Kyrie Irving is many things as a point guard â€” attacking, assertive, excellent in big matchups â€” but he isn’t a miracle worker. Though his return from a fractured left index finger tonight against the Lakers took just three weeks instead of the expected four, and is thus as close to a godsend as Cleveland will get this season, even a former No. 1 pick will struggle to break the Cavaliers’ 2-9 slide without him. Rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters has been injured the past four games, postponing the return of the full effect from that budding backcourt combination: The top seven two-player combinations on the team this year include either Waiters or Irving or both. But if you think the adjustment period back into regular NBA minutes will take time for Irving after just one full-contact practice today, think again.
As a No. 1 pick in 2011 there shouldn’t be much of a refresher course needed on Irving’s skills and his absence will only have lasted 11 games if he plays Tuesday night. And don’t think this is the case where Clevelanders didn’t know what they had till it was gone: Irving is a projected All-Star and has become almost a shoo-in since he filleted the Team USA defense in July and had big early performances this season before injuring his finger. So, maybe this is obvious to say he’s really, really good, but in a Central division whose best team, Chicago, has the fewest wins of any division leader, he gives the Cavs an outside shot of still making noise in the final three-quarters of this season. (When I say immediately, I mean it: When he spoke to the media on Monday, he said his conditioning will be as high as it was when he left). However small the percentage of making the playoffs at 4-17 are, it’s still a shot â€” and the Cavaliers couldn’t say that without him.
5. He gets Dion Waiters the ball where he’s most effective
Waiters is a funny player in that his perceived strength, slashing to the rim, hasn’t been the best part of his game early this season. It might follow that in a rookie’s first quarter-season he’d play to his strengths but Waiters has shown a knack for shooting from three more. To unlock his three-point shooting, though, having an effective point guard is an absolute must. Nearly 76 percent of his three-pointers come off assists, compared with just five percent of his rim attempts (he likes to dribble in to get those shots). Irving gets him those assists not only with his vision but because defenses can’t shade over to defend Waiters knowing they must keep Irving from driving to the hoop. Irving can do this with other wing players in Waiters’ stead, but last year’s top pick is clearly the best at executing given direction and the ball by Irving.
4. He’s smart about his shooting
In a Moneyball style, the Cavaliers have to be smarter about how they play if they want to win against teams that have more, better players. Those teams can misfire on more possessions or allow more points because sheer talent can help them make up for it. Cleveland was second in the league in defensive efficiency a week ago and playing at the margin of its capabilities there but was still skidding without its star guard. The averages show Irving is subscribing to the play smarter ethos. Compared to his attempts and shooting percentages from a season ago, Irving has decreased his attempts per game where he’s shooting worse (at 3-to-9 feet he’s just 23 percent this season against 36 percent a year ago) and increasing those in spots he’s hot at. His three-point attempts have increased by about one per game and for good reason: He’s shooting 59 percent eFG% there, just a shade worse than how he did last season.
3. Tristan Thompson becomes a different player
Anderson Varejao‘s play this season is one of the Cavaliers’ biggest advantages but one that gets offset by the Central’s other exceptional big men. Larry Sanders of Milwaukee and Joakim Noah of Chicago and Greg Monroe of Detroit are turning in very strong seasons, while Roy Hibbert of Indiana should be. Irving not only gives the team a plus at point guard but allows Thompson to play above his average at small forward, too. Thompson’s having a good season with 15 points more per 100 possessions when he’s one the court. In Thompson’s 10 games with Irving this season, he got 9.7 points per game, shot 45 percent and got to the line nearly four times per game. Those first averages hold fairly close without Irving â€” he scores about a point less per game â€” but his free throws have been cut in half without Irving.
2. The Cavaliers have a renewed slashing threat
One area that hasn’t changed in his shooting patterns is how he attacks the rim at an average of 5.4 attempts there per game, nearly identical to last season and 1.1 percentage points better at finishing this season. What changes is when he goes out, attempts at the rim for the entire team fall by about three per game. It’s relatively small change until you look at some of the Cavs’ losses during Irving’s absence and you see how three games could have been swayed by four or six extra points those three drives might account for: A 108-104 loss to Orlando, a 110-108 loss to Miami, a 118-117 loss to Portland and an 84-78 loss to Memphis.
Spun another way by Hoopdata, only six everyday point guards take more attempts at the rim than Irving and of that group, only Tyreke Evans and Tony Parker are more accurate.
1. Irving plays big in big games
The Central doesn’t have built-in huge games, at least from a national scale, as a Brooklyn-Cleveland, Clippers-Cavs or Heat-Cavs matchup. Or, even tomorrow night’s Lakers game is bigger than most matchups Irving will face in the Central with Derrick Rose sidelined. The way Irving has played in games with brighter lights has to encourage Cleveland fans with the way he could play through the winter and down the stretch of this season â€” should he stay healthy.
Against Deron Williams and Brooklyn, Irving had 34 and eight and was 14-of-14 from the free-throw line. In the Cavaliers’ “hello, world” game this season against the Clippers in Los Angeles â€” a game most remembered for Waiters’ â€” Irving had 24 and 10. Against Russell Westbrook and OKC, he had 20 and five. One exception to the Central’s lacking point guard faceoffs is Brandon Jennings this season, but Cavs fans should take heart that in their one game so far, back in the season’s first week, Irving ate up Jennings with 27 points and seven assists to the Buck’s 13 points and 13 assists.
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