Hard to believe that anyone’s role model in the NBA would be . . . the Cleveland Cavaliers? The little team that couldn’t? The franchise so unattractive that it could not even entice local sensation LeBron James to stay? The team that has lost its last three games by an average of 28.3 points per game?
Admittedly, it is difficult to look up to the Cavaliers when they went from seasons of winning 66 and 61 games to winning only 19 last season. And even though a case will be made that they are in fact a role model to one team – hey, one is a step up from last season – there are many games left and ample time to go on a terrifically long losing streak, just like last year (26 in a row).
Still, the Cavs have won 40 percent of their games so far. And it does seem that, on the sunny side, the Cavs have found an excellent player in No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving, whose most amazing statistic is his date of birth – March 23, 1992.
He is still two months away from his 20th birthday.
The Cavs were confident they had a prodigious talent in Irving, but a high school body and a professional world are not a good mix, particularly for a player who played only 11 games in college at Duke because of a foot injury. By the end of this season, perhaps the physical demands will limit him.
But he has been everything a team could hope for in a No. 1 pick, and that’s how bad teams begin rebuilding. Irving not only leads the Cavs in scoring with 17.4 points a game, but he also one of only two players in the regular Cleveland rotation to shoot at least 50 percent from the field. And the other player has more than 100 fewer shot attempts.
Irving has also been excellent from 3-point range, hitting 43 percent of his attempts. That places him in the top 10 among point guards in 3-point shooting.
“I love what I see with Kyrie,” Cleveland coach Byron Scott said recently after a game. “He has All-Star-potential written all over him. It’s a matter of how much he wants it. After being around him for six weeks, he wants to be a great player in this league. He needs to continue to work on it.”
So besides the Cavaliers, who might be encouraged by Irving’s early-season performance?
The answer is the New Orleans Hornets, a.k.a. the New Orleans Olympic Towers – the team controlled by the league office. The Hornets have no hope of competing this season, especially with guard Eric Gordon – the key player the league coerced the Clippers into including in the deal for Chris Paul – sidelined another week or two with a knee injury. Gordon has played in only two games this season.
The Hornets look to be in a season-long race with the Wizards to get the most chances to win the No. 1 pick next year, although the Pistons, Bobcats, Raptors and Nets will make a race of it. And we still can’t count Cleveland out.
New Orleans also received Minnesota’s top draft pick in the Paul deal, and the league was counting on the continued ineptitude of the Timberwolves to assist the beloved New Orleans franchise in getting another top player.
Oddly, Irving’s main competition for Rookie of the Year may actually be a key reason the Wolves pick is not as good as the league had hoped. Ricky Rubio has moved into the starting lineup for Minnesota and he’s having the positive impact a great passing point guard can have on a team that ranks only 21st in the league in field goal percentage. The Wolves don’t have a lot of great shooters, but they do have players who can be effective when getting the ball in the right place. And Rubio is delivering 8.3 assists per game, seventh best in the league.
Minnesota may have a difficult time competing for a playoff position in the brutal Western Conference, but the Wolves could be good enough to severely reduce the value of the pick the Hornets will receive.
Once again, however, that’s where the Cavs become role models for the Hornets. The Cavs did not get the No. 1 pick and Irving because they were bad last season. They had the second most chances in the lottery with 199, but that pick turned out to be No. 4, a choice they used to select 20-year-old forward Tristan Thompson of the University of Texas, who is averaging only 18 minutes a game.
The Irving pick was a result of a Cavs trade with the Clippers, taking Baron Davis’ contract of their hands. There was only a 2.8 percent chance of winning the lottery with that choice, but it is the one that came through No. 1.