Life without Kyrie Irving has not been fun. It was hard. How hard? The Cleveland Cavaliers (4-17, 13th in the East) went 2-9 without him. Sure, the Cavaliers are 2-8 with him, so there’s no evidence of the team being worse without him. But if you watched the 11 games he missed, you know the truth.
The Cavaliers score 108.3 points per 100 possessions with Kyrie on the floor. They score just 98.4 without him. It has been painfully obvious over the course of the past few weeks that without Kyrie Irving the Cavaliers just do not have the offensive firepower to win games.
There is a flipside, though. The Cavaliers’ defense has unquestionably been better since Kyrie has been out. Indeed, in the 10 games Kyrie played, the Cavaliers gave up 100+ points 8 times. They’ve given up that many just 5 times in the 11 games without him. With Kyrie, the Cavaliers allowed opponents to average 50.32% from the field and score 102.70 points per game. Without him, opponents shot 46.15% from the field and scored 98.55 points per game.
If you look at the 4.15 points per game less the Cavs give up without Kyrie, and compare it to the 2.61 points per game less they score without Kyrie, it would appear the Cavaliers are about a point and a half better without Kyrie. That’s the funny thing about statistics. You can make them say a lot of things that may or may not be true. The statistics I’m using here don’t account for things like strength of opponents, home or away, Dion Waiters’ injury, or the emergence of Jeremy Pargo as a scoring option when Kyrie sits.
The bottom line is this, with Kyrie Irving, the Cavaliers feel like they have a chance in every game. When the 4th quarter comes, Kyrie tends to do his thing and take over the game. Without him, the Cavaliers have really, really struggled down the stretch in the 4th quarters of these games. So yeah, Cavs fans should be awfully excited to have Kyrie back in action tonight in the Q as the Cavaliers host the Los Angeles Lakers (9-12, 11th in the West).
The Lakers are a bizarre team. They are 9-12, so they must be lousy, right? Well, here’s the thing. They have played the 8th toughest schedule, are 7th in offensive efficiency and 17th in defensive efficiency, 7th in Margin of Victory, and 7th in the Simple Rating System. According to their Expected W-L formula, they should be 13-8 and have the 7th best record in the NBA. Instead, they are 20th in the NBA.
So what’s going on with the Lakers? First and foremost, they have lost a ton of really close games that they should have won. A major problem for them is that A) Dwight Howard keeps getting fouled and missing free throws in the 4th quarter, allowing teams to come back, and B) opponents seem to be making a lot of shots against the Lakers down the stretch. Is that bad luck or bad defense? Maybe both? Who knows. But the point is, if you look at the 9-12 record, you think the Lakers stink. The truth is, there has been some really good basketball played inside those numbers.
So assuming Kyrie Irving truly does return tonight, it will be a major boost to the Cavaliers. You know Anderson Varejao will be relieved at having some offensive pressure taken off his shoulders. If the Cavaliers can keep up some of the good defensive pressure they’ve applied recently, there’s a chance the Cavaliers can sneak up on the Lakers at home.
Pao Gasol may be returning for the Lakers as well. If he does play, the Lakers’ frontcourt is a lot to handle. We all have nightmares of how Dwight Howard manhandled the Cavaliers in the post in the Eastern Conference Finals a few years back. Andy is a better player now, but Dwight still should give him some problems. Where the Cavaliers can have some success is in reuniting the pick and roll combo of Kyrie and Andy.
With Andy setting high screens, it forces Dwight Howard to move a lot on defense. Now, Dwight is an amazing defensive center and he doesn’t mind moving around. But any time you get moving pieces on defense, it creates holes and opportunities. The Cavaliers need to keep moving the ball, setting good screens, and attacking the rim and trying to draw fouls.
I know Byron Scott feels his team is disrespected by the refs, and he might be right. The Cavaliers have taken the 4th most shots at the rim per game in the NBA, yet they are dead last in FG% at the rim and 24th in the NBA in FT rate. So, do the Cavaliers just really suck at layups? Does Tristan Thompson just get his shot blocked way too often in the paint? Well, ok, that last one is true and part of this problem. But I doubt the Cavaliers are that bad at layups. I’m sure they’re being fouled here and there not getting the calls. The Cavaliers just need to keep being aggressive and eventually the calls will even out. They always do.
No matter what the outcome of this game tonight, though….no matter how much rust Kyrie Irving might have, it’s going to feel good to be able to watch Kyrie play again and the Cavaliers can get hopefully sometime soon get back to discovering just how good this core of young players can be.