Conflicted about Kyrie: A look at why Cleveland hasn’t completely embraced their latest superstar


Kyrie Irving is about to speak to the huddled mass of media that surrounds him in the Cavaliers locker room. The Cavs just defeated the Sacramento Kings to earn their only three-game winning streak of the season. For the first time in my short tenure of covering the team with press credentials, the other media members seem to actually be in a jovial state. We’re all waiting on Irving to give us the okay to question him. He has this sort of informal ritual he does before speaking with the media in the locker room. On all the occasions I’ve seen him speak, he has been showered and in the process of getting dressed to go home before accepting questions. The media stands patiently around him. He buttons his shirt, shakes out his shoulders, and rubs his hands across his face. He’s ready to speak though I’m admittedly already not paying attention. I should feel somewhat irresponsible for this, but I don’t. I have plenty of questions I’d love to ask Irving. The problem is there’s almost no chance of him giving me an interesting response.

Irving is often described as “well spoken” and “mature” when it comes to interviews. I understand the sentiment, but the words that always come to my mind when listening to him speak are “calculated”, “boring” and “sterile”. That’s not to say Irving himself is a boring person. He’s a 21-year-old on the brink of NBA super-stardom. He has been put in the unenviable position of replacing the irreplaceable; filling the void left by LeBron James.  There’s a real person of interest in there somewhere, just as in anybody. With Irving though, his true nature is suppressed in favor of a more media savvy mask. Irving is aware of his brand. His “Uncle Drew” commercials have been a popular Internet marketing hit for some time now. I remember watching the first iteration as a fan and feeling incredibly lucky. Not only did the Cavs draft another superstar, but it seemed like they had acquired one that would be fun for fans to root for. The personality that gave way to masquerading as an old man and spewing lines like “young buck” to promote Pepsi MAX unfortunately doesn’t often show itself in interviews or on the floor of the Quicken Loans Arena. I myself have trouble interpreting my own feelings toward him.

To say Irving isn’t liked in Cleveland is inaccurate and lacks nuance; he has oodles of fans here. He also might have the most inventive handles in the league which gives his game a sense of flair other players don’t possess. It’s just that the city’s affinity for him as of late is not as strong as his performances would dictate. Rebuilding after LeBron’s departure was never going to be easy, but Irving is one of only two or three superstars to hit the league since the Cavaliers started reconstructing their roster through the lottery. There is no singular reason for the reticence from Cavs fans to embrace their All-Star point guard. It’s hard not to believe the insecurities wrought on the fan base by “The Decision” aren’t at the top of the list though. The national commercials, the rumblings of wanting to play in bigger markets, and the fact that he’s become an NBA media darling so soon make the parallels to no. 23 thick. Up until this recent winning streak, it wasn’t a rarity among Cavalier faithful to suggest that the team should at least consider trading Irving. What should sound absurd was palpable to some in fear that he leave like LeBron did, for basically nothing. Even Brian Windhorst suggested the Cavaliers brass would have to struggle with the question of whether to trade Irving or not if he refused to sign an extension this summer.

Where Irving hasn’t matched James early in his career is in the win column, which is where Irving’s sterile persona works against him. In the absence of winning, fans have little else to grab onto with their star player. He’s not a vocal leader. He doesn’t seem to give his all on the defensive end, which to a city that fell back in love with basketball under a Mike Brown regime is a big no-no. The game of blaming the players around the superstar has happened before in Cleveland with bad results and so, unlike with LeBron, Kyrie is often given a disproportionate amount of blame. It’s hard not to see it as unfair. He’s only 21. That doesn’t make him free from criticism. It does mean any conversation about him needs to exist in that context. What Irving is doing at his age is remarkable. What LeBron James did at Irving’s age is flat out unbelievable. I find the need to constantly remind myself of this.

Irving will start the All-Star game this weekend in New Orleans becoming only the third player in Cavaliers history to do so. Despite the rarity of the accomplishment here, the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd responded to the announcement a few weeks ago by writing a somewhat scathing piece on Irving. Fast forward to the present and somehow, in spite of the firing of their general manager and countless stories of locker room dissent, the Cavaliers are at a zenith of sorts for the post-LeBron era. They are riding their first four-game winning streak with Irving being the driving force of much of it. Who knows if it’s a blip or an actual sustained change with the team, but I’m glad it happened when it did. Instead of entering the All-Star weekend feeling conflicted about Irving presence among the NBA stars, I can instead celebrate him because, even if just for now, it’s finally deserved.

Photo: Scott Sargent/WFNY

  • Achilles

    I appreciate the nuance and insider information offered in this article, but for me the reason Cavs fans have yet to embrace Kyrie Irving is simple: a lack of winning.

    I for one am not interested in athletes personalities, or their relative degree of media savvy. I am interested in how many victories they bring to my favorite teams. KI is unquestionably talented, is clearly the best ball handler in the NBA, and a productive scorer and he should only get better.

    The problem thus far, is his attributes have not translated to consistently winning teams. You can say he hasn’t been surrounded by enough talent, but I don’t buy it. The team rises and falls on his shoulders and so far, it hasn’t risen enough times to earn the kind of unequivocal adulation that Lebron James earned while consistently leading his teams deep into the playoffs.

  • mgbode

    he game of blaming the players around the superstar has happened before
    in Cleveland with bad results and so, unlike with LeBron, Kyrie is often
    given a disproportionate amount of blame. It’s hard not to see it as

    I agree with the rest of your column, but disagree to some extent here. Kyrie is like the QB on a football team. If you win, then the praise gets showered most heavily upon you. But, if you lose, then the blame is what is showered instead. To his credit, he has taken that blame well (for the most part), but what we really want is to shower him with praise.

    I do completely agree that he’s a 21yo who will likely continue to get much better as his career unfolds. I have no qualms of the Cavs giving him the max extension this summer. I hope that we find a way to build the team around him well and that he continues to progress.

  • Joseph Mastrantoni

    I wouldn’t argue that there isn’t enough talent. I would argue that how that talent fits around him isn’t right. If you draft a superstar in your first year of rebuilding you should probably cater your future roster moves to maximizing his talents. Thus far the Cavs have yet to draft a young player to develop in the PnR with him where he has shown at times to excel and they haven’t placed enough shooting around him in order to open up the paint for him. As of now opposing teams clog the paint against this team and don’t fear their outside shooting. Jacob pointed it out in one his recent Diffs, but there’s a reason CJ Miles, the teams best shooter, has such high +/- numbers.

    As a die-hard NBA fan I love looking at the personalities of these players. Obviously winning makes anyone more likable, but certain players are endearing to different people because they reflect some sort of characteristic that they find appealing. This town loved Josh Cribbs despite the fact that the Browns were awful. There’s a reason.

  • Natedawg86

    I agree with you, and at times, it looks like he is going to work. When things improve and we start winning more and players have fun, i think things will come together even more. He may not be a #1 player on a team, but if you get a #1, then he will become a #1a and lift his game up a bit.

  • Steve

    Agree with you here.

    Kyrie deserves a lot of the blame because the biggest flaws with this team: not giving a crap on defense and a serious lack of chemistry, stem right from him. You can say all you want that it’s unfair to ask for so much at both ends of the court and leadership from a 21 year old, but we’re only going as far as he can take us, and as long as he’s lacking in those categories, we’re finishing under .500.

    I’m torn on extending him or trading him. Yes, he’s still young and might figure it out, but I’ve pretty much given up on him becoming the top five, or even top ten, player you need to win a championship. A lot of superstars/future superstars have turned the corner by 21, and Irving is still stuck at .125 WS/48, a fine number, but no superstar.

  • Jason Hurley

    I think it’s 2 things: 1. It’s a natural post-LeBron unwillingness to get too attached to an athlete. 2. After you’ve had the best on your team, you can’t pretend liek the new guy is the best (when he’s not).

  • mgbode

    It’s tough to do a player projection for Kyrie. I think he is most like Stephen Curry, but he has a much better handle and isn’t quite the shooter (who is?). Similar build, similar struggles on defense though.

    Curry age 21 season: .077 WS/48

    The difference is that Kyrie has been at .125WS/48 each year. Though, I am surprised he is back there. After his start, that has taken quite a bit to get back there. So, that is a good sign.

    Regardless, just one indicator about how young he truly is and how long he does have to figure things out. Max-extend him w/o thinking about it. I think he’ll at worst be a top25 guy and those guys are worth the rookie-max-extension every time.

  • Michael Curry

    I’m surprised how much I agree with the second point. There are no “Melo is better than LeBron” -type delusions here. Cavs fans are comparing Kyrie to LeBron at some level, and that has a tendency to highlight his weaknesses. LeBron is still a better *point guard* than Kyrie, let alone a better player. Cavs fans find it harder to pretend otherwise.

  • Steve

    Yeah, he’s definitely worth the dollars, that’s not the issue. The issue is that if you commit long term to Irving, and he’s not a top 10 (preferably 5) player, you’re not really a championship contender.

    Agree that Curry is about the best comp you can come up with at the moment. But that was Curry’s rookie year. By Curry’s third year, he was up at .144, and clearly improving. Age matters a lot, and Kyrie has that on his side, but it would be really nice if he decided to start improving.

    Like I said, I’m torn, and definitely not sold on trading him.

  • MrCleaveland

    Real quick opinion having not had time to read any of the text or comments:

    Our previous superstar took us from garbage to the NBA finals.

    Our second superstar took us from garbage to three-year-old garbage.

  • C-Bus Kevin

    Winning would help, yes? We really do like talking about “the feels” when it comes to our sports teams, don’t we?

    “Why aren’t we EMBRACING Kyrie?”

    The question makes me feel gross inside. I just want to see a winning team. Since LeBron left, it’s like we’re a discarded girlfriend.

    “My last boyfriend left, but I know I can make this one stay. I just shouldn’t be so hard on him.”

    Have some self-respect people!

  • Dave

    “KI is unquestionably talented”: Yes
    “is clearly the best ball handler in the NBA”: Not likely – Chris Paul has a much higher Assist/Turnover.
    “a productive scorer”: Depends how you measure. The NBA’s top scorer, Kevin Durant scores about 25% more than Irving per 48 minutes. 12 other players scattered around the league score more than Irving. And right now CJ Miles is scoring much more efficiently than Irving, so he’s arguably not even the Cav’s best offensive weapon.

    Look at this comparison between all Cavs guards to see why I’m not on the Kyrie bandwagon:

    Kyrie is good, but not that good.

    That’s why I haven’t embraced Irving: He has superstar potential, and some really good 1-on-1 and even 1-on-5 moves, but so far that hasn’t translated to superstar results. Playing hero-ball means you individually score a lot of points and make headlines, but doesn’t win games.