There are some memorable duos in Cleveland Cavaliers history. For starters, Mark Price and Brad Daugherty were the gold standard for a long time. In recent years, pre-LeBron James’ second time in Cleveland, Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson were a solid foundation, even if there was not any winning to show for it. If you want to get creative, the late Fred McLeod and Austin Carr as a broadcast duo were a key part of the team’s recent identity. Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson also deserve recognition.
However, there is really only one duo that can be called the best pair of teammates in Cavs history: James and Irving. The two weren’t together for all that long — a mere three seasons — but they led those three Cavs teams to three straight NBA Finals appearance, including a 2016 win. Their ability to drive those teams forward pushed an all-time run of Warriors teams as far as any other team did. The highs they hit together are beyond what any other duo in franchise history accomplished.
The caveat here is that labeling them a duo is excluding Kevin Love, who was the third member of the Cavs’ ‘Big Three’ and was absolutely instrumental to the team winning in 2016. Love’s spacing off those two made their easier, as did his ability to rebound, outlet the ball and pairing with Thompson up front to beat down teams like the Hawks and Celtics in the playoffs. Love was excellent with those two and core to the team’s success.
However, there’s also no denying that James and Irving were the engine of the Cavs’ success. For three years, the broad function of Cleveland’s offense (which finished fourth, third and third in offensive rating) was to let them cook and surround them with shooting. Both crushed other teams when the Cavs attacked in isolation, but they also worked well together as a duo. Per Cleaning The Glass, lineups with Irving and James on the floor posted an offensive rating 116. 6in 2014-15, 113.1 in 215-16 and 121.5 in 2016-17. In short: putting them together on the floor guaranteed a high-level offense.
Particularly in the playoffs, Cleveland leaned on different versions of a James-Irving pick-and-roll to hunt down the matchups they wanted vs. opposing teams. Whether it was Irving screening for James and popping out for a three, James screening and barrelling to the rim or James taking advantage of a switch to bully a smaller player, letting those work in unison was almost always a good choice.
The two also combined to come up big for the Cavs when it mattered most. In the 2016 NBA Finals, after Cleveland went down 3-1, the two were two of the major reasons why the Cavs ultimately came back. In Game 5, they both score 41 points and both played over 40 minutes — making them the third-highest scoring duo in Finals history. In Game 7, Irving had 26 points and James had 27 points, but both made plays in the fourth quarter that sealed the win.
You know both plays. Irving hit a three-pointer over Warriors guard Steph Curry to put the Cavs up by three points. That would ultimately be the shot that put Cleveland ahead for good against Golden State.
James, for his part, made perhaps the most iconic block of all-time when he chased down Andre Iguodala and blocked what would have been a go-ahead layup. He also split a pair of free throws with about 10 seconds left to make it a two possession game.
Again: Love deserves credit too for stopping Curry twice on a switch late in Game 7 and finding a way to help even after he suffered a concussion earlier in the series. He mattered, even if he’s overlooked.
Arguably, the 2016-17 Cavs were the best version of the Kyrie and LeBron duo — even better than the title win. Were it not for Kevin Durant going to Golden State, they could have easily won another title. And had they not had a falling out that led Irving to request a trade, the partnership could have been at least extended through the 2017-18 season, when LeBron dragged a middling Cavs team to the Finals and Irving played one of his two seasons with the Celtics.
“I had a ton of emotions,” James said at Cavs media day after Irving had been traded. “I was wondering if it was something I could have done better to make him not want to be traded. Was it the way the season ended? Was it me coming back [to Cleveland] in the first place? Was it the coaching changes or the GM change? For me personally, I tried to do whatever I could do to help the kid out, to be the best player he could be.”
Why they broke up still remains somewhat unclear — although their appears to be no issues between the two now. And it’s a shame that it ended they way it did. But while they were together, James and Irving were undeniably great.
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