Monday night in their blowout of the Sacramento Kings, the Cleveland Cavaliers provided a blueprint of what life could look like night in and night out in the Tyronn Lue era. While the entire team is starting to look more comfortable with this style of play, one player in particular is certainly rounding into form and gaining more confidence with each game.
That player is point guard, Kyrie Irving.
Since returning from a devastating knee injury in the 2015 NBA playoffs, Irving has been up and down in the 2015-2016 season. At times, his shot has looked flat, he has looked noticeably slower and the usual “fearlessness” in his game seemed to be lacking—which most people completely expected given the severity of his injury.
Irving made his return late in the month of December against the Philadelphia 76ers, scoring 12 points in 17 minutes of action. The month of December provided Irving with an opportunity to play in just four games (he took two of them off for rest), where he averaged 13 points per game on 34 percent shooting in 21.5 minutes. He added in three assists, 1.5 rebounds, one block and one steal per game as well.
As the team headed into the New Year, the hope was that Irving would take a major step forward as well. Irving started hot, scoring 25 and 32 points in the team’s second and third games of the month. He finished January averaging 17.2 points, four assists, 3.6 rebounds, 0.3 blocks and 0.9 steals on 44.4 percent shooting in 29.1 minutes per game.
From his four games in December to a full month of games in January, you could see Irving picking up steam on certain nights but still looking like something was missing on others. A couple of poor shooting performances (33.3 percent against Orlando, 20 percent against Philadelphia, 27.3 percent against Golden State and 31.3 percent against Chicago), showed Irving may have a little bit further to go in fully recovering from that injury—or was it something else?
That something else—as you may have guessed—being the system of former head coach, David Blatt. Since Lue took over, Irving’s performances have increased dramatically. In February alone (five games), Irving is averaging 26.2 points, 6.6 assists and 2.8 rebounds on 54.3 percent shooting from the floor, including 37 percent from three-point range.
What is even more impressive about his numbers in February is the fact he is nearly 10 percent up in field goal percentage in January, on 3.3 more shot attempts per game. He averaged 15.5 shots per game in January, and is up to 18.8 thus far this month. Same goes from downtown, as he is up from 25.4 percent to 37 percent on an additional 1.5 attempts there per game.
Obviously there was a “getting the feel back” period for Irving coming off the injury, but the numbers are saying Blatt’s system could have been a little more to blame than people thought with his slow start post injury. Under Lue’s system (a span of nine games dating back to Chicago), Irving has posted six games with 50 percent-plus shooting from the field, and the fewest shots he attempted in those games was 17. He has also poured in six games of 20-plus points, with five of those being 25-plus efforts.
While the scoring average north of 26 this month is obviously exciting, the 6.6 assists per game in Lue’s system is something to be focused on as well. Not only is Irving providing scoring for the team, but his court vision and ability to create for his teammates is returning to form as well. Though some players look to score only in faster, transition based offenses, Irving’s increase in assists per game shows that he is looking to find teammates in the open court as well.
As the month of February continues and the rest of the season carries on, it will be intriguing to see if Irving can continue his current torrid pace. He has never shot better than 46.9 percent for an entire season (rookie year), or averaged more than 22.5 points per game (second season) despite playing on some pretty bad Cavaliers teams for the first three years.
If he can play this way with LeBron James and Kevin Love on the court sharing touches, Irving’s ability to score and create for his teammates in Lue’s system could be just what the doctor ordered for this Cavaliers team when it comes to competing with the likes of Golden State and San Antonio if they face off in the NBA Finals at the end of the season.