While the Cleveland Cavaliers are 17-7 and lead the NBA's Eastern Conference, their All-NBA point guard Kyrie Irving hasn't played a single minute. He's still out from a knee injury sustained during the Finals, and while the initial timeline provided for the injury would have had him back and on the court by now, the Cavs have played things extremely cautious. This makes sense. Irving missed most of his Freshman season at Duke, and has seen more than his fair share of bumps and bruises in his first four years in the NBA. After the Cavs were left without both Irving and Kevin Love after Game 1 of the Finals last season, the team is cognizant of the importance of maintaining their availability when things really start to matter - in May, and then hopefully June.
In other words, slow playing Irving's return is completely reasonable, and in fact prudent. After the Cavs played Irving after he missed the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals in Game 4 even though they were at home and on the verge of sweeping the Hawks, a course correction might even be needed. To a point. Injuries happen and while prevention is something certain teams do better than others, there will always going to be a certain lack of predictability. The Cavs can be as cautious as they want, but it won't guarantee Irving is ready to play in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It also makes sense for the Cavs to take their time with Irving given their early success. The lead the Eastern Conference and for as good as the Indiana Pacers have looked, not many really think they will get the top seed of the East. Even if they did, it's hard to see it being something that precludes another Cavs Finals appearance. Third year guard Matthew Dellavedova has performed at an insanely high level at point guard in Irving's absence. There's a temptation to say, hey, Kyrie, go have yourself have a Happy New Year and we'll talk in January.
That would be a mistake. The big caveat here is that the assumption is that Irving is, basically, healthy. According to Chris Haynes of Cleveland.com, this is the case (read the whole article):
The stage is set for Kyrie Irving to make his long-awaited season debut Sunday afternoon against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Although nothing is official, Irving, 23, has done all that's asked of him.
The team continues to say he needs to pass a few more tests, but sources say the fifth-year point guard has been ready, and his teammates have played a major role to get him there.
The Cleveland Cavaliers, winners of their last four games and sitting at the top of the Eastern Conference, executed their plan to perfection during Irving's recovery from knee surgery: They have played well and kept unnecessary pressure to return from creeping into Irving's head.
Now, this is 100% correct. The Cavs have survived, and more, Irving's absence. But there has been extra stress on the Cavs roster without Irving, and his return will help relieve that tension. In fairness, it isn't just Irving who has missed time in the Cavs backcourt. Iman Shumpert has played just one game. Mo Williams and J.R. Smith have missed a bit of time. And while Matthew Dellavedova has operated just fine as the team's point guard, it's led to more creating responsibilities for LeBron James.
One of the goals of this Cavs team was to find ways to reduce the burdens on LeBron James. With Irving and Kevin Love, James was going to be able to take a step back. In year one, it largely just depended on whether or not Irvin was playing.
LeBron James used 40.4% of the Cavs possessions last year when Kyrie Irving didn't play. This season he's using 33.2% of them.— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) December 16, 2015
The Cavs have made real progress at finding non-LeBron, non-Kyrie scoring and creating options. Unfortunately, a 33.2% usage rate represents James' highest mark since 2009-10. He's still averaging under 37 minutes per game, but his minutes have ticked up a bit from last year, which can't have been the trend the Cavs had in mind coming into the season. LeBron isn't old. He turns 31 at the end of the month. But the Cavs can and should be managing both his minutes and responsibilities, both for June effectiveness, and for 2019 effectiveness.
The good news is that there's a ready-made solution on the Cavs roster; Kyrie Irving simply needs to be healthy and ready to go. When James shared the court with Irving last season he used under 30% of the Cavs possessions. Kevin Love's usage rate hasn't approached Minnesota levels, but it has ticked up some. The Cavs have the pieces and ability to manage LeBron James' workload. If Kyrie Irving is able, it's time for him to lace 'em up.
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