Brimming over with expectations and dreams of a playoff berth heading into the 2013-14 campaign, the Cavs have stumbled out of the gates in a big way, dropping to 10-21 and falling down near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
A postseason spot looks like a pipe dream now, and Irving's stock has fallen.
This is a guy who was supposed to be the next big thing at point guard, but he's steadily dropped down the ranks as he fails to build upon his impressive sophomore season. More importantly, he can't seem to lead the Cavaliers to victory.
Despite that, the Cavs are still relying on him as the centerpiece of the future.
It's what made the news that Irving was undergoing an MRI to check on the knee he injured New Year's Eve against the Indiana Pacers quite worrisome. Fortunately, the team avoided a major blow when Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal broke the news that everything was fine:
But still, the scare has made questions pop up about the future, and for good reason. With each loss, each poor performance and each injury, the Cavaliers' complete reliance on the All-Star point guard looks a little bit more shaky.
This is only the most recent scare.
Irving's career has been plagued by injury ever since he first burst onto the national scene. He's missed many games, scared his team and its fans on countless occasions, and spent enough time in a mask that one of his nicknames should be the Phantom of the Quicken.
During his freshman season at Duke, Irving played only 11 games, missing the rest of the season with a toe injury that just wouldn't seem to heal. Despite the ridiculously small sample size, the dynamic point guard was still selected at No. 1 by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2011 NBA draft.
Since then, he's missed time with a concussion, sprained right shoulder, broken right hand, broken left index finger, broken jaw, hyper-extended knee, sprained left shoulder and right nasal fracture, all in addition to the various aches, pains and illnesses that have made him miss time. And now we have this knee injury.
Byron Scott, then Irving's coach for the Cavs, defended him last March, telling The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer the following after the injury to his left shoulder:
He still is very young. His body hasn't fully developed. I'm just not that concerned about it, to be honest with you. All the injuries that he has gotten have been legitimate injuries. It's not something that keeps recurring over and over again. From just what I saw last night with the little hip check, it was just an unfortunate foul that hit him right on the spot. So I'm not really concerned about it.
It's time to be concerned.
Injuries are only fluky for so long. At this point, the only acceptable alternative for handing Irving the "injury-prone" label is calling him "fragile."
The 1-guard missed 15 of 66 games during his rookie season, then sat out 23 times as a second-year player. During his third go-round, he's played in all 31 of the Cavaliers' contests in 2013, but he's been limited by all sorts of maladies.
That's not what you want from your franchise player, although the "his body hasn't developed" excuse can still fly...a little bit. Irving is 21 years old, and he's been working with professional trainers for a few years now.
There's just one more problem. Even when healthy, Irving hasn't carried the Cavaliers to a boatload of wins.
Lack of Success
It was understandable that the Cavaliers weren't winning many games during Irving's rookie season. It was less understandable during his sophomore campaign, especially since the team had added a little more talent and Irving had some professional experience under his belt.
This year, it's problematic.
Cleveland was supposed to be in contention for one of the spots in the Eastern Conference playoffs, especially when Derrick Rose went down for the season and the New York-based teams became more laughingstocks than contenders. Yet here we are.
The Cavaliers enter the 2014 portion of the 2013-14 campaign with a 10-21 record, one that leaves them in the No. 10 spot. And this is in the East, the weakest conference in the NBA by far this season.
It gets worse.
That's looking at the standings with a glass-half-full perspective. Technically, the Cavaliers have the same record as the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, so you could reasonably say that they're the No. 12 team in the conference.
It gets worse.
The Cavs have the fourth-worst point differential in the league (minus-6.16) and have actually played one of the easiest schedules of any team. That's not a good combination, and it means that Cleveland finishes at No. 28 in Basketball-Reference's simple rating system, which accounts for the above factors.
This is not a playoff team, and that will be true even if the Cavs manage to sneak into the field due to the sheer putridity of their conference.
Is this Irving's fault? Yes and no.
It's easier to blame Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and the rest of the lackluster roster for failing to live up to the expectations. It's easier to blame Mike Brown for failing to make the offense even remotely competent while focusing on instilling defensive principles in a group of players that isn't well suited for that type of play.
But easy isn't always the best route. Occam's Razor doesn't apply to basketball every time something comes up.
Some of the fault lies with Irving, who has largely failed to make many strides forward during the 2013-14 season.
Although he was lighting it up as 2013 drew to a close, his numbers are still well down from the second professional go-round. On a per-minute basis, the assists have stagnated, the scoring is down and the efficiency numbers are moving in the wrong direction.
Those aren't the trends you want to see from your franchise centerpiece, especially as he's supposed to be moving into his prime.
The point guard has struggled on his drives to the basket in particular. Is it possible that his Houdini-esque magic around the rim was a fluke, a mirage created by youthful deception, a lack of an established scouting report and some luck?
His current numbers, which come from NBA.com's SportVU data, don't bode well:
Above you can see the top 20 players in terms of points per game scored on drives to the hoop. Irving stands out, but not in a good way.
All things considered, the former Blue Devil is still having a great season. There should be no doubt about that, even if he's failing to assert himself as one of the truly elite point guards in the NBA. But the Cavaliers need him to break into that realm, as they've been counting on boasting one of the game's unstoppable offensive forces.
Cleveland has actually been worse with Irving on the court, according to NBA.com's statistical databases. And that's despite the fact that it's better offensively.
With the All-Star point guard controlling the tempo, the Cavs score 97.8 points and allow 105.6 per 100 possessions. Without him, Cleveland is only scoring 96.2, but the defensive number plummets to 99.4.
The Cavaliers are outscored by 7.8 points per 100 possessions when Irving is playing and only 3.2 when he's catching his breath on the pine. That's not really the way it's supposed to work for a superstar.
Forget about Irving's struggles on the court. Forget about the injury issues.
The other big problem with building around a singular star is the LeBron James conundrum. There's no telling whether or not Irving will remain with the Cavaliers, as he could leave in similar fashion to LeBron once he hits free agency.
There's no guarantee he signs an extension. There's no guarantee he wants to stay in Cleveland rather than moving on to a bigger and better location.
If anything, the Cavaliers need to prepare for the worst. After all, that's the best way to describe their organization over the last few years, as they've demonstrated they have whatever's the opposite of the Midas touch.
The Sadim touch, if you will.
Cleveland has butchered multiple draft picks, turning first-round selections into the terrifying quintet that is Dion Waiters (who doesn't seem long for Cleveland), Tyler Zeller, Tristan Thompson, Sergey Karasev and Anthony Bennett.
On top of that, the coaching has been terrible, the management can't lure quality free agents into The Q, and there's not much of a winning tradition.
What in the world would make Irving want to stay?
At the start of this season, he told the following to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News:
It’s still too early to be talking about that stuff, especially a contract extension, and all that. But we have a great relationship, me and Dan (Gilbert). It extends off the basketball court. That’s about where it stands right now. We’re building a culture here in Cleveland, and he told me I’m one of the guys at the forefront of it. We’re building an identity here, and I want to be a part of that. Having guys come in, building a championship contending team, that’s what it’s all about.
It's par for the course, as Irving has steadfastly refused to lean one way or the other. However, Lawrence follows that quote by writing, "But until he signs long-term with the Cavs, it would be foolish to rule out a future for Irving in New York."
It's hard to disagree, not necessarily with New York as the destination, but with an exit from Cleveland as an inevitable event in the future.
Where is the contention? Where is the winning culture?
It's nonexistent, and that's more problematic than anything else.
Cleveland is attempting to build something great without the tools to do so. Squandering the talent of their best player, the Cavs are putting Irving in a terrible situation, and he's looking worse for it. The injuries are piling up, and the play isn't leading to wins. How could it?
They're playing with fire. And sometimes, you just end up getting burned.