The departure took place on the NBA’s grandest stage at the moment of maximum visibility: Kyrie Irving left Game 1 of the Finals with a season-ending knee injury, in overtime no less, having played an exceptional overall game. His absence, announced in bitter emotions post-game and confirmed later, didn’t strike the already undermanned Cavaliers’ dead on sight, but it strongly tilted the balance of the series to the Warriors, who eventually won in six.
By contrast, the return, a moment for which Cleveland has been waiting more than six months, was announced with as little fanfare as possible. “I’m back,” Irving wrote simply on Twitter Saturday, as if he walked down to the corner post office. Irving started and scored 12 points in a 108–86 win against the Sixers in what amounts to the ultimate soft launch against a pack of understudies. His comeback won’t be expected to boost the Cavaliers (18–7) to the top of the East standings; they’re already there, cruising ahead of a deeper-than-expected pack of “pretty good but not scary” squads that simply can’t match up on aggregate talent.
While the circumstances are different here in December, the stakes are the same as they were back in June: A Cavaliers title is possible with Irving and just about impossible without him.
Cleveland survived its Irving-less stretch about as well as could be expected. LeBron James has posted his typical MVP candidate numbers (26.6 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 6.5 APG) and shepherded a top-five offense while playing more minutes than he would probably prefer (36.8 MPG). Matthew Dellavedova has performed admirably in Irving’s absence, and guard Mo Williams has re-acclimated himself to live alongside James. Kevin Love (17.6 PPG, 10.8 RPG) has hopped back into the All-Star discussion after a year away thanks to an increased offensive role. The defense (ranked tied for ninth) has been good enough to get by and should pick up once Irving and Iman Shumpert (who returned from a long-term wrist injury only to sustain a groin injury this week) are back in the rotation full-time.
Taken together, that’s the profile of a sleeping giant, one that proved last season it’s capable of ripping off an 18–2 stretch. One that’s capable, with James, Irving and Love , of giving Golden State a run for its money in the firepower department. One that has the size, versatility and interchangeability defensively, when fully healthy, to offer strong counters to small ball, tall ball and everything in between.
To get a reminder of what the Cavaliers are capable with Irving, look no further than their lineup data. Here’s how the most-used lineup by the ’15 Cavaliers (Irving, J.R. Smith, James, Love and Timofey Mozgov) compared to the most-used lineup by the ’16 Cavaliers so far (Williams in place of Irving).
- ‘15 Cavaliers: Off. Rating: 116.1 | Def. Rating: 96.8 | Net Rating: +19.3 | 481 minutes
- ‘16 Cavaliers: Off. Rating: 103.3 | Def. Rating: 101.6 | Net Rating: +1.7 | 151 minutes
For comparison’s sake, no team this season has a higher offensive rating overall than 116.1 and only the Spurs have a better defensive rating overall than 96.8. When Irving is on the court, Cleveland’s best unit plays elite basketball on both sides. Period. Without him, the Cavaliers are merely holding down the fort.
There’s also a fun factor to consider: Irving’s game is predicated on energy, speed and unpredictability. His best plays, much like Stephen Curry’s, are spontaneous manifestations of his ball-handling, finishing and shooting skills. There’s often the sense, after he loses someone with a series of dribbles or kisses in an off-balance layup, that there was no way he could have planned what he had just done. This persistent thrill – the one that produced 57-point and 55-point explosions last season – has been sorely lacking for the Cavaliers this season.
James, now 30, produces a highlight reel by himself virtually every night, but it’s been laborious: his outside jumper hasn’t been there, he’s had to physically overpower opponents on his best nights, and there’s a general sense that he’s been pressing, and a bit impatient, for things to come together. The 27-year-old Love, too, is capable of superb plays as both a scorer and a passer, but his best moments usually makes one nod in appreciation rather than jump out of the seat.
Irving, 23, is the electricity, the lightning bolt, the jester. The Cavaliers not only need a dependable scorer and play-maker in their backcourt, they also need someone who can bridge the widening gap between Golden State’s joyful utopia and Cleveland’s intentional super-seriousness. Irving alone does both. With any luck, he’ll remind the world of that during the much-anticipated Finals rematch on Christmas.
Coach David Blatt will need to monitor Irving’s progress in the short-term, he’ll need to ensure Irving’s offense doesn’t marginalize Love, and he’ll probably need to juggle lineups a bit as he gets used to having his full group. But those are good problems to have, far better than the “How do we replace Kyrie?” alternative. Irving’s injury not only effectively ended Cleveland’s ‘15 season but it also effectively delayed the real start to Cleveland’s ’16 season. Now, finally, the Cavaliers are ready to go.