Can Cleveland Cavaliers Afford to Keep Building Around Kyrie Irving?

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Can Cleveland Cavaliers Afford to Keep Building Around Kyrie Irving?
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The Cleveland Cavaliers are not Kyrie Irving's fault.

Between rumors of discord, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst, doubts about his future and the Cavaliers' deepening hole, Irving's 2013-14 season has been mired in controversy, and Sunday night's loss against the Los Angeles Clippers did little to quiet the deafening uncertainty coming out of Cleveland.

Late in the first quarter, Irving left the game with a left biceps injury and was unable to return. According to The Plain Dealer's Mary Schmitt Boyer, he may not return at all this season:

It's possible the Cavaliers lost Kyrie Irving for the season in Sunday's 102-80 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night at Staples Center.

Irving, the Cavs All-Star point guard, left the game with a left biceps injury late in the first quarter, and he left the arena with his left arm in a sling. He is scheduled to have an MRI on Monday in Cleveland, but two NBA sources indicated the injury could be severe enough to end his season in the worst case scenario.

Losing Irving would be detrimental to whatever playoff push the Cavs are still trying to make. For all his purported character flaws and on-court miscues, he's still Cleveland's best player. He's still the city's building block.

But Irving is also toeing the line of "injury-prone" this early in his career. He missed 15 games during his 2011-12 rookie campaign, 23 in 2012-13, and if he's done for 2013-14, he'll have been absent for 18 this year.

More to the point, the Cavaliers have yet to escape the shadow LeBron James' first decision cast over them. They're just 71-144 since Irving entered the NBA, giving them the league's second-worst winning percentage (33) during that time.

Cleveland hasn't been much better when he's actually played. The team is 61-113 through Irving's first 174 appearances, winning an unimpressive 35.1 percent of its games.

By now, things were supposed to be different. Things were supposed to be drastically different this season. The playoffs were in reach. Staging free-agency coups this summer or next seemed possible, if not likely. The James-less reign of inadequacy was over.

Or not.

With only 15 contests remaining, the Cavs once again find themselves outside the Eastern Conference's playoff picture, 4.5 games back of eighth place. Any hope they have of a late-season resurgence dies in Irving's absence, leaving us to question the legitimacy of their direction and the player-to-team relationship.

Because while the Cavs aren't Irving's fault, does that mean he's the one who can save them? Or has their partnership become too risky of a gambit?

 

Injury Woes

Strictly questioning Irving's durability at this point is almost insane.

The point guard has battled more than his fair share of injuries, including bumps and bruises that don't always prevent him from playing but inflict grimaces nonetheless.

That's the risk Irving takes. It comes with the territory of being a ball-dominant point guard who can reach the rim at will and won't hesitate to chase rebounds. Bodies are going to collide. Blake Griffin is going to get in your way.

Still, at this stage, Irving falls short of injury-prone. He's more of an injury risk. You could even call him fragile. 

But plenty of point guards find themselves in similar situations, facing personal peril as they attack the rim and commandeer their offense. Irving is not alone.

Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

Rajon Rondo has only appeared in 180 games in his last four seasons, merely six more than Irving in three. Stephen Curry only played in 180 contests through his first three seasons. John Wall played in 184.

Each of those point guards has battled injuries time and time again. One or more of them could even be considered injury-prone. Shoot, Curry could still use a set of spider-silk-based ankles. And yet, they've all been deemed viable building blocks, even though they've each missed more games in a single season than Irving has thus far.

If you're going to cease building around Irving, injuries cannot be an excuse. Not yet. If he ever misses more than half a season or finds himself tracking in Derrick Rose's current direction, then start panicking. Until then, judge him solely on results.

Sort of.

 

Who's Actually to Blame?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Irving hasn't generated the results he was supposed to upon arriving in Cleveland. He hasn't saved the Cavaliers. They're still trying to pass off cottage cheese as vanilla ice cream, entertaining playoff berths over the summer only to face brutal reality when the season actually starts.

Is that on Irving? Is Cleveland's recurrent lottery presence his fault?

Partially, yes. Basketball is a team sport. No one player can be absolved of all blame—especially stars. Greater culpability is placed upon them because, well, they're stars. Players like Irving are supposed to have a profound impact on the game.

The absence of playoff basketball continues to be a blemish on Irving's impressive statistical resume. Stars lead teams to the postseason. End of story.

But Irving hasn't been given the necessary supporting cast to taste the playoffs. 

In addition to him, the Cavs have taken three other top-four picks since 2011 and turned them into Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett, the latter of whom is already being labeled a bust. The Cavs have also wrapped a bow around the actually injury-prone Anderson Varejao, seemingly disinterested Andrew Bynum and likely departing Luol Deng and told Irving to make the playoffs.

That hasn't happened. With how Cleveland has constructed its roster the last three years, it was never going to happen.

Supporting casts are beyond important. Teams with multiple superstars are cropping up in every direction, so no one dignitary is going to win alone. Not even James.

David Liam Kyle/Getty Images
Irving needs more help.

Stars such as Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and James, among others, would make the playoffs with Cleveland's roster. But Irving isn't any of those luminaries, and that's fine. He's a still-developing third-year point guard with two All-Star berths, lifetime averages of 20.8 points and 5.9 assists per game and defensive-engagement issues.

At this point of his career, that should be enough. Yet it's not. The Cavs have asked more of him without giving him the means to deliver as a leader.

Rumors of dysfunction reflect poorly on his character, breeding distrust within the locker room. Emotions have boiled over this season, with expectations high and Cleveland approaching rock bottom.

"He’s acting like he doesn’t care," one Cavs player told the Akron Beacon Journal's Jason Lloyd of Irving in February.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Who have the Cavs given Irving as a mentor?

Blame Irving for his sporadic disinterest. Seriously, blame him. But also understand his imperfections as a leader aren't on him alone. 

It's not like the Cavaliers have given him an esteemed mentor. They've given him Jarrett Jack. So, they've given him no one. The closest thing Irving had to a mentor was Byron Scott, whom Cleveland bade farewell in favor of the simple-minded Mike Brown. 

Again, that doesn't inoculate Irving against all blame and accountability, but it doesn't mean he's an unworthy building block.

Truth be told, he's the best thing the Cavs have going for them.

 

Stick with It

If Irving wants to leave, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst intimated he may in February, then the Cavs have a problem.

Owner Dan Gilbert cannot assemble a team around Irving if he doesn't sign an extension this summer or before next season's Oct. 31 deadline. He just can't. If Irving gives any inclination between now and then that he wants to leave, the Cavs will be forced to explore all their options, including trades.

Aside from that, there's little cause for Cleveland to abandon ship now. Irving may not be perfect, but he's still their best option for a foundation. He's still a superstar.

"I mean, this is as close to meaningful basketball that I’ve played in the last three years," Irving said previously, via The News-Herald's Bob Finnan. "It matters a lot to me and it should matter to all of us, and I know it does. It’s a great test and we’ve just got to will through this."

And the Cavs need to will through this—this period of uncertainty—without losing faith in one of the NBA's brightest young stars. They can still invest everything in him, just not like they have been.

Not like this.

Is Kyrie Irving someone the Cavs can build around?

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Instead of hitting the reset button completely, Cleveland has the opportunity to use its draft pick this summer in hopes of landing the sidekick Irving needs.

If Irving is done for the year, playoffs aren't happening. That puts the Cavs—who have the NBA's ninth-worst record—in play for a top-seven, or if they're lucky, top-five draft pick. Perhaps they even strike gold in free agency, using their projected cap space to retool an incongruous supporting cast.

Would that be the end of the world?

No.

For a Cleveland team that placed obvious emphasis on this season, missing the playoffs would sting. Badly. But silver linings exist in the potential to improve, in knowing the Cavs have yet another chance to surround Irving, a legitimate cornerstone, with what he needs to succeed.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and salary information via ShamSports.


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