Kyrie Irving prior to his franchise-crippling injury.
Kyrie Irving is hurt. Here we go again.
However, Irving has not shown that he can be depended on going forward.
True, when Irving is in the lineup the Cavs are a somewhat relevant team. The most important position in today's NBA is the point guard, and Irving is already a top-five-er at the 1-spot.
But "when" is the key word in that sentence as Irving missed double-digit games as a rookie to go with 20-plus games as a freshman at Duke. To say that there are injury concerns with Irving is like saying that Elizabeth Taylor had an issue with marriage.
That being said, the Cavs are going to have to figure out how to deal with Irving's latest injury (bruised finger) and remain relevant for a fanbase that is desperate for a winner.
Shift the keys over to Dion Waiters
Before the season began, the dynamic between Dion Waiters and Irving reminded me of the situation with Jerry Stackhouse and Allen Iverson nearly two decades prior. You had two dominant guards that wanted the ball in order to create their own shots, and they didn't seem to be a fit with one another.
True, Irving is a much better distributor at this point than Iverson ever was, but the comparison is still apt given Irving's propensity to dominate the ball.
Additionally, Waiters is similar to Stackhouse in that he likes to dominate the ball as well, albeit from the shooting guard spot.
Initially, this pairing seemed to be doing fairly well together, although Irving, like Iverson before him, dominated the grouping. When you are the better ball-handler, you probably better have the ball more often than those around you.
Waiters, unlike Stackhouse before him, decided to make the best of the situation by improving his perimeter shooting in order to complement Irving. He still needs to improve his lackadaisical defense, but baby steps can be expected for a rookie.
With Irving shelved for the immediate future, this becomes Waiters' team. He is the only transcendent scorer on the roster, and the only player that opposing defenses will plan for. He can shoot, take the ball to the hoop and create for teammates.
With Irving gone, look for Waiters to dominate the ball and score upward of 18 points per game.
Develop the pick-and-roll
The Cavs are blessed with some of the most athletic big men in the game. Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson are already established at setting solid screens and rolling to the hoop. They can clean up shots with exceptional rebounding prowess, and they run the court like gazelles.
Add to this group a very athletic Tyler Zeller, and you have three capable pick-and-roll artists.
Your typical pick-and-roll works best when you have a guard that can provide help in three dynamic ways.
First, they need to be able to hit the three-point shot. If a high pick is set, you need to be able to make the defense pay if your defender goes under the screen.
Second, they need to be able to have the quickness needed to get to the hoop. If the person that screens decides to show high, the offensive player needs to be able to run past him and get to the hoop.
Third, they need to be able to set up their teammates with an adroit pass should the picker's man get too aggressive.
In the case of the first two issues, the Cavs are set. Waiters and even Donald Sloan and Daniel Gibson know how to hit the open shot and get to the hoop. Obviously, none of these guys are as good as Irving, but each has their own set of skills to add to the equation.
Sadly, the third issue becomes a problem for the Cavs sans-Irving. There is not one guy on the roster besides Kyrie that knows how to consistently set up their teammates. Sure, they may get lucky from time to time, but by and large it will be a case of the perimeter player doing the bulk of the damage in this grouping.
Additionally, neither Varejao, Zeller or Thompson are effective shooters from the elbow, so the pick-and-roll game will be skewed consistently toward the perimeter player in Cleveland.
Bring on the fast break
Cleveland has plenty of things going against them, but one of those is not a lack of athleticism. This is an athletic team with long and strong big men and slashing swingmen.
True, Irving is their best half-court player, and he will be missed. But if you can't play a strong half-court game, what do you do? You transition into a full-court team.
The Cavs lack elite scorers, but they have very good defenders. C.J. Miles, Alonzo Gee and their entire frontcourt are very good defenders. They also are athletic and quick.
For a team that lacks an elite scoring squad, having an elite defensive unit is the next best thing. And having an elite defensive unit with above-average athletes is a recipe for success if you use one trick: the trap.
The key to running a backcourt trap is having athletic big men that can cover ground. The best example of an effective trap is the 2004 champion Detroit Pistons. They used athletic bigs Rasheed and Ben Wallace to augment athletic swingmen and quick guards.
The Cavs have nothing to lose in trying to institute a three-fourths court press on occasion. They have no shot at winning most battles in the half court, so why not think outside the box?
Overall, a non-Irving future is not a bright one for the Cavs. They have built their team around Kyrie for a reason. But if they decide to think outside of the box over the next month or so, they will likely be more effective going forward.
When you remove the alpha from an equation and the remaining parts don't crumble, that can only be a good thing. This will provide Irving with a better team surrounding him when he returns to the squad.
This might not be pretty, but it doesn't have to hamper this franchise.