|Kyrie Irving in action during a 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup semifinal match between USA and Lithuania at Palau Sant Jordi on Sept. 9, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain
Winning the gold medal for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup in September in Spain was Kyrie Irving’s “biggest accomplishment of my life.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers’ point guard could be adding to his accomplishments in June.
The NBA season begins with three games Tuesday night, and Irving’s Cavaliers are gearing up for a deep run in the NBA playoffs, one that many predict could end in the NBA Finals. When free agent LeBron James announced he was returning to the Cavs in Sports Illustrated July 11, it started a chain reaction on the team’s roster.
They not only added two-time Olympic champion James, generally known as the best player on the planet, but also they traded for power forward Kevin Love — a 2012 Olympic champion — on Aug. 23.
That gave the Cavaliers, whose season tips off Thursday against the New York Knicks, three of arguably the top 15 players in the league.
Irving signed a maximum contract extension, and then went out and helped Team USA to an undefeated sweep of the international field at the World Cup. He captured Most Valuable Player honors in Spain.
“This feels amazing,” Irving said. “It’s one of the greatest feelings that I’ve ever felt.”
Irving was surrounded by an array of gifted players on Team USA, including Denver’s Kenneth Faried, Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Houston’s James Harden and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis. That prepared him to be the floor general of the Cavaliers, who some project could win in excess of 60 games.
“For me it was about going out there and playing with other great players in the world,” Irving said. “I’ve never gotten to experience that.”
Irving and his teammates sacrificed some individual numbers for the good of the team. The same thing could happen with the Cavaliers.
“USA Basketball, being a part of it, you’re part of something bigger than yourself,” Irving said.
By winning the World Cup, Team USA secured a spot at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
The Cavaliers also added veteran players such as 2004 U.S. Olympian Shawn Marion to their roster. On paper, they could be the top team in the East.
“No matter what you have in the locker room and what it says on paper, you have to go through a lot of pitfalls,” James said. “You have to go through tough times to get where we want to go. You have to have patience with the process.”
TNT analyst and 1996 U.S. Olympic champion Reggie Miller said the Cavaliers’ inexperience would be hard to overcome.
“They have a lot of guys who haven’t been in this situation before,” he said. “They brought in Shawn Marion and Mike Miller, who have won championships, to help players like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. As great as those players are, they will never understand the intensity it is going to take for them to win a championship. Obviously, bringing the best player on the planet (James) to your team means your goal is to win a championship.”
Here’s a look at the NBA this season.
|Derrick Rose defends against Puerto Rico during their game at Madison Square Garden on Aug. 22, 2014 in New York City.
The battle for the Eastern Conference has two clear preseason favorites.
“Barring major injury, I can’t see Chicago or Cleveland not finding their way to the Eastern Conference finals,” ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said.
Bulls point guard Derrick Rose became the youngest player to win the NBA MVP award when he did so at age 22 in 2010-11. However, serious knee injuries limited Rose to just 10 games in the previous two seasons.
Rose, now 25, spent the summer with Team USA in part to prove that his knees were healthy for the upcoming NBA season. That’s a good sign for the Bulls, who added forward/center Pau Gasol in free agency and paired the 7-footer with center Joakim Noah, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
“I think for the first time in a long time, Derrick Rose looked like himself and, obviously, everybody was aware it was going to take some time,” ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said. “He’s an explosive talent. He is a tremendous weapon. He makes them a totally different basketball team and he was in attack mode.”
The Rest of the East
There is a talent gap in the East after the first two teams, but playoff teams like Toronto, Washington, Atlanta and Charlotte will provide much competition. The Raptors, led by World Cup competitor DeMar DeRozan, appear to be the class of the Atlantic Division.
There could be fierce competition for the last two or three spots in the East from Brooklyn, Boston, New York, Detroit, Indiana and Miami. Brooklyn features World Cup competitor Mason Plumlee, while U.S. teammate Andre Drummond plays for Detroit. Meanwhile, U.S. Olympic stalwarts such as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (Miami) and Carmelo Anthony (New York) return to their teams.
Wild, Wild West
There could be as many as six teams that could potentially come out of the Western Conference this season, including defending champion San Antonio. Other potential West champions could be Oklahoma City, the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, Houston and possibly Portland.
The rest of the league keeps waiting for age to finally catch up to the Spurs. Of course, people have been saying that for about three years.
San Antonio boasts perhaps the best coach in the league in Gregg Popovich, who has won five NBA championships. A survey of NBA general managers predicts the Spurs (46.2 percent of the vote) will win their second consecutive NBA crown. They have their own Big Three with Tim Duncan, a 2004 U.S. Olympian, and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
U.S. World Cup teammates Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins are looking to lead the Sacramento Kings back to the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
|Rudy Gay works out during a training session at Quest MultiSport Complex on Aug. 15, 2014 in Chicago.
Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant, the reigning NBA MVP, planned to participate in the World Cup but withdrew just before the tournament saying he needed to “take some time away, both mentally and physically,” after an exhausting NBA season.
The 2010 world champion and 2012 Olympic champion now doesn’t have much of a choice. Durant, the NBA’s scoring champion in four of the past five seasons, suffered a foot injury in the preseason and will miss considerable time.
Longtime teammate Russell Westbrook — who also teamed up with Durant in the 2010 FIBA World Championship and 2012 Olympic Games — will be called on to pick up some of the slack.
“I think what makes that team so dangerous or what has made them so dangerous and so successful has been that two-headed monster of Durant and Westbrook,” Jackson said. “As great as Durant is, I think Westbrook’s greatness and his constant attack mode makes life so much easier for everybody else on the floor.”
Lakers are Struggling
Future Hall of Fame shooting guard Kobe Bryant — an Olympic champion for Team USA in 2008 and 2012 — is back for his 19th season. He was limited to six games last year due to injury. However, the Los Angele Lakers don’t appear to offer Bryant much support, especially after veteran point guard Steve Nash went down with a season-ending injury in the preseason.
First-year Lakers coach Byron Scott will have to work miracles to get this team into the postseason.
“He’s going to play as well as a 36-year-old guard can play in this league,” Van Gundy said. “But at the end of the day they’re going through a rebuilding phase right now. They just don’t have the level of talent that Lakers fans are used to seeing.”