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Kyrie Irving and Rudy Gay, currently injured, are mulling a return to the court. Should they be?

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Rudy Gay and Kyrie Irving (Getty Images)

Rudy Gay and Kyrie Irving are the respective stars for the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Gay has all the hallmarks of a star – a big contract, lots of shots per game, and the perfect frame for a do-it-all NBA small forward. Irving shares none of those traits, but he was an All-Star at age 21, and definitely played at an All-Star level last season while just a rookie.

Both are hurting, currently, with Gay working through a back injury and Irving taking time off with a shoulder strain. Rudy missed Saturday’s Raptors loss to New York, and rumors abound that the Raptors will shut him down for the rest of the season. Irving has a potentially less serious but certainly just as painful left shoulder contusion, and he hasn’t played since March 10. With both men working for lottery teams, currently, is a return to action worth it for either player?

Yes, and no. And probably not for the players that you’d think.

If it appears as if we’re valuing Rudy Gay over Kyrie Irving, it’s because we are. Rudy Gay is incredibly valuable to the Toronto Raptors, though, as the team quite possibly mortgaged its future in order to move forward with a wing-heavy lineup featuring the highly-paid Gay, DeMar DeRozan, and Andrea Bargnani.

[Also: NBA Power Rankings: Heat are chasing history]

Even though Rudy won’t turn 27 until August, though, he’s been delivering just about the same production since his second year in the league. Players with his output don’t suddenly sprout into all-world dominators after working so consistently for years, and it’s not as if Rudy (who shot 40 percent in Memphis this year, and 40 percent in Toronto) blew up after being traded to the Raptors in early February.

On top of that, back injuries are no joke. This isn’t a bruise or a tear that needs to mend; this is something that can cripple a career. By all accounts Gay has no reason to fear for his career, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing to move slowly and smartly with his return.

That isn’t stopping Rudy from wanting to get back out on the court. From Mike Ganter at the Toronto Sun:

“That’s just talk. That’s just talk,” Gay said of the myriad of breathless reports which went from ‘Could be shut down’ to ‘Will be shut down’ depending on where you happened to be looking.

“The only way I’m going to get shut down is if the doctors tell me I need to stop playing,” Gay said. “I’ve been forced out before and that’s not something I look forward to again.”

[…]

“Just this last go-around, I want to be a leader out there,” Gay said. “Obviously we are playing a lot of younger players. I’m just trying to help them grow as fast as they can and just be a veteran.”

That’s more than admirable, from a player in Gay that is still smarting from having to miss the final 25 regular season games and playoff run of the 2010-11 Memphis Grizzlies. Raptors coach Dwane Casey admitted he wanted some Rudy-led “continuity” as the team peels off its final three weeks, but he’s showing patience with his new small forward. As well he should. And this doesn’t mean we’re damning the Raptors if they decide to bring Rudy Gay back in a day, a week, or a fortnight.

[Watch: Can Heat break win-streak record?]

Kyrie Irving has been out longer than a fortnight with a shoulder contusion, and while he’s not on record as Gay is in wanting to return to the team, his coach Byron Scott is chomping at the bit for his best player to get back into his starting lineup. From Jason Lloyd at the Akron Beacon-Journal:

“If he’s cleared medically and there’s still a season going on, I still have to see him in practice. Then after that, it’s sitting down and talking to him and seeing how he feels and going from there,” Scott said. “Just because there’s six games left, I wouldn’t say, ‘We’re going to shut you down and not play you at all’ when I know he’s healthy and capable of playing.”

[…]

“I don’t care if there’s one game left in the season and you’ve won three, it’s still all about the competition and trying to win basketball games,” Scott said. “You’ve got to take a stand in there somewhere in just your love for the game. My man Herm [Edwards] said it best, you play to win the game, period. I don’t care how many games are left.”

OK, I hate this stuff.

There’s a reason Herm Edwards has been relegated to a TV talking head. Asking a franchise player to come back for a few token late season games because “GRR, YEAH, SPORTS AND TOUGHNESS AND GRRRR” is pretty pointless.

Irving needs the reps, though. He’s an All-Star and future All-NBA guard, but he’s also terrible at defense, and he needs all the minutes he can get in a career that has seen him miss 35 out of a potential 135 NBA games, while playing only 11 games during his lone year at Duke. All of his injuries have come on fluke plays, this isn’t a guy with crumbly feet or aching knees, so he’s at no risk of doing anything else but suffering yet another fluke injury that he would have the entire summer to mend.

[Also: Rockets rookie Royce White slated to return to D-League]

Meanwhile, he would have yet another chance to work on the parts of his game that are lacking. Namely defense, and also defense. Plus, defense.

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"GRRRRRR." (Getty Images)

That’s not even getting into the entertainment factor. Fans won’t be packing the rafters for Cleveland Cavaliers games in April, but thousands of tickets have been sold for those contests, and Irving remains one of the league’s more watchable players. In a perfect world, all would suit up for as many games as their bodies would allow in order to play for the fans that create all this revenue, but it’s understandable when some are given a skip day prior to summer vacation.

Irving’s aesthetic gifts and brilliance shouldn’t put more pressure on him to hurry back from injury to appear in meaningless games, but … hurry back from injury to appear in meaningless games, Kyrie. Thanks.

It’s a tricky part of the season. Fans are owed the best their teams have to offer, but sometimes that may come at the price that bleeds into next year or beyond – in the form of lost lottery ball chances or a too-quick return from injury. This isn’t to excuse Cleveland or Toronto for tanking; it’s just to understand it, as they work through the injury woes of their two most famous players.

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