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- The Cleveland Cavaliers are facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals for the fourth season in a row, and they seem like bigger underdogs than ever.
- This year, the Cavs will miss Kyrie Irving’s scoring and playmaking, putting more pressure on LeBron James to carry the Cavs offense.
- LeBron James has said he did not want the Cavs to trade Irving, knowing how important he was to them, but reports indicated Irving wanted out, in part, because of James.
- Ten months after the Cavs traded Irving to the Boston Celtics, the trade remains controversial and a major focal point in how it has affected the Cavs.
As the Cleveland Cavaliers prepare for the for a fourth straight NBA Finals showdown with the Golden State Warriors, one of the most significant plot points is about a man who isn’t there.
One of the biggest differences for the Cavaliers this Finals is that they don’t have Kyrie Irving by their side.
First, there are questions about whether LeBron James has enough help to have any shot against the Warriors this year. In 2017, against the Kevin Durant-era Warriors, the Cavs still had a chance, knowing they could go toe-to-toe in offensive power, even if they had little shot at defending Golden State.
Second, there are questions about what the Cavs got in return for Irving. The Brooklyn Nets pick remains, but a package that initially included Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder has turned into Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr.. All three have been in and out of the postseason rotation, producing minimal returns when they are on the court.
In a sit-down interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, James and Nichols discussed how James called the Cavs in the summer to ask them not to trade Irving.
“The odds has not been with us all season,” James said of the Cavs’ Finals chances. “Even if you start back to the summer when I felt it was just bad for our franchise to be able to just trade away our superstar point guard … I just felt like it was bad timing for our team to just get rid of our point guard in Kyrie Irving. So, I felt like the odds was against us from the summer.”
Irving had reportedly requested a trade, in part, to get out from under James’ shadow in Cleveland. Cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon reported in January that James had reached out to the Cavs to suggest not trading Irving. The Cavs insisted on trading Irving, believing the relationship was beyond repair. According to Vardon, Irving threatened to get knee surgery and sit out the season if he wasn’t traded.
Irving was a huge part of any success the Cavs had against the Warriors over the past three years. He got injured in Game 1 of the 2015 Finals, but in 2016, his shot-making, alongside James’, helped propel the Cavs to a comeback from a 3-1 deficit to win the championship. He owns one of the greatest shots in NBA Finals history.
In the 2017 Finals, which the Warriors won in five games, Irving was still a force to be reckoned with, averaging 29 points on 47% shooting, 42% from three. His ability to relieve James from carrying the offense for long periods of time and score against the Warriors’ suffocating defense was huge.
Without Irving, the Cavs lack the shot-creators to give James any palpable relief on the offensive end. Kevin Love, if he clears concussion protocol, can ease the overall scoring burden as a face-up or post-up option, but he lacks Irving’s dribble penetration skills.
When the Cavs blew up their team at the trade deadline, there was a sense that the incoming pieces might make them better-suited to face the Warriors. They would be longer, switchier, with players that could spread the floor and provide more athleticism.
Instead, Hood and Clarkson have provided little offensive punch while Tristan Thompson has essentially replaced Nance as the Cavs’ go-to big man.
It’s worth wondering if the initial return for Irving would be better for Cleveland. If a healthy Isaiah Thomas could give James that secondary scorer and off-the-dribble force (his health would be a major “if”; Thomas missed the end of the season to get hip surgery), or if Crowder, who struggled playing alongside James, could be the type of brute force defender needed to make Durant uncomfortable.
Irving alone wouldn’t necessarily tilt the series in Cleveland’s favor, but it would give them at least a puncher’s chance – that if the Warriors had an off-night, a common occurrence this postseason, that the Cavs could catch fire and take a game.
Without him, they are wholly reliant on James to work his magic against the team perhaps best suited to guard him. They’ll need to play a perfect game in almost all facets, and if they don’t the question will persist: were they right to trade Irving?