Perception versus reality: The ever-evolving relationship between Mike Brown and Kyrie Irving

Mike Brown Kyrie IrvingIt won’t get much traction in the way of traditional game recaps, but the interactions between Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown and All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving will be, for better or worse, placed under a microscope of scrutiny for at least the next several games if not the duration of this very season. While the legitimacy is debatable, the narrative claims that Brown, a highly successful head coach if measured by overall record and playoff appearances, has an ill handle on star players—this obviously hits close to home due to Brown’s previous tenure in Cleveland and how the team, for all intents and purposes, was run by his small forward LeBron James. During Brown’s tenure in Los Angeles, the defensive-minded head coach was relieved of his duties five games into this second season, leading many on the east coast, and especially Cleveland, to conflate this with the inability to “coach” one Kobe Bryant. The truth, however, shows that Brown had learned from his mistakes, he had grown as an individual and refused to let the inmates run the asylum, for lack of a better term.

Brown’s relationship with Irving—the point guard crowned superstar during his first season in the league, the player who notoriously bolted on Fan Appreciation Night while all of his teammates were handing their jerseys and shoes over to paying fans on the night of the team’s 58th loss—is firmly in the Bryant column when it comes to give-and-take, and it appears as if the student has a hint of resentment toward the teacher.

In the first quarter of the Cavaliers’ recent loss to the Chicago Bulls, Brown had an earful for his starting point guard. Brown stated that “there was a lot going on,” but refused to limit it to just Irving. Irving attempted to pass off the incident as nothing more than a “conversation with his coach.” What the discussion was about is unknown. It can reasonably be assumed that Brown was unhappy with how little Andrew Bynum was being used on offense in the wake of his first start with the team, but this would also force us to assume that a team-leading four field goal attempts was not sufficient. Of course, there’s always defense. That said, it wasn’t Irving who was willing Jarrett Jack to hoist two mid-range jump shots in the matter of nine seconds; it wasn’t Kyrie who caused Dion Waiters to commit four turnovers in under nine minutes of play. Nevertheless, it was the third-year guard who was being undressed in front of an entire arena, not to mention his 11 teammates.

Earlier this season, in a late-game collapse-turned-victory at the expense of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Irving admitted to calling off a play drawn up by Brown wherein Anderson Varejao would set a screen at the top of the key and allow the shifty, spinning point guard to take on a lumbering defender in the way of power forward Kevin Love. Irving, in turn, was shown up by the same player he was initially dismissing, turning the ball over nine times throughout the course of the game. Brown later stated that Irving had the freedom to make that decision, but the writing was immediately applied to the wall.

Not that there is a line officially drawn in the hardwood, but the first eight games of the 2013-14 season have proven to be a bit of a wake-up call for Irving. Treated as untouchable by former Cavaliers coach Byron, Irving is now under the tutelage of a man who won’t succumb to having a player change the intended direction of the program. All of the storylines are there—Irving is aware that he has to grow as a person in addition to being a basketball player; he is listening and learning in practice; he is watching video; he knows that for his team to take the next step, he has to be the one to lead them there—but once the Cavaliers take to the floor, especially on the road, all of the teachings appear to disappear and Irving reverts back to the days of one-on-five. Irving hasn’t referred to Mike Brown as his “Basketball Father,” but this just might be a good thing.

“We have to figure it out—it’s what we get paid to do,” Irving said of the adjustments needed for this team to start winning basketball games. For those looking for a level of accountability from the young and talented guard, he did admit to having a few more key turnovers in a game that was well within reach.  The plays that will stick out, however, are the ones that will not show up in the box score—the ones like the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, Irving’s team down five points with less than four minutes remaining, where the point guard takes a 15-foot floater along the baseline which allowed his opponent, former MVP Derrick Rose, to bolt down the floor, receive an outlet pass and convert an easy lay-up in the course of six seconds. Irving didn’t even make it back to the Bulls’ foul line before the ball fell through the net.

By all reports following the game, Irving was in good spirits, joking with teammates rather than dwelling on the altercation between him and Brown. Perhaps it was just a conversation between a star player and his coach. Maybe this is all merely a function of an Eye in the Sky, a paparazzi-like voyeuristic viewing of a prized possession, ensuring that all remains copacetic. There may even be a hint of paranoia involved—after all, Cleveland is all too familiar with a star player leaving in free agency after not winning a title under Brown, lest we forget that ever-popular narrative. And it may be rooted in frustration as Irving, by using the past two seasons as a benchmark, has underperformed on the offensive end. Monday night saw the typically clutch point guard go just 5-for-19 from the floor, just one game after playing Hero Ball against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Everyone knows that Kyrie Irving is one of the most talented players in the National Basketball Association. The problem lies in the fact that Irving, the player known for mood swings and behavior that borders on petulant, is included in that group—he knows how good he is and has used his superiority to cast a perception of preeminence over his teammates as well as his coaches. It will be up to Brown to keep Irving grounded—to not only teach the ways but to ensure him that his ways are ultimately for the betterment of the team—but it will also be up to Irving to show that all of this talk, the growth and maturity and soul-seeking we have heard so much about starts to become a reality. Apologies and explanations are great and all, but one-offs become habits that no amount of public relations padding will rectify; fans and analysts are too smart that.  Irving will have to show it on the court, be it through his play, through his listening or through his body language.

The world is officially watching.

(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) 

  • I would imagine this is one of the hardest challenges of being an NBA coach. It’s a tricky balancing act to both be able to get on your superstar, but also keep his respect in a way that allows him to continue to enjoy playing for you. Some superstars make it easier than others.

  • Ben Frambaugh

    I’m not overly concerned with Kyrie (in regards to his play on the court, etc…) I do, however, wonder if he isn’t close to his ceiling. Like, he’ll become a decent defender and his shooting numbers will improve…his turnovers will decrease some…but I think we might be seeing the best he has to offer this year with a large plateua for years to come. Am I alone in this?

  • I can’t think of any corollary where a player peaks at age 21 without something extraneous happening—I mean, even Vin Baker made it to 26. At his age, there’s still considerable physical growth to occur, so no, I do not think we’re seeing his ceiling in terms of basketball talents. The concern, at this point, is all mental.

  • Tsunami

    I imagine this piece has only garnished 3 comments because everyone is just nodding in agreement and Craig’s is stirring up the frothy pools of sports prognostication?

  • Tsunami

    That being said – his shooting efficiencies were otherworldly in his 1st season. In other words, there’s not much more space before you are reaching the ceilings of the greatest shooters of all time: the 50-40-90 guys. His areas for greatest improvement are clearly defense and game management (esp limiting turnovers, and creating more effective scoring opportunities for teammates).

  • Joe Gallagher

    kyrie needs to quit showboating and being a ball hog

  • Dave

    Here’s the real problem with Irving: While he’s incredibly talented, and can make all sorts of flashy plays, he can’t do it consistently. And in the meantime, he isn’t working on improving much. By comparison, TT wasn’t quite as talented, but has kept on working on his game, and so now he is actually more consistently good than Kyrie.