NBA All-Star Game 2014: Kyrie Irving earns deserving spot despite down year

Mike Lawrie

While Kyrie Irving's Cavaliers struggle and his individual play has too, the point guard has done enough to cement his place in the All-Star Game for years to come. SB Nation 2014 NBA Slam Dunk Contest Coverage

Kyrie Irving tops the list of NBA players who personally needed an All-Star selection.

We're not talking about career legacies, although that's why he's earned his second All-Star invite in two seasons. We're not talking about who's deserving and who isn't, either. Irving certainly makes a case there.

Irving might as well volunteer for a Southwest Airlines "Wanna Get Away" marketing campaign during a weekend in New Orleans, because the Cleveland Cavaliers point guard needs this week of respite for himself.

It's been a long, cold season in Cleveland. The Cavaliers have slogged through this season, compiling a 20-33 record despite having playoff aspirations. General manager Chris Grant was fired just before the All-Star Game, and first-year head coach Mike Brown has been criticized for his work. The team has suffered multiple blowouts and owns some of the more embarrassing losses of the year. One was a loss against a team that hardly had enough players to play a basketball game.

Irving's efficiency is down, but it doesn't mean he's much less dangerous. The Cavs guard is among the top 20 scorers on drives this season, according to SportVU player tracking data. In that regard, he's averaging 6.3 assists per game. He's also the third-most prolific scorer on pull-up jumpers per game behind Chris Paul and Stephen Curry, averaging 8.3 points per game on these attempts.

Irving, who is averaging 21.5 points per game, certainly deserves some blame for the way Cleveland's season is going. He's shooting a career-worst 43 percent overall and 36 percent from three-point range thanks to forcing the issue while attempting to carry the Cavaliers offense by himself. One of the league's best ball-handlers has used that label to fall into a trap of over-dribbling.

But Irving is also just 21 and has proven that he has as much talent as anyone in the league. Growing pains are the result of playing for a franchise where it seems management, coaches and players are all pulling in different directions.

Irving's All-Star resume, to this point of the season, leans heavily on last year and the summer as well. Irving looked like the best player on the court during Team USA's camp in July, adding to the legend that's already strong enough to build one of the newest but well-received ad campaigns with the point guard's Uncle Drew character.

And once you're in the All-Star club, it's hard to get out of it, after all.

This all isn't to suggest Irving isn't deserving -- not one bit. His struggles perhaps shed a brighter light on how big the mess in Cleveland might be. Irving remains the dynamic talent who the Cavs will do everything to please. And the franchise will do so because it knows Irving is a more-than-deserving All-Star.

The firing of Grant wasn't a move only to change the direction of this season. It wasn't a PR move by owner Dan Gilbert to make Grant a scapegoat. In all likelihood, the firing of Grant was a message to Irving, the price to be paid about showing the point guard that the franchise doesn't want to let him go, even though his free agency is a few years down the road. Rumors of Irving's unhappiness in Cleveland may or may not be true, but the truth is that it's hard to see the Cavs not understanding that Irving cannot be allowed to skip town after his rookie contract.

Numbers aside and this season aside, Irving stands in line as the next legendary point guard behind Chris Paul. Rajon Rondo's not likable enough on the national scale, nor a dangerous enough scorer to be seen in the same way. Stephen Curry, even though he's starting over Paul in the Western Conference and earned more votes than Irving, doesn't have the personal brand. Damian Lillard isn't well-known enough, John Wall is still relatively raw in his abilities, and Derrick Rose's injury issues have unfortunately taken him from the court altogether.

Expectations are mighty high for the 21-year-old, so Irving's statistics and impact on a troubled Cavs team this season don't reflect how good he already is. Those expectations are so high because he's put himself in position to be an All-Star starter for many years to come.

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