When LeBron James left Miami to return home, there was a lot of skepticism about how things would fit the first year. There really wasn’t much precedent for taking the best player in the NBA and adding him to one of the worst teams in the league. Not to mention that team being made up of mostly young lottery picks and a rookie head coach. The situation was unique, to say the least.
Even LeBron shared his doubts about the abilities of the 2014-2015 Cavs in his initial letter in SI:
“I’m not promising a championship. I know how hard that is to deliver. We’re not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010.”
And the Cavs started out slow this year, going 19-20 through mid-January. Rumors of turmoil between LeBron and coach David Blatt, rumblings that Kevin Love was unhappy and was considering leaving when he can opt out of his contract, and ongoing problems with Dion Waiters made the Cavs into a spectacular trainwreck. But then, everything changed.
Trades for a few role players, a little more chemistry on the court, and all of the sudden it just clicked. They’ve gone 23-5 since being a game under .500 in January, and now they look like a heavy favorite to win the Central division and finish with the number two seed in the East. But seriously, Timofey Mozgov and JR Smith can’t make the difference between a mediocre team and a potential championship.
So what has been the true difference? The emergence of Kyrie Irving.
It’s not exactly like Irving has gone from role player to All-Star this year. He may only be 22 years old, but he was a two-time All-Star coming into this season and was widely regarded as one of the better point guards in the league. However, his problems were well documented. He’d never led a team to a winning record. He’s awful at defense. He had highly publicized tiffs with Waiters. Essentially, he was an All-Star, but not a superstar.
With the Cavs retooled and Irving learning under LeBron’s tutelage, he’s transformed to superstar. Check out his stats since they’ve gone on their run:
This all culminated in Kyrie dropping 57 points, including 7-for-7 on three-pointers, in the Cavs’ comeback, overtime win against the Spurs on the road. I think it would be fair to say that is the closest that Kyrie Irving has ever been to experiencing a true playoff atmosphere. He stepped up big time down the stretch and took over in a way he hasn’t consistently done in the past.
Of course, he’s still imperfect. Tony Parker scored 31 points against Irving’s defense, shooting 15-23 from the field. But the message has been sent; the rest of the league should be afraid. If Irving, LeBron, and Love can stay healthy and keep some decent role players around they’re going to be difficult to deal with for the foreseeable future. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s even worse than when LeBron went to Miami.
It was a much bigger deal when LeBron joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, because Wade was a champion and Finals MVP and Bosh was an All-Star that had led teams to the playoffs. The trio had won a gold medal for team USA. They were all well-established stars. But the reason it was often so difficult for them was because of the styles of play. Wade’s game is handling the ball and getting to the rim. James’ game is handling the ball and getting to the rim. Bosh’s game was having the ball fed to him in the high or low post and going to work.
In short, they all had to sacrifice (some more than others) to make it work. If not for a total Spurs meltdown, the Heat only would have won one ring in those four seasons. Fairly disappointing, considering the hype. But these Cavs might be different, and the reason is Irving.
As a Robin to LeBron’s Batman, Irving fits far better than Wade ever did. For his career, Wade has been at less than 38 percent on shots further than 10 feet away from the basket, including 28 percent on three-pointers. Often, teams were able to beat the Heat by staying in front of Wade, James, and Bosh and forcing them to shoot from outside. But that doesn’t work with the Cavs.
Irving is on pace to set career-highs in shooting percentage, three-point percentage, and true-shooting percentage. He’s at 41 percent on threes, which is outstanding. What’s even more telling about his fit with LeBron is the fact that last year 45 percent of Irving’s three-pointers came on an assist. This year, he’s upped that to 58 percent. LeBron getting into the lane is allowing him to catch and shoot more, which in turn has raised his percentages.
They may not win a championship this season, or any season for that fact. There are plenty of other good teams in the NBA that could challenge the Cavs. But I’d never want to bet against the best player in the NBA, no matter who else he had on the team with him. I don’t think many would argue the fact that playing with LeBron could transform a pile of garbage into a passable player. But if the Cavs are going to be something special, it’s going to be because of Kyrie Irving.