The Cleveland Cavaliers were not about to rush star guard Kyrie Irving back into the fold. After all, the team was 12 games above .500 when he returned last month, holding the top record in the Eastern Conference. Coach David Blatt’s group was riding a four-game winning streak, with two of those wins coming against playoff-qualifying teams from a season ago and one coming against the contending Oklahoma City Thunder.
However, it should come as no surprise that Irving instantaneously made an impact on Cleveland’s already-simmering team. Cleveland currently has a 26-9 record and a four-game lead on the rest of the conference. The Cavaliers are 8-1 this season when Irving logs playing time and have scored 100-plus points in six of his nine games. When Irving is the on the floor, the team has a plus-21.5 point differential per 100 possessions.
“He’s getting there,” LeBron James recently said about Irving’s re-implementation in the starting lineup. “If not the best, he’s one of the two best point guards in our league along with Steph [Curry] … He’s 23 years old. He hasn’t even scratched the surface yet.”
While the notion that Irving has ample room for improvement is discernible, it’s tantalizing to consider what his ceiling this season might be, considering how immediate his impact has been felt this season on both sides of the ball. In the team’s win over Washington, for example, he dropped 32 points while shooting an efficient 14-of-22. It was the most points he’s had in a game since March 2015, and he procured them by showcasing his full offensive arsenal — dicing up defenders with split-second crossovers, slithering his way around screens to find open looks and draining step-back jump shots.
“Whatever my team needs me to do going into those four quarters, however many minutes I play, I’m going to do,” he said recently. “Every game can’t be like Washington, as much as we would love it to.”
Having only played 228 minutes thus far, Irving’s data this season is admittedly limited, but there are positive — and some negative — trends in his production. He has missed two games since he first returned on Dec. 20, and over that stretch the Cavaliers are scoring 1.08 points per possession, a slight uptick from the team’s 1.06 average this season. The Cavaliers are scoring 107.6 points per 100 possessions since he returned, too, nearly two points higher than their season average.
The team’s assist-to-turnover rate spikes from 1.53 to 2.02 when Irving takes to the court, and the team’s true shooting percentages (which measure shooting efficiency by taking into account field goals, three-point field goals and free throws) rose, too.
There has been a slight drop-off in facilitation, though. This was tacitly understood, considering Irving’s ability to create for himself off the dribble, and the fact he’s never ranked higher than 13th among point guards in assists per game. In total, Cleveland has averaged 22.2 assists per contest this season, a sliver of an improvement from a year ago. In the past 11 games, however, the team is averaging about 1.6 fewer assists per game, 1.1 secondary assists (a pass made to a player who earns an assist) and three potential assists (a pass made which would’ve earned an assist had the shooter connected on the shot) compared to the team’s season average.
Worth noting, then, is the defensive competition that Cleveland has faced since Irving’s return. The Cavaliers have squared off with Philadelphia (twice), New York, Golden State, Phoenix, Orlando, Toronto, Washington and Minnesota. Those teams rank, in order, 24th, 18th, 4th, 23rd, 13th, 9th, 20th and 19th in defensive rating — an average of around 17th. While matchups with Golden State and Toronto yielded formidable defensive units, these figures need time to adjust to a more balanced, competitive schedule.
Cleveland’s defensive rating, or the points allowed per 100 possessions, drops from 99.5 to 96.7 when Irving is on the floor. Last season, the Cavaliers yielded more points when Irving was on the court than when he was on the sideline. Unsurprisingly, the Cavaliers ramped up their defensive production as a whole this year, limiting opponents to 99.1 points per 100 possessions, five points fewer than a season ago.
Again, worth noting is the competition Cleveland has faced: Philadelphia (twice), New York, Golden State, Phoenix, Orlando, Toronto, Washington and Minnesota. Those teams rank, in order, 30th, 15th, 1st, 21st, 17th, 7th, 18th and 26th in offensive rating — an average of around 18th. Seeing as the competition faced has been, on average, in the bottom-half of the league, more data (games played) will likely clear up whether or not Irving’s contributions to the team’s scoring column and use in keeping opposing offenses to fewer points have merit.
Most impressive, though — or terrifying, if you’re a representative of any other team in the Eastern Conference — is that this Cavaliers squad is arguably more dominant, at least in the regular season, than last year’s team which earned a trip to the NBA Finals. Basketball Reference’s Simple Rating System takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule to assess how many points above or below average a team is. According to the metric, Cleveland’s plus-5.11 score is more than one point higher than last season’s score (4.08) and the sixth highest in franchise history. There has been a slight regression in points per contest, but Blatt’s defense has elevated its ability to hold opponents.
With Irving back, the Cavaliers are considerable favorites in the Eastern Conference. Should his contributions hold steady on both sides of the ball and the team finds a way to find more assisted baskets, Cleveland has no reason to be seen as anything less than a juggernaut come playoff time.