CLEVELAND, OH — He’s Back.
After missing the end of the NBA Finals last year and all of the regular season this year with a fractured kneecap, Cavaliers’ point guard Kyrie Irving made his season debut Sunday against the hapless Philadelphia 76ers. Irving looked to be fully recovered in limited minutes, starting slowly but warming up as the game progressed to finish with 12 points, 4 assists in 17 minutes.
A healthy Irving is a must for the Cavs if they are to make another deep playoff run in an improving Eastern Conference, if for no other reason than to give LeBron James a breather, over the course of a long regular season as with his scoring and dynamic ball handling. Irving’s return comes at a good time for Cleveland with injuries sidelining guards Mo Williams and Iman Shumpert. If Kyrie can return to form the Cavaliers instantly separate themselves from the logjam of teams vying for the Eastern Conference crown.
That seamless return, however, is not assured. Though it was not a factor in this game, Cavs’ forward Kevin Love only took four shots in 22 minutes (though he managed to score ten points). Just as Chris Bosh struggled in an altered role in Miami, so too might Kevin Love’s numbers suffer with the return of the offensively gifted Irving. Unlike Bosh, Love is not a plus defender and his rebounding is more about positioning than athleticism, and with the Cavaliers using him as a spot-up shooter most of the time he is rebounding at a career low rate (Part of that is playing with Tristan Thompson – the human vacuum).
Lost amid Steph Curry’s MVP and torrid start to this year (as well as the Warriors’ championship and subsequent streak to start this season) is the fact that LeBron James was a force of nature in last year’s playoffs, carrying the Cavaliers almost by himself (due to injuries). Though LeBron is capable of transcendental play, it is unfair to count on it when forecasting the path to the postseason and beyond. To come out the winner in a potential Finals rematch with Golden State, Cleveland will need their three stars to contribute at a high level, and that task only gets more difficult with the ball dominant Irving back in the fold. If the Cavaliers can find a way to integrate their play, then we can expect them to still be playing come June.
If not, it might be a bumpy ride for the defending Eastern Conference Champs.