Kyrie Irving lives in a fisheye lens. He has racked up a slew of relatively meaningless titles — Rookie of the Year, Three-Point Shootout Champion, All-Star Game MVP — that nonetheless define him, because nothing else can. Two and a half years into his career, his reputation is still mostly unformed. Young players are difficult to figure out anyway: We’re constantly reevaluating them, confusing hot streaks with breakthroughs, a bad month with a plateau. But Irving is particularly inscrutable, because dysfunction like the Cavs have is an obscurant, and because, if you’re not a Cleveland fan, there is little reason to watch his games.
This explains why the conversations about him, whenever he pops into the center of that fisheye lens, are generic and vague — what a talented young player, so much potential, etc. — but these conversations are about as useful a tool of understanding as watching him take over the fourth quarter of an exhibition.
In one sense, Irving is what he was in the All-Star Game. He’s an ideal fit for that sort of contest because he’s a flashy dribbler, has 27-foot range and can finish niftily around the rim, especially if the help defense is non-existent. In his best regular season performances, he doesn’t play all that differently from the way he did Sunday night. There are times when he decides not to be guardable. He does not dominate so much as he emits an unconquerable joyfulness. These are the times when he is most visible, because NBA Twitter will alert you to what he’s doing, or you’ll see him in a highlight package, stringing together increasingly deeper three-pointers.
But when Irving isn’t ebullient, he hides. He hides on defense, where he’s only intermittently engaged. He hides when he’s off the ball, standing in the corner, half-hoping for a pass. He sometimes hides when games are out of reach, which they frequently have been during his brief career. He hides within the Cavs’ futility. So, to the larger public, he is what he is when he’s great, and when he’s not-so-great, few people are paying attention. You don’t think about the moon in the daytime.
There is a general rule — not a hard and fast one, more like a suggestion — that elite players make significant improvements in their third seasons. Our current generation of stars, if you peruse their career stats, started to figure themselves and the NBA out in year three: They bumped up their scoring averages, cut back on turnovers, etc. Irving is decidedly not doing that. In fact, he’s arguably having his worst season as a pro. The numbers bear this out, but he is also just different: quicker to sulk and overeager to win close games by himself. He might be the best dribbler in the league, but his overconfidence in his ability can make him black hole-like. His jumper isn’t falling the way it did in his rookie and sophomore campaigns, though I’m going to blame that on Mike Brown’s offense, which is designed, I’m pretty sure, to contract space and create semi-contested 15-footers. Irving’s team is 20-and-33, and that is at least kind of his fault. He did, after all, make a big deal this offseason about taking on a leadership role.
Teams are complex organisms, and I won’t waste words trying to guess to what extent the Cavs’ predicament can be blamed on Irving, but what I find discouraging is how hard Irving has made it to understand what he thinks about his current situation. There have been reports he wants out of Cleveland, and two GMs told the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd they think Irving is “pouting” about something, but on the record, he hasn’t said anything of which his agent wouldn’t approve. Irving makes it a point to be unknowable and never say anything interesting, but as much as you can get a sense of a person through watching them recite platitudes into recorders and smartphones, he strikes me as aloof. Aloofness in and of itself is not a bad quality, but on a lousy team that he has said is his responsibility to assume dominion over, it makes him seem like an apathetic jerk, an embodiment of the Cavs’ general air of befuddlement and ennui.
So there is Kyrie Irving, Occasional Highlight and Kyrie Irving, Actual Player. Both entities are somewhat illegible, but only one is a real thing. I wonder when the former will fade and the lens Irving lives in will flatten out. There is still plenty of time for him to find his way, and even for the Cavaliers to salvage their rebuild, but at some point, fans outside northeast Ohio will realize the picture of Irving they have in their head is insubstantial. For them not to be disappointed when they begin to figure out what sort of player Irving is on a night-to-night basis, he is going to need to locate the next developmental stage of his game. He is an obscure star right now, but that status won’t last much longer.