I can't stop thinking about Kyrie Irving lately. A lot of what I was thinking about was the backup point guard situation and how Mo Williams will probably not get much PT, leaving minutes for Jordan McRae and/or Kay Felder. Both of them seem to be happy-to-score point guards like Kyrie, which would be a change from having Delly as the backup. Later it occurred to me that I was really just thinking about how good Kyrie is and who would represent less of a drop-off when he rests.
Kyrie Irving. Cripes.
He doesn't turn 25 until next spring. He has plenty of learning and improving still to do but he's done a heck of a lot already.
Granted it gets easier to look like you're enjoying the NBA when LeBron James comes along and takes you under his wing, but Kyrie looks like a completely different player from a few years ago. After his rookie of the year campaign he spent the next couple of years slogging through injuries for a bad team, occasionally flashing incredible handles and a penchant for shooting. His defense was bad and there was a sense that he might have just been going through the motions until he could bail on the team. It was almost a surprise when he signed his extension one day before LeBron announced his return, as it was showing that he was committed to Cleveland for at least the next several years. It might have been financially motivated and it might have been because there was an impressive young core at the time, but it was just a nice thing to have him. Then LeBron came back.
Even during the first LeBron season, the two occasionally butted heads. There was the highly publicized 0 assist game, when LeBron scolded his guard for not passing the ball enough, which led to people wondering about their relationship and endless speculation about whether they'd stick together in the long-run.
For that season though, Kyrie played very well. He had a few enormous games (57 on the Spurs, anyone?) and proved he was something special.
His knee injury in game 1 of the 2015 Finals** had a huge effect on his 2015-2016 season, obviously, as he missed the first 24 games. He seemed to spend the whole regular season working his way back into shape - flashing brilliance but not sustaining brilliance. After shooting 41% from deep in the 2015 regular season he dipped all the way to 32% in the 2016 regular season. It was a little unnerving as a fan. He was getting open shots from 15 feet and hitting those regularly, but he wasn't the outside threat that he'd been before.
Then the playoffs came.
How many times did he do this to guys in the postseason? If he wasn't pulling up and hitting jumpers, he was doing this.
The guy was just unstoppable, but his numbers weren't so great that it felt unsustainable. 44% from outside the arc isn't a stretch after he shot 41% in a regular season and 45% in last year's playoffs. He had a little more freedom in the offense in the postseason - lots of possessions where he'd dominate the ball - and the results seem to have been pretty OK.
So here's my point/prediction: Kyrie Irving will be an MVP candidate in the 2016-2017 season.
LeBron should probably start seeing his minutes drop very slightly. Whether that means he actually just plays 33 minutes a night instead of 36 or he just takes 1 game off out of every 10, I don't know. In either case, Kyrie ought to be ready and willing to pick up the slack and dominate games on a regular basis. His defense cleaned up a bit in the postseason, so we know he's at least capable of occasionally slowing guys down. According to basketball-reference, Irving was a -1.4 in defensive box plus/minus for each of the past two seasons, but he managed to be a 0.7 and 0.1 in the past two playoffs. He's not terrible on defense, he just might not be motivated enough in the regular season.
The biggest factor that could get in his way of the MVP discussion is just that: Motivation. The Cavs will be hard-pressed to take great interest in the regular season after the way last year went, although I think it would be fun to see if they can dominate the east and put some fear into the presumptive west-winners from Golden State. But think about the MVP competitors: Durant, Curry, Westbrook, Leonard, LeBron, CP3, Draymond, Harden, and maybe Anthony Davis.
Durant, Green, and Curry will likely be taking away votes from each other and minimizing stats for each other. Kawhi Leonard is going to be in the conversation but it's TBD how they'll do as a team with TD gone and Gasol in his shoes. LeBron will theoretically rest just enough to keep himself in the top 5 of MVP voting but out of the #1 spot. Anthony Davis is a wild-card. Harden is sloppy enough that no one can support him anymore. CP3 is still old but will still hang around. And last, Russ Westbrook will just be taking 95 shots a game so no one will know what to do with him when voting comes around.
It's possible, that's all I'm saying. He might still be a long-shot to win it, but he's going to be in the conversation because he can be an average defender and a mind-blowing offensive player. Stephen Curry's numbers for his first MVP aren't as crazy as you might expect. Irving could realistically put up similar numbers (more points, fewer assists, I suspect) and be in the conversation.
This guy is good. He was overshadowed in the Finals because LeBron did a full LeBron in June, so you might not fully realize how good Kyrie was. In games 3-7 he averaged 31 points, 4+ assists and rebounds, 2 steals, was 20-21 from the free throw line, and hit 47% of his threes. Those stats didn't earn him a single MVP vote because, again, LeBron went LeBronning. Irving is a monster. Watch out.
** OK, think about this for a minute. If LeBron's game 1 buzzer beater goes in, Kyrie doesn't bang kneecaps in overtime of game 1 and instead just has some general knee pain instead of a 5-month recovery from a broken knee. That's a different series. It's hard to imagine the whole series going the same way, but the Cavs won games 2 and 3 without him, so it's not crazy to think they'd have won games 2 and 3 with him. Cavs up 3-0 in the Finals? That Warriors team may have been able to come back - even from that - but the Cavs might've also won that title last year. The fallout could've been wild - GS then wins 73 this year and loses the Finals again because the Cavs come in at full-health? KD doesn't go to GS if that happens. The whole NBA changes if that game 1 buzzer beater goes in.