Wall signed a max extension with the Washington Wizards last offseason, then he justified his contract by settling down on the defensive end of the court and improving while leading his team into the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. Well, Irving put ink to paper for his five-year, $90 million extension in early July, and now it’s time for him to follow a similar route to the one Wall blazed down in 2013-14. 

He’s paid like a star, and now it’s time for him to play like one on both ends of the floor, acting like a positive locker room presence all the while. 

Even if that’s not motivation enough, the Cavaliers’ need for defense and the presence of James should guarantee that happens. 

Irving hasn’t lived up to the hype during his first few NBA seasons, although he’s made two All-Star teams in three years. He hasn’t carried his team into the playoffs, and he’s been a one-way player who relies on scoring and glamorous highlights to bolster his growing reputation. In fact, he’s been one of the Association’s more overrated floor generals, failing to distinguish himself from players like Isaiah Thomas, at least from a statistical standpoint. 

But this year, that changes. 

It has to. 

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Who Is the Alpha Dog in Miami Heat’s Offense Without LeBron James?

Every team faces challenges in each new season, but this season no team may be facing as big a challenge as the Miami Heat: replacing LeBron James.

Needing to maintain competitiveness in a wide-open Eastern Conference, without James, is a multifaceted problem. He was the Heat’s best player—not to mention the best player in the league—and everything they did at both ends of the floor was built around his unique abilities. 

The challenge is particularly large at the offensive end.

According to the NBA‘s SportVU player tracking statistics, James touched the ball 5,821 times last season. The Heat had 5,667 offensive possessions with James on the floor, meaning on average he touched the ball more than once on each possession. He led the team in points, assists, three-pointers and free throws. In short, his departure for Cleveland leaves an enormous hole.

The Heat still have a diverse array of efficient offensive players, but over the past four seasons it has been James who held the system together. Now the Heat need to figure out how to keep that system running with some combination of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Luol Deng as the offensive engine. 

Deng is the least likely of those three candidates to assume a primary offensive role, having never really filled it for any team during his NBA career. While Wade and Bosh have both been offensive focal points in the past, their metamorphosis into supporting players over the past four seasons leaves plenty of questions about their abilities to step front and center again.

The infographic below shows the percentage of offensive possessions for Bosh and Wade that came in a featured role each of the past five seasons. The data comes from mySynergySports.com (subscription required).

I’m defining a featured role as possessions used in isolation, post-ups or as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, essentially an offensive possession where they created a shot for themselves. From 2010, their last seasons without James, you can see an enormous drop-off in the portion of each player’s offense that came in these kinds of featured possessions. 

The drop-off for Bosh is particularly compelling. Because of his age and relative health, he seems the more likely candidate than Wade to step into a more primary offensive role. However, only about one out of every eight offensive possessions he used last season came in those type of situations.  

This next infographic shows the same timespan but looks at each player’s average points per possession on these featured offensive possessions.

While the decline here isn’t as steep, it’s just as significant. Wade’s efficiency has steadily trickled away, and although Bosh saw a slight uptick last season, remember that it came on an absurdly small number of possessions. 

Bosh has talked about being a leader for this new iteration of the Heat, but his comments to ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh reveal a lot about how he envisions that role playing out: 

I think right now we have the correct infrastructure to compete for a championship. We have to get much better at certain positions, and there’s a bunch of things that have to continue to happen. But you know a team like the Spurs, they had a lot of guys that people underestimate, but as a team, they were outstanding.

It’s interesting that Bosh specifically mentioned the San Antonio Spurs, because their balance may be the template for how the Heat need to go about creating an efficient offense. By that I don’t necessarily mean copying the Spurs playbook, but the way the Spurs use multiple players to bend the defense in different situations.

Obviously, Wade will still handle the ball plenty for the Heat next year, especially in the pick-and-roll. But moving Bosh around to different locations may also allow some of the Heat’s other complementary players to work effectively off of him.

When Bosh was the primary offensive weapon for the Toronto Raptors, he spent a lot of his time in the low post. But as the range on his jump shot has extended, he may be more of an offensive threat working around the elbows.

Although it was often a situational occurrence, dependent on matchups, Bosh has shown that he is more than capable of taking a slower defender off the dribble.

His ability to either shoot or drive from that spot on the floor can also hold the defense, allowing other actions to spin around him. 

Here, a curl from Ray Allen acts as a decoy, allowing Rashard Lewis to pop out for the open three-pointer.

On this play, Bosh occupies the defensive focus (with a little help from LeBron) and allows Wade to lose his man and head for the rim.

These kinds of setups will work well for Deng, who has plenty of experience running baseline curls and elbow screens from his time in Chicago.

We may see this be of similar benefit to Wade, who has spent much of the last four years figuring out how to be a potent off-ball threat, despite his lack of a consistent outside shot. Both he and Deng could be extremely dangerous running curls and cuts from the baseline down. With Bosh pulling the defense at the elbow and players like Norris Cole, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts around the three-point line, there should still be plenty of space to operate efficiently.

The problem is that this whole plan relies on precise and collaborative execution.

The reason everyone doesn’t just copy the Spurs system of balance and movement is that it’s really, really hard to do well. The Heat have some of the pieces and some experience with these sorts of sets, but making this the backbone of everything that they do will be new.

It seems inevitable that Bosh will bear a lot of responsibility next year because of his age, health and versatility. But just making him the Heat’s new lead scorer is not really the answer. Tom Sunnergren wrote  for Bleacher Report last month about how Bosh may work as a centerpiece for the Heat offense:

This is the future of the Miami offense. It’s still built around a multifaceted chess piece who carries the offensive load, and, in doing so, creates space and opportunity for his teammates to get the most out of their own abilities. It’s just that the piece itself is a bit less multiple, and the abilities of the teammates not quite as pregnant with possibility.

That paragraph sums up what is facing the Heat this season. Many of the pieces are in place, but without James’ individual brilliance to buoy the offense, the margin for error becomes infinitesimally smaller. 

LeBron James was the alpha for the Heat offense the past four seasons, and it grew into a devastating system.

Trying to force Bosh, Wade or anyone else into that role is probably a recipe for disaster.

What the Heat need for success is not a new alpha. They need their many betas to figure out how to effectively play off each other.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats

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James Harden believes he’s the best player alive

It’s hardly surprising that an NBA player, who by virtue is one of the best basketball players on the planet by belonging to such an esteemed fraternity of professionals, would have a large if not inflated ego. It would be difficult to reach such heights in any chosen profession without a deep and profound belief […] The post James Harden believes he’s the best basketball player alive right now appeared first on Sportress of Blogitude.

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James Harden: I’m the best basketball player alive

Harden had no hesitation in his answer about the best basketball player alive.



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Are We Expecting Too Much Too Soon from LeBron James’ New Superteam?

Following a summer of blockbuster signings and game-changing trades, the Cleveland Cavaliers—three superstars in tow and a basketball wizard at the wheel—look better on paper than a briefcase full of Woodrow Wilsons.

Heading into the 2014-15 season, Cleveland’s status as a championship contender is, barring the unforeseen, set in stone.

But given the guff that met the Miami Heat upon James’ arrival four short years ago, it’s worth wondering: Are we expecting too much from the NBA’s newest superteam?

We’re still weeks away from the flood of predictions and power rankings written to ring in the new season. Rest assured, though, that when they hit the Internet newsstands, the Cavs will be covered in conference chalk.

Top to bottom, Cleveland boasts arguably the East’s deepest, most experienced depth chart. The team’s most recent coup: signing Swiss Army knife Shawn Marion to a one-year, veteran’s minimum deal, per USA Today’s Sam Amick.

Scarier still, the Cavs might still have an ace or two up their sleeves:

Fancy a fast glance down Cleveland’s roster, it’s hard not to want to invest heavy in the hype. Until, that is, you recall the growing pains faced by the 2010-11 Miami Heat, those hardwood heavyweights some doubtless believed should’ve been awarded the Larry O’Brien trophy schedule unseen.

Just months after staging what amounted to a preseason championship parade, the Heat staggered to a 9-8 start out of the gate. On the one hand, panicking over an above-.500 start not even a quarter into the season would seem a hyperbolic response.

On the other hand, these were the mighty Miami Heat. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh weren’t supposed to struggle; they were supposed to strangle.

Just how bad did it get? According to a November 2010 report by ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard, all out mutiny was becoming a real possibility in Miami.

“Right now, in my opinion, no one is doing a good job,” Wade told Broussard. “We’re 9-and-8. We’re all in this together. The players are not doing a good job. The coach is not doing a good job.”

Seldom does such under-the-bus bluntness escape the locker room walls, particularly in an organization so lauded for its all-in-the-family philosophy.

Like Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, Cleveland head coach David Blatt—hired weeks before James’ league-altering decision—faces the unenviable task of being target No. 1 for whatever flak should come the Cavs’ way in the season’s opening days. On a team where the vets have paid their dues in pain and pride, Blatt’s the new guy and will be punished as such should the train fly too far off the rails.

To his credit, Blatt has remained cool as a locker room icepack during his many summer interviews.

“I do feel a great sense of responsibility about that because although I’m not fully one of them, they are all a part of me. I feel responsibility. Pressure? No. I don’t feel pressure,” Blatt told USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt back in July. “But a lot of responsibility yes and honestly a lot of pride that I was the one who was chosen. I feel like I’ve got to do a good job.”

It’s certainly worth wondering whether the asymmetric weight felt by Spoelstra during Miami’s early struggles—a prelude to four straight trips to the NBA Finals—might serve as a sobering reminder of the perils of rushing to judgment.

If anyone can deflect whatever doubt that’s bound to come Cleveland’s way, it’s James, whose prodigal return is sure to buy him and his comrades some much needed leeway.

Sooner or later, though, all the praise and expectations won’t be worth the pulp it’s printed on if it isn’t accompanied by the beautiful basketball we all know lies in wait—an ether-bound spell waiting for the right mix of thought and action to conjure it in full.

Writing at BusinessInsider.com, Tony Manfred underscores the almost frightening fury Cleveland’s offense holds:

It’s one thing to have a pair of exceptional offensive players on your team. It’s another to have what the Cavs have now — two exceptional offensive players with complementary playing styles.

Love is a nominal power forward who can shoot threes and make enough mid-range shots to keep defenses honest. The LeBron-Love pick-and-roll will be a nightmare, with defenses stuck between keeping LeBron away from the rim and guarding the Love jumper.

Love is basically Chris Bosh if Chris Bosh had a better post game and was a great offensive rebounder. This is a very scary proposition for the rest of the NBA, and that’s even before you get to Kyrie Irving.

The question now becomes whether Cleveland’s cartoonish potential will be grounds for even more caustic pressure or it’s safeguard against a prolonged slump.

Considered as a whole, Cleveland’s lineup boasts more worst-to-first firepower than any of the Heat’s four rosters. The challenge for Blatt is in figuring out which pieces fit where and when, and how to look beyond resumes and bona fides to find the best basketball balance possible.

Then there’s the more pessimistic view, offered by Hardwood Paroxysm’s Steve McPherson, who sees in how the Cavaliers have gone about weaponizing LeBron both the best and the worst aspects of Miami’s approach to team-building:

It’s possible that the Heat’s experience shows that the Cavaliers are making a mistake here, and not just with regard to positions as they neglect the backup point guard and center positions in favor of wings. But it’s also possible that in many ways the path of this next season is already written: a wealth of jaw-dropping moments and victories in the regular season and then a swoon in the playoffs that ends with the Cavs falling short of a title. Whether you deem that a failure or success deferred will depend on how long a view you can take to team building.

That the Cavs might well mimic Miami’s year-one trajectory is certainly plausible. Still, Cleveland’s unique combination of youth, depth and star power makes its mold altogether different. Not better, per se, but different.

Short of missing the playoffs completely, there aren’t many outcomes to Cleveland’s season that would be considered shocking to the basketball-viewing public. Injuries, chemistry, game-to-game plans—all these factors and more contribute to a formula whose ultimate answer has, if you look back far enough, been written before.

Viewed from the dining room floor through the kitchen door, the Cavaliers have all the makings, both homegrown and imported, of a Michelin bistro. Just don’t expect the first few plates to come out flawless.

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James Harden Says He’s the Best Basketball Player Alive

Houston Rockets star guard James Harden thinks really highly of himself, so his comments shouldn’t shock anyone.  The confident shooting guard told ESPN’s Scoop Jackson that he’s the best basketball player alive.

ESPN.com’s Scoop Jackson sat down with Harden recently and asked him who the best basketball player alive is, Harden didn’t hesitate to offer up his (obviously biased) opinion.
“Myself,” he said.
“You made that sound like it was an easy answer,” Jackson then said to him.
“It is,” Harden replied. “Myself.”

Harden went on to say that he’s “still trying to catch guys like LeBron, KD, and Kobe” and also admitted that “until I get rings, I can’t say anything” regarding his skills on the court. 

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James Harden wore interesting hat to Rihanna and Eminem concert

Last night, Houston Rockets star James Harden and former OKC teammate Russell Westbrook decided to take in a Rihanna-Eminem concert at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey.
During the festivities, Harden shared an Instagram photo of themselves hanging out at the concert and showed off his stylish hat:

That is one stylish hat, James!
Harden image courtesy of Getty Images

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LeBron James Completes ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ on a Yacht

Athletes continue to partake in the “Ice Bucket Challenge” to raise money and awareness for ALS research, and Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James has joined in.

On a yacht, James completed the challenge and nominated his two sons, LeBron Jr. and Bryce Maximus, along with President Barack Obama.

The 29-year-old included this caption on his Instagram: “#ALSIceBucketChallenge I accepted the challenge from @brandonweems10 @easymoneysniper @djstephfloss @kevinhart4real. I nominate LeBron Jr, Bryce Maximums and @barackobama.”

On Saturday, the ALS Association announced that it had surpassed $10 million in “Ice Bucket” donations.

[LeBron James]

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Did LeBron James reveal the name of his unborn baby girl on Instagram?




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How Kyrie Irving Holds the Key to LeBron James’ New Kingdom

A season ago, Kyrie Irving was indisputably the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ best player.

But after the busiest summer in franchise history, he’s faded from headlines and almost instantly became his team’s second or third scoring option. While it’s tempting to believe this will be the season of LeBron James and Kevin Love, we shouldn’t be so quick to overlook what’s sure to be a pivotal role for Irving.

The last time Irving was in the news, he was signing a near-max extension with the organization after averaging 20.8 points and a career-high 6.1 assists per game last season.

Since then, the 22-year-old’s future with the franchise has been overshadowed by two key developments.

First, James announced his return to Cleveland in July after his talents enjoyed four celebrated seasons with the Miami Heat. It was an instant game-changer for a club that spent those four seasons missing the playoffs and undergoing a protracted rebuild.

“At first you were speechless; you couldn’t believe it,” Irving said, according to CBSSports.com’s Ken Berger. “I’ve been watching LeBron for a while now and now that I’m going to be running alongside him and being his point guard, it’s an honor and hopefully we can do great things.”

Second, it’s become all but certain that disaffected Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love will soon join the Cavaliers.

Earlier in August, Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski reported, “The Minnesota Timberwolves have reached an agreement in principle to send All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a protected 2015 first-round draft pick, league sources told Yahoo Sports.”

Welcome to the charmed life of a franchise that has a four-time MVP on its side.

With all the new firepower, Irving’s production is likely to drop to some degree, along with his ball-handling and playmaking duties. James will often have the ball in his hands instead, and Love immediately becomes Cleveland’s go-to three-point shooter.

Irving becomes a very capable sidekick from the outset, initiating some offense while also seeing increased time off the ball.

As CBSSports.com’s Zach Harper explains, “Irving could be in a similar role as Wade was with James, but we also have to remember this is under [Cavs head coach] David Blatt and not [Heat head coach] Erik Spoelstra. The offensive system could and will likely be different.”

Indeed, Blatt will use elements of the Princeton offense in Cleveland, ensuring that ball and player movement take precedence over isolation-based play.

According to that model, there should be plenty of touches to go around, regardless of the recently incorporated star power.

Nevertheless, Irving should become increasingly comfortable in a catch-and-shoot role. He ranked third among point guards last season with a 27.8 usage rate, and those touches will be fewer and occur more sparingly this season. 

“You do think about [changes] because you’re going to be playing with the greatest player in the game,” Irving told reporters (via ESPN) during Team USA training camp. “I’ve talked to several teammates about how we’re going to have to change our games.”

Irving led the Cavaliers with 17.4 field-goal attempts per game last season. By contrast, James’ sidekick, Dwyane Wade, attempted just 14.1 shots per game—a figure that may be more in line with what Irving can expect going forward.

The parallels with Wade are important, in part because they also hint at how vital Irving will remain to Cleveland’s title chances.

Even with James leading the way for Miami, there were never any doubts about Wade’s importance. Though the 32-year-old’s 19 points per game last season were the lowest since his rookie year, those were also the most efficient points Wade had scored in his 11 seasons. He posted a career-high 54.5 field-goal percentage.

The more perimeter-oriented Irving made just 43 percent of his field-goal attempts last season, and—while he’ll remain an essential three-point threat—there’s plenty of room for the young floor general to become more judicious with his possessions.

He’ll also need to improve his play on the defensive end. James’ presence will help in that regard.

“I think James will have a real impact on Kyrie Irving and Love – if he goes there,” said ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, per Northeast Ohio Media Group’s Tom Reed. “You need a real commitment to defense if you’re going to win (a title). I think James knew that from his time in Cleveland and he certainly knew it from his time in Miami. He will bring that experience and defensive mindset back to Cleveland.”

Van Gundy added, “Defense is about commitment, resolve, discipline and an ability to concentrate. The pressure is going to be exerted by James. He is in his prime and they have a chance to win so as a player you don’t want to not play up to your potential defensively.”

Especially not if you’re Irving, an emerging star who’s yet to prove himself a legitimate two-way presence.

The San Jose Mercury NewsTim Kawakami wrote in June, “Irving might not be the pound-for-pound, minute-for-minute, mistake-for-mistake worst defensive player in the league. He’s assuredly way up there, but probably not Numero Uno.”

Kawakami added, “It takes something special to stand out as a bad defensive player amid all of Irving’s wobbly defensive teammates on the Cavaliers. Yet he keeps doing it.”

Given that Love has received his fair share of criticism on the defensive end, Irving’s work is cut out for him. Cleveland won’t have any difficulty scoring the ball, but it desperately needs James’ defensive prowess to become infectious.

Irving’s individual defense will become an instant barometer signaling whether any osmosis has taken place. Without an improved effort, James’ patience with his young teammate could be tested early and often.

LeBron is once again the face of this franchise, and Love will soon be its second-most accomplished contributor.

But Irving may well determine how quickly the Cavaliers compete for a championship. While he’s no longer the biggest name around town, his critical importance endures.

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