I really do hate to keep coming back to the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ recent NBA Finals defeat. Much of why I keep writing about it is because of how significant the fallout will be for the Cavs. Of course, it also prevents me from having to watch the mind-numbing and frustrating play of the Cleveland Indians, which is also helpful.
In the days since the Cavs’ season ended, though, I keep harping on one moment. It was the post-game presser with star guard Kyrie Irving.
With the sense of defeat still setting in, Irving was asked what it’s like to play alongside LeBron James and the impact he has on the team. His response was equal parts lengthy and extremely thoughtful. To me, one key quote stood out the most.
“You can’t skip any steps,” Irving said. “And that was one thing that I came to understand, because as a young player you want everything to happen right now. And Bron’s been in this league for a while now, and he’s seen every which way from on the court, to off the court, to dealing with some of you guys, to dealing with the whole world of just choosing a side.”
Really, it was the first bit that caught my attention, his acknowledgment that you can’t expedite your development as an NBA player. It’d be understandable for someone of Irving’s caliber believing his talent could speed up his learning curve. While it took playing with James to help him realize this fact, it sure sounds like this brutal defeat may have hammered it home.
As a result, you can’t help but think this Finals loss may actually be exactly what Irving needed.
Irving is far from a perfect player. He’s one of the most dynamic scorers in the NBA, and his ball-handling is a sight to see. At the same time, he has a tendency to slow down the offense, dribbling possessions to death as opposed to moving the ball.
Some of this is due, in part, to the years he spent as Cleveland’s only real threat. When saddled with teammates like Alonzo Gee and Jarrett Jack, he had no choice but to try and take over the offense.
Upon James’ return to the Cavs, he was quick to take Irving under his wing and call him out for these issues. After watching him hijack the offense early in the 2014 season, James essentially told him he could never do it again.
Of course, Irving is at his best when he’s attacking the rim, so finding the middle ground has always been tricky with him. This, along with the success which comes from playing alongside James made teachable moments a little difficult to come by.
Until these Finals, that is.
Maybe I’m falling victim to overthinking comments which occurred when he was emotionally raw, but Irving’s reflective thoughts sounded as though they were coming from someone who’d gone through a humbling moment. It seemed like the lopsided loss helped to shine a light on improvements he may still need to make.
Technically, this was the first time Irving felt defeat on this stage. He only made it through one game of the 2015 Finals until a fractured kneecap sidelined him for the year. The next season, Irving hit the most important shot in Cavaliers history to help them win a championship.
It’s notable, too, how the man Irving was praising at the end of Game 5 received a similar humbling in 2011.
James’ first year with the Miami Heat ended with a stunning Finals loss to the Dallas Mavericks. He played poorly, was savaged by the media and essentially went into hiding for the summer. Many point to this defeat as the moment James realized everything, what goes into the game, what sacrifices you make, how much you have to dedicate to it. James made the realization that talent alone can’t win championships.
In listening to Irving’s comments on James – specifically the moment he noted how badly you want to skip steps, to want everything to happen right away – you can’t help but think he’s making the same realization. Again, Irving is an incredible talent, but he still has things to work on. While I wouldn’t anticipate a completely transformed player, there’s no doubt losing to a Golden State Warriors team which did anything but stop the ball like he tends to do resonated with him.
If this is indeed the case, and he responds in the same way James did in 2011, the lesson will be worth its weight in gold. Irving needs to take this defeat as a genuine teachable moment. Based on his post-game comments, he may be well on his way do doing just that.