- Maddie Meyer/Getty
- The Cleveland Cavaliers’ two losses to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals have shown how badly the Cavs miss Kyrie Irving.
- ESPN reported on Tuesday that LeBron James and head coach Tyronn Lue were both against trading Irving, but management felt the relationship was irreparable.
- As the Cavs face the possibility of elimination from the playoffs, it raises questions about their future – and the missed opportunity to rebuild around Irving, a young, talented point guard, in the event James leaves this summer.
LeBron James is in a position he hasn’t faced in the Eastern Conference since 2008.
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 107-94, to the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, and James and the Cavs are now in a 0-2 hole as they return to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4. The last time James faced a 0-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference playoffs was a decade ago, also against the Celtics.
Game 2 was reflective of the Cavs’ problems this postseason. James came out with a head full of steam, scoring 21 points in the opening quarter. But after taking a shot to the head in the second quarter – after which he had to leave the game momentarily – James never looked the same, and the Cavs couldn’t generate any offense without him barreling into the lane or hitting shots from difficult angles.
Though Kevin Love pitched in 22 points on 50% shooting, the issue once again became James’ lack of help on the Cavs squad. It often looked as though James was going one-on-five against the Celtics.
The Cavs’ struggles have only shone a brighter light on the decision to trade Kyrie Irving to the Celtics last summer – a common theme this season.
The Cavs haven’t gotten anything from the Irving trade
On Tuesday, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported that James and Tyronn Lue, the Cavs’ head coach, were against trading Irving when he asked for a trade. Irving still had two years left on his deal, meaning the Cavs were not against the wall. Management, however, decided to move on, feeling the relationship was irreparable.
There have been stages of the Cavs since that deal. They got Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick in the draft back for Irving. As the Cavs fell apart midseason, they shipped out Thomas and Crowder for Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Rodney Hood. And on Tuesday, the Cavs got the eighth pick – as expected – in the draft lottery.
When the Cavs blew up their team in February, many (including this writer) felt optimistic about the new pieces – the Cavs got younger, longer, more explosive. Thomas had not recovered from his hip injury (he never did, opting for surgery at the end of the season) and Crowder could not adjust to the Cavs’ system.
Through 13 playoff games, the Cavs’ new pieces have given them virtually nothing. As The Athletic’s Jason Lloyd noted, in last year’s playoffs, Irving was a +124 – the number of points by which the Cavs outscored opponents when he was on the floor. The combination of Hood, Clarkson, and Nance are -164 this postseason. That’s a 288-point swing between last year’s Cavs with Irving and this year’s squad with his replacements.
Irving wasn’t a perfect player, and the Cavs usually still struggled when he played without James on the floor. But Irving brings a skill that’s crucial in the playoffs: isolation scoring. Irving bailed out the Cavs numerous times during his playoffs career, even taking the reins from James at times to carry the offense.
In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, against a very different Celtics team, Irving averaged 25.8 points per game on 62% shooting. In Game 4, with the Celtics threatening to tie the series and James having a rare off night, Irving took over, scoring 42 points and a hitting a variety of difficult shots.
Suffice to say the Cavs are not getting that kind of production from anyone else.
According to Lloyd, during the regular season as the Cavs imploded, one player, referring to the Celtics general manager who pulled off the Irving trade, said, “Danny Ainge is a f—ing thief.”
The centerpiece of the Irving trade was always the Nets pick, and there was hope that Thomas, at full health, could provide some individual scoring while Crowder could give a “three-and-D” presence.
That plan fell apart, and now the only intriguing return from the Irving deal is the No. 8 pick – a good one in a deep draft, but perhaps a bit too far down to acquire a generational talent like Irving.
It wasn’t a matter of merely keeping Irving and moving on. Joe Vardon reported earlier this year that Irving had threatened to get knee surgery this season if the Cavs didn’t trade him. Irving ultimately had to do so and has been out for the entirety of the playoffs.
It’s unclear whom James will get more help from as this series continues. James could very well power the Cavs to four wins in the next five games to make a fourth straight NBA Finals. But it’s clear they’ll need more superhuman efforts from him to get there.
After that, the summer only leads to more questions. The Cavs have a bloated payroll and few assets to get another star. James hasn’t been one to get excited about playing next to rookies. In trading Irving, the Cavs lost their building block in the event James leaves in free agency.
The further away we get, the more the Irving trade looks like a watershed moment for the Eastern Conference.
More NBA playoffs coverage:
- Kevin Love had a revealing explanation on what it takes to be a star playing with LeBron James
- Steve Kerr explained why Kevin Durant has made the Warriors dominant on a virtually unprecedented level
- The Warriors are so used to starting playoff series at home that some players reportedly bought plane tickets for family members to the wrong city
- ‘I’m taking the Warriors in 3′: Charles Barkley doesn’t like the Rockets’ chances after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals