By Ben Golliver
The Cavaliers announced Monday that All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving is expected to miss three-to-four weeks after an MRI revealed an acromioclavicular sprain of his left shoulder.
Irving suffered the injury during the third quarter of a 100-96 loss to the Raptors in Toronto on Sunday. He initially underwent an X-ray in Toronto, which came back negative, but he told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that his shoulder was troubling him, which prompted the further examination.
"It still doesn't feel right," he said. "So, not really. No solace in that."
"I was afraid to touch it," Irving said. "I was unsure what was going on."
Irving, 20, is averaging 23 points, 5.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 35.1 minutes per game. He leads Cleveland in nearly every statistical category: points, assists, steals, field goal attempts, free throw attempts and three-point shooting percentage. He ranks No. 4 among point guards in PER this season and recently ranked No. 5 on The Point Forward's top 10 point guards list. Irving was selected to his first All-Star Game in February and, despite being the youngest player in the big game, he was the breakout star of the weekend, putting on a show in the Rising Stars Challenge, winning the Three-Point Contest and going head-to-head with Clippers guard Chris Paul in the marquee event.
The shoulder marks the second injury-related setback of Irving's season. Back in November, he suffered a hairline fracture in his left index finger, an injury that was supposed to sideline him for four weeks. He returned in three weeks. Irving, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, also missed 15 games for the Cavaliers last season and sat out for an extended period of time due to a concussion. He also broke his hand last summer, an injury that prevented him from participating in the 2012 Las Vegas Summer League. A toe injury also caused him to miss a majority of his one and only season at Duke.
The Cavaliers will be tough to watch without him and they must at least face the possibility that he won't return this season, as the regular season ends in just more than five weeks. If Irving again beats his initial recovery timeline, then getting him back on the court will be good for his psyche and good for the ticket sales numbers. If he winds up needing the full month to recover, the risk of bringing him back for a few games might wind up outweighing the reward. Parsing that calculation further is pure speculation right now.
Last season, the Cavaliers went 17-34 (.333) with Irving and 4-11 (.267) without him. This year, the numbers have been virtually identical: 17-32 (.347) with him and 4-10 (.286) without him. Bigger than that perceptible difference in performance is the enormous chasm in entertainment value that exists between an Irving-led Cavaliers team and the group that will be forced to band together without him for the next month. He is the team's singular star and one of the league's most intriguing young players; he dominates late-game situations like few players in this league and his development is powered by a precocious self-confidence. His pull on the viewer is so magnetic that it almost inspires pity for Shaun Livingston and Daniel Gibson, who will do their best to fill his shoes.
The silver lining for the Cavaliers, if you want to call it that: Irving's absence won't impact the team's playoff chances and it could meaningfully impact their draft lottery positioning. At 21-42, Cleveland is a full 12 games out of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference with just 19 games to play. Their playoff chances in a rebuilding year were slim to start and the loss of Anderson Varejao for the season in January put the symbolic fork in them.
Injuries to star players rarely qualify as a blessing in disguise, and ultimately Irving's growth is the organization's top priority. With that said, Cleveland is in a crowded race to the bottom for Ping-Pong balls. If the season ended today, the Cavaliers would select fourth, but there are eight teams clustered between 20 and 23 wins. Something as simple as a three-game winning streak could drop them as far as ninth in the draft order. If Cleveland continues to win at its .286 pace without Irving, the team will go 5-14 down the stretch to finish with 26 wins. That would seem to be enough to help them hold on to the No. 4 position, if not even improve to the No. 3. Within the context of the team's youth movement, ensuring a top-five lottery pick in June's draft isn't the worst consolation prize for a month of ugly basketball without their franchise guy.