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Cleveland Cavaliers preview: The Kyrie Irving show

The second-year PG from Duke has the talent to become one of the NBA's premier players. We brought in a Cavs writer to talk about the budding star and preview tonight's game against the Mavs.


Colin Zvosec is a long-time writer in the NBA blogosphere. If you ever feel a pressing need to have more Cavs talk in your life, follow him @ColinZvosec.

How's Year 2 of the Kyrie Irving world domination tour coming? Do you think he will make the All-Star team this year and where can he still improve as a player? Taking care of the ball (4.1 turnovers a game) and defense?

I don't know where to start with this one. I have been one of the biggest Kyrie supporters since the day he was drafted, and one would assume I'd be quick to champion him as the next great point guard. However, despite the impressive numbers, (and make no mistake, they are damn impressive) he still has a long way to go if he wants to be considered a premiere player in this league.

Of course, there are aspects of his game where he is already elite. Kirk Goldsberry covered the broader aspects of Irving's shooting prowess in this piece, but it's more than just his numbers. It's how he's getting them. We know Kyrie is adept at getting to, and finishing at the rim. He's averaging about 5.5 attempts per game at the rim, placing him roughly 5th among all point guards. He converts those attempts at a 61% clip, which is just above league average for point guards thus far (the league average is 59.8%. Given the small sample size, I looked back at last year, and the total was 58.8%). We know he's a lethal shooter from beyond the arc (he's currently shooting 43% from three), but what makes that number all the more impressive is the fact that much of it is coming off the dribble. I would like to see the numbers in order to confirm this statement, but Kyrie is essentially automatic in spot-up situations. I could go on and on about the shooting numbers, but we know all these things.

The second aspect of his game that is at an elite level is his ball-handling. The kid does things with the ball I've only seen the greatest players do, and he does them in such a limited amount of space. In a league with so many very good point guards, Kyrie's ability to attack with the dribble is already up there with the greats. I could go on and on about this, but let's just move on.

Finally, his ability to run the pick-and-roll is quickly reaching an all-world level. He and Anderson Varejao are nearly unstoppable when they team up on the two-man-game, and Kyrie's dribbling ability allows him to make things happen even when the defense thinks he's got nowhere to go. I lost track of the number of times the Nets thought they had the Irving-Varejao PnR dead to rights only to see Kyrie somehow slip a pass to Andy. It really is a joy to watch those two constantly befuddle the defense.

As for where he can improve, I think his troubles on the defensive side of the ball are well-documented. He often seems lazy, tired, or flat out disinterested when defending, and I have seen some try to paint this as a case of a young player handling far too much of the offensive burden. While I think there is some merit to that, to be a great player, one cannot rest on defense. He needs to work on fighting through screens, though that may be just as much technique as it is effort. He often allows himself to get picked off, lunging at the ball-handler rather than moving his feet to get over. He allows his man to dictate things, rather than shading close and making it difficult to actually use the screen. His off-ball defense is just as bad, as he is prone to, again, getting picked off as well as ball-watching. I've seen more than one instance where he will get picked off up top and, instead of trying to get back into the play, simply watch what happens (more alarmingly, I've seen him admonish Tristan Thompson for slow rotations that he wouldn't have to make if Irving exhibited more effort at the point of attack). Now, he is only 20, and he's had less than one year of NBA experience, but he has the athleticism and intelligence to be a good defender. There's no reason he shouldn't at least be adequate.

The turnovers don't concern me. Clearly, you would like to see fewer than 4 a game, but Steve Nash was consistently in the 3.5 to 3.8 range in his Phoenix days. And to be quite honest, for someone that handles the ball as much as Kyrie, it's sort of amazing he doesn't turn it over more often. What can be concerning is the way in which those turnovers occur. There are times where Kyrie, despite the great handle, can bite off more than he can chew. He'll go careening into the defense or try to fit through a window of space that is just too small. I've noticed this tends to happen when he's on the floor with more of the bench players, so it could be chalked up to having more confidence in himself to get the job done. However, he has shown a willingness to pass when on the floor with competent teammates, so I may be reading far too much into things.

As for being an All-Star, I would say he has to be if he keeps doing what he's doing. Based on his numbers, and what this Cavs team asks him to do, he has to be considered for a starting spot. A reserve spot should be all but a guarantee.

Dion Waiters was a very controversial pick at No. 4 overall. His stats have been pretty decent so far; how has he been playing and do you think he'll end up being a good pick for the Cavs?

I will be completely honest; I was firmly against the Dion Waiters pick. Looking back, it wasn't so much Dion the player as it was what I thought it said about the front office. I was in the camp that believes you take the best player available no matter what, and to me, that player was Thomas Robinson. The Cavs made it apparent they were not going with a big, and I was one of many that viewed that as a "we already have Tristan" excuse. I'm still driven crazy by some of the things Tristan Thompson does on the floor, but I am firmly on board with the Waiters pick having seen him in action.

I really had three concerns with Dion: 1. He's small for a two, 2. I didn't think he was that good of a shooter, and 3. He's not the best at moving without the ball. So far, only one of those concerns has been alleviated. His shot isn't as pure as Kyrie's, but he's shown a tremendous ability to get shots off in a very small amount of space. He's a good catch-and-shoot guy, and he is equally adept at shooting off the bounce. When he and Kyrie get into a rhythm of attacking, it can be really fun to watch. He still has some work to do in pick and roll situations, but he's a guy that can create for others. One thing I have liked that some have touted as a negative is his patience. He hardly ever goes driving wildly into the lane. He picks his spots and he drives when he knows he can get a shot up. He's struggled to finish, but a lot of that is skewed by the game against Brooklyn in which the shots just didn't seem to fall. He's really grown on me.

That said, he will always have trouble defending bigger two guards (as we saw against Joe Johnson), and he is, frankly, useless without the ball. He NEVER cuts, and he's not a good enough shooter to camp out at the three point line for entire possessions (I realize I said he's a good spot-up shooter, and he is, but he's no Ray Allen). He's not going to run off screens like Rip Hamilton, though I would like to see the Cavs try this. He's a good enough attacker that defenses can't play him too close. His defense is solid, but there is more than enough room for improvement in that area as well. However, I am ready to give the Cavs credit on this pick. It's early, but Dion definitely looks the part.

I know Cavs fans weren't very high on former UT PF Tristan Thompson either after he was picked. How has he looked in his second year and where do you see him topping out as a player?

I had four paragraphs typed on Tristan, and I scrapped all of it. Re-reading it all, I was far too critical. Yes, when you analyze his game for what it is at this very moment, it's not pretty. He is severely limited on offense. His jumper is broken, and I doubt it will ever be average as his form just looks painful. In fact, I've seen people openly question why he doesn't shoot right-handed since it looks so much more natural than his left-handed shot. He has struggled immensely at the rim this season. He's shooting just 49% in the restricted area, and he has been blocked A LOT. It appears that he is still attempting to out-jump opponents when going up for lay ups/dunks. He has a long way to go on offense.

Defensively, he's not bad. He's solid defending the pick and roll, and his added strength has allowed him to stand his ground when defending one-on-one in the post. Where he does struggle is as the second line of defense. That's not to say he doesn't rotate. Tristan is actually a heads up defender, and usually makes the right rotations. Yet, like any young player, he's not always quick enough on the rotations. I went back and watched the last few games again, focusing solely on Thompson's defense, and I came away optimistic about his prospects on that end of the floor. There are times where he does get too focused on his man, but those are few and far between. Ultimately, I think you can see that he's getting a lot thrown at him, and it may be taking him a while to process everything. He shows flashes, and if he can put it together, he could be a very good defender.

As for where he'll end up, I hesitate to try and project his career because there's so much he has to learn. And I think it's important that people realize the learning curve on the defensive side is steeper than the offensive side. You look at the best defensive players in the game, and how long it took them to really get to that point, and you see just how difficult it is. I can remember when LeBron was on the team and people would lament his poor defense. By his last two years in Cleveland, it was like a switch flipped. So in that regard, I would preach patience with Tristan. Offensively, I really think he'd be better off forgetting his jumper altogether. Focus on floaters and jump hooks. He's got a good pump fake that gets a lot of defenders to bite, though for some reason he has used it sparingly this season. He can learn a lot from Andy, another player who's similarly limited on offense yet finds a way to be productive and effective. He needs to watch how Andy positions himself, the way he moves, and how he is able to use the rim and backboard to his advantage. If he can learn from Andy, and put those things to use, then I think Tristan can be a solid double-double guy.

(I know you didn't ask anything about Andy, but I'd be remiss not to use this space to briefly discuss just how great he's been to start this season. If Anderson Varejao is not an All-Star this season, provided he's healthy, it would be a traveshamockery (shout out to Ben Wallace). And all the talk about flopping in regards to Andy need to come to an end. The man stopped flopping years ago, and he's turned himself into a damn good basketball player. He's the lynchpin of the defense, the one guy keeping things from getting historically bad on that end. He rebounds like a madman, passes well, and still manages to throw in 15 points a game. I can feel a rant coming on, so I'll finish it up by saying go vote for Anderson Varejao to make the All-Star game.)

Cleveland will have had three days off after a brutal road trip before they play the Mavs at home tonight. Do you expect them to make any significant tweaks to their rotation or schemes in that period given their 2-6 start?

Byron has already tried tweaking his rotation. CJ Miles hasn't seen the floor in two games as he's been largely ineffective. Luke Walton was dropped from the rotation after just three games. The futility of this bench is bordering on the historic, but with four of the five starters being 1st or 2nd year players, Byron has tried like hell to avoid overworking them. By the end of the year, I think you'll see all five starters averaging at least 30 mpg, and Kyrie will probably end up at 37-38. As for immediate rotation tweaks, I really do not know what he'll do. It feels like he's tried everything. This team is just seriously lacking in legitimate NBA talent. Zeller and Gibson are the only decent players on the bench. Zeller is a rookie and Gibson is a specialist, so that gives you an idea of what the Cavs are working with. You're likely to see Dion or Kyrie spend more time with the second unit, which is something he went to a little bit in Brooklyn. Barring some free agent signings though, there's really not much Byron can do.

I can't see Byron making any significant schematic changes. I think we may see the bigs showing harder on the pick and roll, but the odds probably aren't great. If we haven't seen it at this point, I see no reason to believe it will happen in the near future. My hope is that Byron is quicker to yank Kyrie from the game if he's not giving effort on the defensive side, but that effectively kills the offense. It's a tough spot to be in, but the time off should do some good for this young team. That last game was a defensive atrocity, so there's no doubt in my mind that the team has spent the last three days working on it. For specifics, we'll have to wait and see.

In terms of the Cleveland sports scene, where do the Cavs rank compared to the Browns, Indians and Ohio State athletics?

I should preface this answer by saying I'm not from the Cleveland area. My dad and his family are though, so I do have a little bit of insight into the rooting interests of the city. It's more of a mixed bag than one would think, but it is still a football city first. After that, I'd give a slight edge to the Indians. The Cavs are solidly in third, and Ohio State is fourth. The thing is, those rankings tend to change with the season, as well as with each individual. For me, it's all about the Cavs, but I really only have a passing interest in the NFL and MLB. I watch it, but I'm not engrossed in it the way I am the NBA. But as a whole, as a city, I would say Browns, Indians, Cavs, OSU.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.