One of the biggest challenges the Cleveland Cavaliers face this upcoming season will be filling the void left by Kyrie Irving’s absence. The three-time All-Star underwent surgery in June to repair a fractured kneecap he suffered during Game 1 of last year’s NBA Finals. There is no timetable yet for the 23-year-old’s return, but a report in August suggests Irving could be out until at least January.
General manager David Griffin is in no hurry to rush his star point guard back into action.
“We’re about playing into the postseason, and what we’re going to do is utilize the depth the best we can to bring everybody along and the timing that works best for them long-term.”
The Cavs are no strangers to playing without Irving. He’s missed 63 games combined since being selected with the No. 1 overall pick four years ago, including seven contests during last season’s playoffs.
In a lot of ways, Irving was the de facto No. 2 behind LeBron James last season. He was second on the team in scoring and assists, averaging 21.7 points and 5.2 dimes. He also logged 36.4 minutes per game, which led all Cavaliers and was third-most in the NBA.
With Cleveland once again in championship or bust mode, the question becomes how will the club replace such an integral part to its success? Kevin Love will likely see an increase in touches while Irving’s gone, but what about the rest of the squad? Will center Timofey Mozgov establish himself as a weapon down low to go along with his solid defensive chops? The big man averaged 14 points per game during the NBA Finals while the team was without Love and Irving, but would becoming a two-way force be too stressful on his surgically-repaired knee?
J.R. Smith is an electrifying offensive talent, averaging double-digits in scoring in all but one season during his 11-year career. However, inconsistency and poor shot selection have plagued Smith his entire career. Can the Cavs feel safe about putting the ball in his hands even more this season?
Next, there are the two men charged with handling the point guard duties until Irving returns: Mo Williams and Matthew Dellavedova. While well-traveled, Williams has been productive in many stops during his 12 years in the pros, including a couple solid campaigns during his last stint in Cleveland. In fact, Williams’ lone All-Star season came when he was a member of the Cavs back in 2008-09 when he contributed 17.8 points and 4.1 assists in 81 games. As for Dellavedova, his 40.7 percent mark from downtown was second only to Irving (41.5) in 2014-15. He also contributed 7.7 points and 5.3 assists in 13 starts last season, which were nearly double his production as a reserve (4.1 points, 2.5 assists in 54 games).
The downside to giving heavy minutes to either Williams or Delly is neither are particularly good defensively. Williams holds a career defensive rating of 110, which is 97th among all active players. Meanwhile, center Alex Kirk (115) was the only Cavalier to allow more points per 100 possessions than the 111 Dellavedova gave up last season. In fairness, Irving isn’t very stout at the defensive end either. Opponents shot 46.6 percent with Irving defending them last season, as opposed to 43.7 percent normally.
Still, with top stopper Iman Shumpert expected to miss 10-12 weeks following wrist surgery and James dealing with back problems, the Cavs are already going to struggle to defend the perimeter. They can’t afford another leak coming out of the backcourt.
The truth is, while coaches like to use the “next man up” cliche when a star player gets hurt, no one man can replace what Irving brings to the table. It’s going to take a group effort to hold down the fort until he returns. The bright side to this approach is it adds a little mystery to the Cavaliers’ offensive attack because anyone can get hot on a nightly basis.
It also allows Cleveland to play the matchups and be a bit more creative with its offensive philosophy. Facing a team that’s small up front? Dump the ball down low to Mozgov in the post and watch him work. Opposing defenses struggling to close out on the perimeter? Let J.R. make them pay for their mistakes.
With all of the early injuries and contract disputes, Irving’s absence will be a tough pill to swallow, but overcoming that adversity as a team could pay huge dividends down the road.