Since LeBron James’ return last season, the Cleveland Cavaliers have become a juggernaut in the Eastern Conference as well as one of the top teams in the NBA — once again. However, one of their key problems during this short span has been dealing with injuries throughout the roster. In particular, three-time All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving’s checkered past with leg injuries.
Prior to last season, he missed 65 games over his first three years in the league. Irving showed plenty of promise in his fourth year, playing in a career-high 75 games, but suffered a fractured left knee cap in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in the overtime period. This crippled the Cavaliers even further against the Warriors as they were already playing without the services of three-time All-Star forward Kevin Love, who suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the first round against the Boston Celtics, requiring season-ending surgery.
Although Cleveland lacked Irving for the entire preseason and the first two months of the season, they were able to stay atop the Eastern Conference. James has led the charge for the team, along with Love, who plays well in an expanded offensive role averaging a double-double with 17.1 points and 10.7 rebounds. The Cavaliers have also been dominant at home, holding a 13-1 record through their first 14 games, which is the second-best mark in the league behind the Warriors.
They are clearly the best team in the East — even without Irving on the floor — with a 15-6 mark against the conference. This includes two winning streaks of at least six games this season. However, Irving’s return does immediately thrust them further ahead in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, and Washington Wizards, who have all experienced their fair share of inconsistent stretches in the early portion of this season.
Irving, a former Duke product, provides the Cavaliers with another premier offensive weapon alongside James and Love, which makes it an extremely difficult task to defend the trio. It gives them another proven scorer to lean on when James has an off-night offensively, moving Matthew Dellavedova back to the bench where he’s most effective.
Keep in mind that it will take a few weeks for Irving to return to elite form as he hadn’t played in an NBA game in over six months. There will be plenty of rust concerning his shooting and chemistry with the team. Although he has put in plenty of time with rehabilitation and practice with his teammates, these things can’t fully simulate the flow of an actual game. This means that there will be a huge adjustment period for the Cavaliers to get used to playing with Irving back on the floor.
Once the team readjusts, there’s no question that they will be a force to reckon with in the Eastern Conference. But does it make them the favorite to win the NBA title? That’s a tough question as there are a few teams in the daunting Western Conference that could hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy next June. The defending champions are still flying high from their title run last season. They began the year with a historic start, and reigning MVP Stephen Curry continues to play at an unbelievable level.
This has somewhat masked the stellar skill of Draymond Green, as he’s in the midst of a career-best season, and Klay Thompson, who’s having another strong campaign. The San Antonio Spurs also improved over the offseason with the addition of Kahwi Leonard’s offensive development and four-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge — arguably the league’s best two-way players.
This isn’t forgetting the Oklahoma City Thunder. They finally have Kevin Durant back and healthy, playing like one of the league’s best players again, alongside another top-five player in the league, Russell Westbrook. As long as these two remain healthy, Oklahoma City will remain one of the top contenders in the Western Conference. With that in mind, it’s difficult t0 place the Cavaliers as the favorite to win the NBA title. Teams like the Warriors, Thunder, and Spurs in the West could very well stop James in the NBA Finals for a third straight year.