LeBron James and Kevin Durant will face off for the first time this season tonight when the Cleveland Cavaliers play host to the Oklahoma City Thunder on TNT, although it won’t be with Kyrie Irving. Despite some early reports Wednesday, Cleveland’s star point guard declared via Twitter that he wouldn’t be ready in time for Thursday’s matchup.
Regardless of Irving’s status, this game will be a good test for these teams, both of whom still have big, O’Brien-y plans for this season despite inconsistent beginnings. Oklahoma City beat San Antonio on opening night, but other than that, the Thunder have ebbed and flowed through the season thanks to the integration of a new coach and a new system. Cleveland has also had a trying start, although their issues have mostly been due to injuries to key players.
Missing Irving is obviously a bummer, but despite his delayed timeline, he does seem like he’ll be returning soon, which will give the Cavaliers their Big Three back together for the first time since last year’s first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. Meanwhile, Cleveland’s play at the start of this season has been spotty at times, with James even being publicly critical of his team’s effort and mentality. Still, the Cavaliers sit atop the East and have very respectable 104.6/99.3 offensive/defensive rating splits, each of which is a top 10 mark in the NBA, per NBA.com.
That’s been mostly due to LeBron dragging this team along, as he’s pulling off a crazy workload, sitting among the league’s top five in minutes with his highest usage percentage since the last time he was in Cleveland. Kevin Love has helped and is having a better season than he did last year, but this team still depends on LeBron to set the table, especially without Irving. Having guys like Jared Cunningham and Richard Jefferson getting extended minutes has hurt this team’s once-beautiful spacing, and even on defense, neither is a plus over long stretches, although they both work.
Ideally, they’ll be allowed to just provide depth, same with the likes of J.R. Smith, Matthew Dellavedova and Mo Williams (who’s out Thursday night as well). Once the team gets healthy, Cleveland will be able to become the deep veteran team it imagined prior to the season. Irving proved last season to be one of the league’s elite scorers, and Shumpert (once he returns from his new groin injury) gives the Cavaliers a two-way player on the wing, which is an upgrade over the streaky Smith.
Head coach David Blatt might not be the offensive genius he was once billed as, but there’s certainly been some improvement in his second year there, and they continue to be a strong team defensively. Once everyone’s back, the Cavaliers just need it to stay that way.
Meanwhile, the Thunder are working through the growing pains of a new coach with Billy Donovan, who’s also adjusting himself to what one imagines is a pretty steep learning curve following the leap from college basketball to the NBA. Thankfully, he hasn’t had to deal with many injury issues; definitely not the epidemic level that it seemed for the last couple seasons, but Durant did lose a couple weeks with a hamstring injury.
Following Durant’s return, Oklahoma City has been much better, winning eight of its last 10 games and getting up to the top three in the league in net rating, behind the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. Westbrook and Durant have been pouring in points, and this team hasn’t had much trouble scoring thanks to its elite pair.
The adjustment has mostly come as Donovan tries to learn his personnel and how to adjust his rotations to the NBA game. To be fair, the Thunder have some funky personnel issues to work through, which hasn’t made Donovan’s job any easier.
Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson are one-way players who’ve proven tricky to figure out exactly where they fit in consistently. Roberson gives OKC a safe defensive stopper next to the risky Russell Westbrook in the backcourt, but his shooting is so poor that opposing defenses don’t even bother with him. With Kanter, the problem comes on the other end, where he seems to crater the team defense of any unit he’s a part of.
Against elite teams with elite defenses, it might once again be fair to wonder if Anthony Morrow might be a better option than Roberson, or how valuable Kanter is in those situations. The inconsistent Dion Waiters also has question marks as a major part of the rotation, but for right now, Donovan is making it work.
If the Thunder can stay healthy this year, Donovan’s mettle will certainly be tested come playoff time, as this team is too talented not to be headed for a showdown with the Spurs or Warriors.
That’s the kicker for each of these teams, and the reason each of them will be in the championship conversation in May, regardless of the extent of their regular-season successes: each of them have elite, star-level talent. That can take you pretty far, as James showed by taking a 2-1 lead against the Warriors in the NBA Finals last year. Tonight’s game is a chance to test all the smaller-but-necessary tweaks that secure a title against another elite opponent.