Much of the NBA world is waiting for June, when it seems the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet up again for the third straight time in the Finals. The temptation for that impulse is strong, but we’re a ways from June, and that result is far from guaranteed. The Cavs still have a lot to play for, and a lot can happen between now and then. It also remains unclear just what kind of team the Cavs will have. Here are five things to watch between now and the end of the regular season.
Can the Cavs manage LeBron James and Kyrie Irving’s minutes? Does it matter?
Kyrie Irving is averaging the 2nd most minutes of his career this season. The only time he ever played more was during his sensational 2014-15 year. He made an All-NBA team and eased the burden on LeBron James in a way that no one could have completely predicted. And then, with a week or so left in the season, he got hurt. He played with a nagging injury throughout the playoffs, and then missed the first three games of the Cavs’ sweep of the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. Then, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he broke his kneecap.
Irving is having a similar year this year. He’s taken a few games off, but with the Cavs opting to let Matthew Dellavedova walk in free agency, has ultimately taken a larger role both offensively and defensively. His usage and assist rates are higher than they’ve been since LeBron James came back to the Cavs. It would be wise for the Cavs to take it easy on Irving. The biggest difference between their championship season a year ago and the team that came up just short the year before was a healthy Kyrie Irving.
LeBron James’ minutes get talked about ad nauseum. He’s averaging the third least minutes of his career, and has taken a few games off. Even as he’s been asked to play more backup point guard, he has the second lowest usage rate of his career. The result is the second highest assist rate of his career; the ball remains in his hands, he just isn’t the one completing the plays as often. James says he feels good, but I think you’ll see the Cavs continue to get him games off. If Derrick Williams can maintain his play as a playable bench option, it allows LeBron a bit more time to sit. We will see.
Will the Cavs make a big splash before the trade deadline on Thursday?
I’m not really holding my breath. The Cavs already went out and added Kyle Korver. The two biggest trade assets are Cedi Osman (whose value probably fluctuates wildly around the various teams) and Iman Shumpert. Shumpert ultimately plays the position the Cavs would be looking to replace, so finding trade partners is difficult.
The Cavs do have a roster spot, so perhaps a Langston Galloway (if he’s waived by the Kings) or Dahntay Jones signing is out there. More important for the Cavs will be adding J.R. Smith and Kevin Love back into the fold.
Will the Cavs win the East’s top seed?
The Boston Celtics could shake things up between now and Thursday, and would seem to be the biggest threat to the Cavs. They are four games back in the loss column, two in the wins column. Still, it’s unlikely that the Cavs will prioritize the top seed. They made it to the Finals two season ago as the 2nd seed, and won the NBA title by going on the road for a Game 7. The Cavs haven’t necessarily peaked yet this year, so it might be nice to see them get to a high level for a sustained stretch at some point before the playoffs. If they do that, they’ll be the top seed. Again, though, it’s hard to see them caring much.
When will Kevin Love and J.R. Smith come back? How will they play when they come back?
I think you’re looking at early April returns for both, and the playoffs gets started just two weeks later. In a perfect world, you wouldn’t be asking very much from LeBron James or Kyrie Irving during the last week of the regular season, but it might be important for them to see real time so that the starters have a bit of time to find a rhythm. The Cavs have the luxury of being able to use the first round of the playoffs as a time to catch their legs, but they won’t want to play too many unnecessary games.
J.R. Smith should be able to have his legs ready to go; he’s already been working out fairly hard. He was shooting horribly to start the season, though, so you wonder how long it will take him to get comfortable. We saw with Kyrie Irving a year ago how long it took for him to really get comfortable off of a knee injury. The Cavs need to hope Kevin Love doesn’t go through that same period. Love’s defense has been pretty darn good this season, but even losing a quarter of a step defensively could be really painful for the Cavs. The Cavs will need to be careful in managing his workload when he comes back.