HOUSTON: When Kyrie Irving and LeBron James step onto the practice floor together today, visions of what could be will dance in the heads of Cavaliers fans across the region.
With the growing belief James will consider returning to Cleveland during the summer of 2014, this weekend’s All-Star festivities could be a foreshadowing of things to come. For now, neither player is taking the chatter seriously. Irving is enjoying his first All-Star weekend, and James is positioning the Miami Heat for perhaps consecutive NBA championships.
“That’s one thing I’m not even thinking about right now,” James said of a return to the Cavaliers. “I’m focused on All-Star weekend now and even more trying to win another championship.”
But the whispers of a possible James return aren’t going away — fueled in part by James’ comments the last time the Heat played in Cleveland — and Irving is a big reason why.
James has often shouldered the role of point guard — he’ll even be the starting point guard for the East on Sunday — because he has played with mediocre point guards throughout his career. From former Canton McKinley star Eric Snow, to Damon Jones, Jeff McInnis, Mo Williams, Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo and a broken down Mike Bibby, the list of point guards James has played with ranges from mediocre at best to guys barely hanging on in the NBA.
Yet James gushes over Irving, posting messages on his Twitter account praising him for his 40-point effort last month in a win over the Boston Celtics and declaring Irving an All-Star long before the coaches’ votes were tallied.
“I said earlier this year or last year that in a couple years, he’d be top two or top three best point guards in the league,” James said Friday. “He’s headed there already. His ability to shoot the ball, his ability to drive the ball and finish, I think he’s one of the best finishers we have in our game. I think the next level for him is to continue to get his teammates better. That will separate him, but he’s doing some great things right now and they should be excited about having him in Cleveland.”
Irving and James were teammates once before at Chris Paul’s charity game during the NBA lockout. That was before Irving ever played in an NBA game.
He has a good relationship with James and the two chat periodically, but Irving generally dismisses the thought of James returning to Cleveland … at least for now.
“When it comes around that time, I’ll actually take it serious,” Irving said this week. “But he has this season and next season. When it actually happens, I’ll start giving a serious answer to it. Other than that, I haven’t really thought about it.”
James won the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game in Houston as a member of the Cavs in 2006. Asked Friday how his game has changed since then, James said he is a better shooter today and more willing to play on the blocks. He said he wasn’t a complete basketball player then in part because he couldn’t shoot the ball as well as he does now.
James is on an incredible tear, becoming the first player in NBA history to score at least 30 points and shoot at least 60 percent from the field in six consecutive games. That streak ended Thursday in a victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when he scored 39 points, but shot 58 percent. He was at 60 percent before missing his final shot, a meaningless 3-pointer with the Heat comfortably ahead and a minute left in the game.
James more aggressive
James downplayed the streak, but Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul sees the change. Paul, a close friend, has complained at James for years that he takes too many fadeaway jumpers rather than attacking opponents.
“LeBron used to let people off the hook,” Paul said Friday. “LeBron has been a freak of nature since we were in high school. I used to tell him, against everybody but us, put guys in the basket.
“He’s doing now what he probably could’ve done a while ago. He doesn’t settle, he doesn’t let people off the hook.”
James agrees, admitting he is driving the lane more and playing on the blocks more than he ever did before.
It’s by no means a guarantee he returns to Cleveland. The Cavs must improve their record next season and become a legitimate playoff contender for James to consider returning.
“The idea is kind of cool,” said Cavs guard Daniel Gibson, who isn’t as close to James as he was when they were teammates. “He’s the best player in the game. It’d be cool if he came back. But it’s hard to predict the future.”
There are other tantalizing possibilities for James to consider. Provided Kobe Bryant follows through on retirement, the Los Angeles Lakers are poised to have the cap space to add him, and the Chicago Bulls could create the space by using their amnesty provision to release Carlos Boozer.
James, however, declined the opportunity to join the Bulls in 2010 and Chicago still has the looming aura of Michael Jordan.
Jordan took a shot at James this week when he said he’d rather have Bryant because Bryant has five rings and James has only one.
“That’s his own opinion,” James said Friday. “At the end of the day, rings don’t always define someone’s career. If that’s the case, then I’d sit up here and say I would take [Boston Celtics legend Bill] Russell over Jordan, but I wouldn’t. Russell has 11 rings, Jordan has six. Or I’d take Robert Horry over Kobe. I wouldn’t do that. Rings do not define someone’s career.”
It’s ironic James is arguing that now, considering he bolted Cleveland three years ago for a better opportunity to win championships with the Heat.
Irving will be 22 and James will be 29 when he can be a free agent again in the summer of 2014. The thought of Irving and James running pick-and-rolls is devastating to future opponents. For now, Sunday’s All-Star Game is the closest to reality the two will get to being teammates — at least for another 18 months.
For only a moment, Irving allowed himself this week to think of the possible pairing.
“If it did happen,” Irving said, “our potential is endless.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.