Kyrie Irving is many things as a point guard — attacking, assertive, excellent in big matchups — but he isn’t a miracle worker. Though his return from a fractured left index finger tonight against the Lakers took just three weeks instead of the expected four, and is thus as close to a godsend as Cleveland will get this season, even a former No. 1 pick will struggle to break the Cavaliers’ 2-9 slide without him. Rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters has been injured the past four games, postponing the return of the full effect from that budding backcourt combination: The top seven two-player combinations on the team this year include either Waiters or Irving or both. But if you think the adjustment period back into regular NBA minutes will take time for Irving after just one full-contact practice today, think again.
As a No. 1 pick in 2011 there shouldn’t be much of a refresher course needed on Irving’s skills and his absence will only have lasted 11 games if he plays Tuesday night. And don’t think this is the case where Clevelanders didn’t know what they had till it was gone: Irving is a projected All-Star and has become almost a shoo-in since he filleted the Team USA defense in July and had big early performances this season before injuring his finger. So, maybe this is obvious to say he’s really, really good, but in a Central division whose best team, Chicago, has the fewest wins of any division leader, he gives the Cavs an outside shot of still making noise in the final three-quarters of this season. (When I say immediately, I mean it: When he spoke to the media on Monday, he said his conditioning will be as high as it was when he left). However small the percentage of making the playoffs at 4-17 are, it’s still a shot — and the Cavaliers couldn’t say that without him.
5. He gets Dion Waiters the ball where he’s most effective
Waiters is a funny player in that his perceived strength, slashing to the rim, hasn’t been the best part of his game early this season. It might follow that in a rookie’s first quarter-season he’d play to his strengths but Waiters has shown a knack for shooting from three more. To unlock his three-point shooting, though, having an effective point guard is an absolute must. Nearly 76 percent of his three-pointers come off assists, compared with just five percent of his rim attempts (he likes to dribble in to get those shots). Irving gets him those assists not only with his vision but because defenses can’t shade over to defend Waiters knowing they must keep Irving from driving to the hoop. Irving can do this with other wing players in Waiters’ stead, but last year’s top pick is clearly the best at executing given direction and the ball by Irving.
4. He’s smart about his shooting
In a Moneyball style, the Cavaliers have to be smarter about how they play if they want to win against teams that have more, better players. Those teams can misfire on more possessions or allow more points because sheer talent can help them make up for it. Cleveland was second in the league in defensive efficiency a week ago and playing at the margin of its capabilities there but was still skidding without its star guard. The averages show Irving is subscribing to the play smarter ethos. Compared to his attempts and shooting percentages from a season ago, Irving has decreased his attempts per game where he’s shooting worse (at 3-to-9 feet he’s just 23 percent this season against 36 percent a year ago) and increasing those in spots he’s hot at. His three-point attempts have increased by about one per game and for good reason: He’s shooting 59 percent eFG% there, just a shade worse than how he did last season.