In the year leading up to and the season following LeBron James' insipid "Decision," the Cleveland Cavaliers went about things about as incorrectly as one franchise conceivably can. In the time since, luckily for northern Ohioans, the team is doing just about everything right. The wins aren't there, of course, but that's par for the course when you take chances in the draft and rebuild with youth. And while youngsters like Tristan Thompson, Tyler Zeller and Dion Waiters have had their fair share of ups and downs during the lockout year and this season's first month, star guard Kyrie Irving is helping the Cavaliers lead the league in drools per minute with his All-Star level play.
Of course, a day later, we know that Irving will miss up to a month with a fracture in his left hand. Though the second-year guard was seen shooting around at practice on Tuesday while wearing a split on his injured hand, the team is likely to take its time (again, smartly) as it works its future franchise stud back into the lineup.
And that lineup, without Irving? It wasn't pretty before with Kyrie off the court. And for the rest of November and a good chunk of December one of the league's most entertaining teams will take a severe back seat without Irving's offensive flash. Such is life on a rebuilding team without a star — suddenly, you're the Washington Wizards.
Again, this doesn't mean that the Cavs have constructed their roster incorrectly, or that big man Anderson Varejao isn't playing All-Star level ball himself. It's just that Anderson (though his passing has been outstanding in 2012-13) can't be relied upon to score consistently in a pinch. Nor can Thompson, as he works his way into a career as a reliable banger. Nor can Alonzo Gee, a fine slasher at times that still only makes 40 percent of his shots from the field. Don't expect much help from former scoring type C.J. Miles, who hasn't even hit a quarter of his shots this season. And don't look for Daniel Gibson, whose productivity sank like a stone when Irving hit the bench during Cleveland's 2-8 start, to continue his fantastic overall shooting numbers (47 percent from the field, 45 percent from behind the arc) with Irving sidelined.
And, in this early stage, neither can Dion Waiters; a rookie that will have to grow up very quickly with Irving taking to the sidelines over the next few weeks.
It's not fair to Waiters, who didn't even start for his team in Syracuse and is fewer than 300 minutes into his NBA career, but the pressure will be on him to produce right away. And though Waiters has been scintillating at times in his rookie season, his overall game is a bit of a grab-bag now. Lauded as a thick slasher with a Dwyane Wade-styled ability to score in a number of ways, Waiters is shooting just 36 percent from inside the 3-point arc. Shooting in the mid-to-high 30s in your first few weeks as an NBA guard is passable at times, but just 36 on 2-pointers?
What's remarkable about Waiters' initial turn is his white hot 44 percent mark from outside, something that has salvaged his much-needed offense to a large extent. Of course, even the most ardent and cheery of Cavs fans will tell you that, holy cow, the guy takes a whole lot of heat-check threes. Even in his finer moments, such as the night he hit seven 3-pointers in a Cleveland win over the Los Angeles Clippers, a whole heck of a lot of those attempts were … not great. It's possible, considering the degree of difficulty and the lack of spacing with Irving away that Waiters' 3-point percentage will take a nosedive.
This isn't a criticism or something we're expecting (we hope) to last. Again, Waiters is still figuring the game and the league out after an unorthodox college career. Still, this goes a long way toward explaining why the Cavs feature an offensive efficiency mark that would rank them amongst the top-five teams in the NBA with Irving on the court for his 35 minutes a night, and yet the team still ranks just 24th in offense overall.
The drop-off, as much as we like a lot of Kyrie's helpers, is that steep. And, as we literally cringe while writing this line -- Kyrie is going away for a while. It's the helpers' team, now.
This is all after a 2-8 start, mind you. The Cavs weren't going to contend for a playoff spot this year, they weren't designed to and we appreciate that slow and smart rebuild. It's doubtful that the team expected to drop eight of its first 10 games, though. And frightening that they'll have to face in upwards of 16 games (if Irving returns exactly one week from his initial diagnosis, against Boston on Dec. 19) without Irving. Eight of those games come against teams currently in the playoff bracket, not including two (Indiana and Chicago) that hope to be in the top eight come April. Because Irving's current setback is a hand injury he can keep his conditioning up, but that doesn't really help the Cavs when he's in civvies while Cleveland is wrapping up a 14-point third quarter.
The playoffs weren't the point. Growth was key, with 82 games of working together and developing a chemistry that Cleveland hoped would last for years, before adding two first-rounders (their own, and Miami Heat's selection that they have the right to swap with the Los Angeles Lakers' pick) in June. The Cavs are doing it right despite this pessimistic outlook.
Even with the lowered expectations in place, though, this is going to be a cold autumn in Cleveland. Like, "38 percent from the field"-cold. Bundle up.