The Cleveland Cavaliers are stuck. They’re stuck in a position that 28 other teams in the NBA would beg to be in.
The Cavaliers have the second best team in the NBA by a mile, but they’re another mile behind the best team in the league and recent NBA Finals Champions, Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have a great shot at keeping their superteam core together for possibly the next five or so years and the current Cavaliers roster has little shot at taking them down next season, let alone in two or three years. The idea of trading for Paul George has engulfed Twitter and social media ever since the Cavaliers’ season ended and while the idea behind it would definitely help the team, the plausibility of it seems to be nonexistent at this point.
The Cavaliers need to find a way to improve their current roster by adding another superstar and hopefully keeping Kevin Love as well. In order for the Cavaliers to trade for George, a potential deal would more likely than not have to include Love, which keeps the Cavaliers at three superstars which somehow isn’t enough in the current landscape of the league. The odds of the Cavaliers keeping Love while also trading for (or signing) George seems extremely unlikely based on cap space limitations.
The Cavaliers can bank on LeBron being the best player in the NBA for another year, maybe two if they’re lucky. Just looking at things realistically, a 34-year old LeBron James will not be a better player than a 30-year old Kevin Durant. LeBron may have a 20-point lead in the third quarter in the game against his own age, but father-time is still undefeated and LeBron James’ greatness will no be exception. For the Cavaliers to realistically have a shot at challenging the Warriors over the coming years, a few things need to happen. The team needs to find a way to acquire another above-average player, not necessarily a superstar (although that would be ideal, just not too conceivable at this time), the Warriors need to lose a key piece, or the most likely option, Kyrie Irving takes another leap.
Of all the hot-takes that will be splattered across social media, Irving’s potential to take another leap is not far out of the realm of possibility. Only 25 years old and still a few years away from reaching the prototypical prime of an NBA player’s career, Kyrie has shown he can play at the level of a top-10 caliber player. At 25 years old, he’s already hit more clutch shots than I can count with both my hands and feet, including one of the biggest shots in NBA Finals history.
Kyrie already took a significant leap in production this season compared to last year’s title run. Scoring 5.8 more points and dishing out 1.1 more assists per game this season, he also shot eight percentage points better from deep all while shooting the ball 3.1 more times per game. His productivity is going up and his efficiency is improving with it. But the biggest argument against Irving one day being the Cavaliers go-to guy is that he seems to be heavily reliant on LeBron James.
Here’s the thing about that, LeBron isn’t going anywhere, probably. He isn’t going to the Clippers or Lakers mainly because it makes absolutely zero sense from a basketball standpoint, probably. LeBron isn’t going to go out West to join a worse team just so he can play the Warriors one round earlier. Also, leaving Cleveland again within the next four or five years would be rather ballsy on his part. LeBron will remain apart of the Cavaliers organization for years to come and that shouldn't be used as a knock against Kyrie. When you get accustomed to playing with the best basketball player in the world for three seasons, there is going to be some drop off when he’s out and Irving has to step in and be the guy.
But even when LeBron is off the court, Kyrie has still been getting buckets like he normally does. According to NBAwowy.com, during the 2016-17 season, Kyrie’s usage rate inflates to 41.8 percent when LeBron is off the court, compared to 30.8 with LeBron, yet his shooting percentages are similar. Kyrie shoots 45.9 precent from the field with a effective field goal percentage of 52.1 with LeBron off the court, only slightly worse than the 47.8 precent from the field and 53.9 effective field goal percentage when he and LeBron are playing together. Essentially, when LeBron is off the court, Kyrie carries a much larger load than usual without much drop-off in efficiency. Also, Kyrie’s assist percentage balloons to 44.4 when LeBron is off the court while that stat is practically cut in half when LeBron is in.
The Cavaliers are a great team because LeBron is an all-time great player. LeBron makes everyone around him better so it’s reasonable to say that the LeBron-less Cavaliers were as bad as they were against the Warriors because thats what the most talented team of all-time will do to you. The Cavaliers turned into an utter mess against the Warriors when LeBron was out and the exact same thing happened to the Portland Trailblazers, Utah Jazz, and especially the San Antonio Spurs. Using the Cavaliers plus-minus when LeBron is out in the Finals proves nothing about the team or Kyrie except the fact that LeBron is much, much better than all of them, which we already knew.
LeBron will continue to play ball with Irving and, Irving will continue to grow into a better player because of it. He’s already one of the best finishers in the league combined with a silky jumper that is deadly from any area of the court. How may guys in the NBA are as ambidextrous as Irving? (maybe Mike Conley?) He’s a bonafide scorer and one of the best in the league at it too, and once again, he’s only 25. He’s the best isolation player in the NBA and he’ll burn his opponent more times than not when he’s going one-on-one. Klay Thompson and Avery Bradley were mince-meat when Kyrie was rolling in the playoffs and there wasn’t anything they could do to stop him. He managed to avoid the injury bug this season too, playing the second most games in a season during his career at 72.
As LeBron ages, Irving will be give the reigns to the offense and he’ll be asked to do more playmaking. Not known as a passer, he still averages 5.5 assists per game for his career and he averaged 5.8 this past season (Psst.. Don’t tell anyone, but Kyrie had a higher assist-to-turnover ratio during the 2017 playoffs than Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, AND LeBron James, per NBA.com). His unbelievable handles gives him complete control of the ball and where he wants it to go. Whether that be dribble moves, pull-up jumpers, or passing, he has a knack for knowing where the ball is at all times. Kyrie is an above-average playmaker, he just often gets stuck in isolation mode and while he excels at it, it’s also his most glaring downfall.
Per NBA.com, 21.4 percent of Irving’s’s plays this season came through isolation, which was sixth most in the NBA behind a list of players you probably would have guessed: Jamal Crawford, Harrison Barnes, James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, and Dion Waiters with LeBron James finishing right below him at seventh. Kyrie scored 1.12 points per possession in isolation, higher than any of the six players just mentioned. He has a higher scoring frequency than those six and is ranked in the 94.9 percentile for isolation players. Kyrie is undoubtedly an excellent isolation scorer, but when he gets stuck in this mentality and he goes into isolation ball three or four possessions straight, scoring every other offensive set isn’t going to get it done against the Warriors’ league-leading offense.
There were key moments during the 2017 Finals where Kyrie was trying to run the isolation too much with little effect and it resulted in plenty of sighs and “why does he keep doing that?” from fans (and especially me). When Kyrie isn’t scoring from isolation, the offense turns stagnant and dry with each miss feeling more important than the last. Still, this a weapon that almost no team has and Irving is capable of getting an easy bucket during any moment of a game, and he’s only going to get better at it.
Kyrie is already an above-average pick-and-roll player, he just doesn’t run it as often as the best in the league do. Kyrie ranked in the 82.9 percentile for pick-and-roll plays last season, averaging 0.96 points per possession which ranked 15th among NBA players who run the PnR more than five times per game. His PNR frequency was much lower than Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, Eric Bledsoe, or Kemba Walker despite being just as good a scorer as those guys if not better than all of them - except maybe Dame. He even turns the ball over much less out of the PnR than other prolific PnR players such as Chris Paul, LeBron James, and James Harden. Kyrie would benefit from more PnR offense run through him, especially with a knock-down shooter such as Kevin Love. Couple that with the fact that the Cavaliers are cluttered with outside shooters and more pick-and-roll seems like a dream scenario for Kyrie.
Unfortunately, Irving’s defense is where his progression has already likely stopped. He isn’t necessarily a fast or quick player. He does so well in isolation with creating his own shot due to his superb ball handling skills, not because of his otherworldly quickness. He has solid hands that are always active, but he struggles to stay in front of his man and especially defending the pick-and-roll. He’s too small to fight over large screens and simply isn’t quick enough on his feet to defend someone such as Steph Curry or Isaiah Thomas (although the Cavs did a great job of hiding that in the playoffs with constant traps on opposing point guards). Luckily, he doesn’t need to be a great defender. The top-two MVP candidates this season are both horrendous defenders both on and off the ball - and Russell Westbrook is fast as hell, too. Kyrie doesn’t need to be a great defender to lead this team, much like James Harden and Westbrook don’t need to either. Although the Cavaliers adding another perimeter superstar defender such as Paul George would help alleviate that.
Overall, the Cavs need at least one or two more defensive stoppers both on the perimeter and in the paint, but that’s a completely different article. It’s been proven that you don’t even need to play good defense to thrive in the NBA as long as the offense can make up for it, and Kyrie’s sure can.
Kyrie is never going to be put in a position where he is going to have to consistently win games by himself, but he has the skillset to do so. The Cavaliers are built with star power around them and whether it’s LeBron James, Kevin Love, Paul George, or whoever else the Cavaliers may acquire, Kyrie will always have help. But, Irving is one of the few players in the league that can take over a game and drop 40 points without blinking, which is why he’s the future for Cleveland.
Someone will have to take the reigns from LeBron when he eventually heads down the final hill of his career. Kyrie has the talent along with the smartest basketball mind on the court to teach him how to do it.