People talk about the worst kept secrets all the time. I’m not sure if this counts as a secret necessarily, but in what should be a surprise to absolutely no one, news leaked Sunday that the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving is going to be named NBA Rookie of the Year.
The official announcement isn’t going to come until Tuesday, and we can talk about Kyrie and what this award means to him at that time. Meanwhile, rather than waiting for the inevitable, now is a good time to talk about what this award means to the Cavaliers.
When LeBron James left Cleveland, we knew it was an end of an era. More than that, it was the end of the winning. No more playoffs, no more championship aspirations. Instead of playing with the trade machine trying to figure out who the Cavs could acquire to put them over the top, it was on to adapt and survive mode. The rebuilding process began almost as fast as the winning came to a stop.
Well, maybe not quite that fast. The Cavaliers did play around with the idea of making the playoffs without LeBron. With a roster of Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, JJ Hickson, Antawn Jamison, Daniel Gibson, Jamario Moon, Anthony Parker, and Ramon Sessions, there was some hope that the Cavaliers would be good enough to sneak into the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference.
For a while, it appeared that could happen. The Cavaliers came out on opening night and stunned the Boston Celtics, giving Cavalier fans that maybe rebuilding wouldn’t be so painful after all. In the end, though, it was mere illusion, and injuries crept in and suddenly, without the heart and soul of the franchise from the past 7 years, the will seemed to be sucked from the roster.
The losses piled up, and before long, Chris Grant officially signaled the start of rebuilding by sending off Mo Williams and Jamario Moon for Baron Davis and the Clippers’ unprotected first round pick. The Cavaliers bottomed out, setting a record for the NBA’s longest losing streak. As bleak as that season was, though, there was hope.
Suddenly, the Cavaliers had a shot to have two high draft picks. The Clippers’ pick was slotted 8th in the lottery, and the Cavaliers’ own pick was slotted 2nd. The Cavaliers’ pick ended up falling to 4th, but the Clippers’ pick won the lottery, securing two picks in the top five for the wine and gold.
It’s funny, the Cavaliers went 34 years without ever having a rookie of the year before LeBron James came to theoretically save the franchise. Once LeBron left, there was no guarantee of how quickly another rookie of his caliber would come. Of course, there will never be another LeBron James in Cleveland. There may never be another LeBron James in the NBA period. Never the less, the task for the Cavaliers was to find their next franchise player.
When Michael Jordan left the Bulls, it took them 12 years to get a rookie of the year franchise player in Derrick Rose. Now Rose has an MVP under his belt, the Bulls have had the East’s best record back to back seasons, and the franchise is back to being a legit Championship contender.
The Seattle SuperSonics lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the 1996 NBA Finals. After one more season, Shawn Kemp was traded to Cleveland and the Sonics would never make it past the 2nd round of the playoffs again. Gary Payton left after the 2002-03 season and despite some feeble playoff attempts with the Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Vladimir Radmanovic era Sonics, the franchise was waiting for another impact franchise player. It took them 11 years after the Finals appearance to find Kevin Durant, the player who has blossomed from Rookie of the Year into MVP-candidate, three-time consecutive scoring champ, and leader of one of the Western Conference’s elite teams.
The Los Angeles Clippers have been around since 1970, when they were the Buffalo Braves. They moved to San Diego before ultimately settling in LA in 1984. Prior to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul’s arrival, the LA Clippers had made the playoffs just 4 times, winning a series just once. Griffin won the Rookie of the Year award in 2010-11, giving the Clippers instant credibility, helping them to not just trade for Chris Paul, but also to give him incentive to waive his early termination option and stay with the Clippers for at least another season. Now the Clippers are in the 2nd round again and look like a franchise on the rise.
Not all rookies of the year end up transforming their franchises. For every Rose, Durant, Paul, and Griffin there’s a Tyreke Evans, Emeka Okafor, and Mike Miller. However, there tends to be a certain eye test for franchise players. When Evans, Okafor, and Miller won their awards, nobody was proclaiming them great franchise players. They tended to be more of winners by default in weak rookie classes.
Only time will tell how strong or weak this year’s rookie class ends up being, but nobody will say Irving only won because there weren’t any franchise rookies. Kyrie Irving is this year’s franchise rookie. The past 10 ROYs have been: Griffin, Evans, Rose, Durant, Brandon Roy, Paul, Okafor, LeBron, Amare Stoudemire, and Pau Gasol. Brandon Roy’s injuries derailed his career, but there’s no question he would have been a franchise player had he stayed healthy. You can debate whether Stoudemire and Gasol are franchise players, but both are clear All-Stars who have played in the playoffs and helped their teams contend for Championship.
The point of all of this is simple. Finding franchise players in the draft isn’t easy. Having the top pick in the draft is no sure thing either. It’s easy to look back now and forget just how strong of a sentiment there was among Cavalier fans for the team to draft Derrick Williams first and settle on Brandon Knight 4th. Williams and Knight are both fine players in their own right and look like they’ll be in the NBA for a long time. But neither one appears to be a franchise transforming player like Kyrie Irving.
Cavs fans have been questioning how long it would take to recover from LeBron’s defection and to rebuild the team into a relevant franchise. Instead of taking years or decades to find the next rookie of the year, the Cavaliers only had to wait one year.
It should not be understated just how fortunate this scenario is for the Cavaliers. You don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves with Irving, but his rookie PER of 21.49 stacks pretty favorably with the likes of Durant (15.87), LeBron (18.30), Paul (22.14), and Rose (16.05). He still has a long way to go and a lot to improve upon, but the Cavaliers should feel good that they appear to have jump started the rebuilding process by landing Irving.
With another likely top 5 pick in the draft this year, the Cavaliers as a franchise are in a pretty good place right now. Or, at least a much better place than they were in during that fateful 2010-11 season. And all of the goodwill Cavs fans feel today is in large part thanks to Kyrie Irving.
He will never be LeBron and he shouldn’t aspire to replace LeBron in Cleveland. But what matters is that he is making Cavs fans forget about LeBron. Sure, we all still want LeBron to lose in the playoffs. Most Cavs fans hope LeBron never wins a ring. But it somehow doesn’t feel as important that he fail as it did last year. In the playoffs last season, Cleveland fans seemed to hang on to whichever team Miami was playing. This year, it doesn’t seem to matter as much.
Sure, part of it is just time healing those wounds. But the bigger factor is everything Irving has meant to the franchise and its fans. The Cavaliers haven’t had a winning season post-LeBron yet. They haven’t made the playoffs yet. Heck, the Cavaliers finished with the 3rd worst record in the NBA this year. But none of that matters right now. When viewed through the scope of rebuilding, the Cavaliers are in a great place.
There’s plenty of time for Kyrie Irving’s story to be written. Who knows how his time in Cleveland will end up? For today, all that matters is that he is the clear rookie of the year, he appears to have the qualities of a franchise player, and thanks to him, the future of the Cavaliers looks brighter than ever. This Rookie of the Year award is hopefully only the beginning for this franchise and it’s newest star player.