As long as the Cavs have LeBron James, the baseline expectation is that they reach the Finals. But it was Kyrie Irving who surprised the world against the Warriors last June. He outplayed Steph Curry for two weeks. He exploded for 41 points in Game 5 to help turn the Finals upside down. He finished off Game 7 with a pull-up three over Curry to win the title. All told, Irving scored 25.2 points per game in the playoffs. What if that was just the beginning?
James came back to Cleveland in the summer of 2014 for myriad reasons, but Irving's presence was near the top of the list. At the time, Irving was 22 and an All-Star, but he had plenty of room to grow. At 24 he still does. Last spring was a level we'd never seen before from Irving—better shooting, perfectly picking his spots, bailing out Cleveland over and over again in the half-court.
LeBron—who just finished his 11th season of at least 2,700 minutes—will need help as he navigates the next six months. And come June he'll need another superhero to have a shot against the Golden State Death Star. Irving played that role for two months. Let's see if he can do it for a whole season.
PROJECTED LINEUP | 2015--16 stats
COACH TYRONN LUE (2nd season with Cavaliers)
2015--16 RECORD 57--25 (1st in Central)
PG KYRIE IRVING
19.6 PPG; 4.7 APG; 44.8 FG%; 32.1 3FG%
SG J.R. SMITH
12.4 PPG; 1.7 APG; 41.5 FG%; 40.0 3FG%
SF LEBRON JAMES
25.3 PPG; 7.4 RPG; 6.8 APG; 52.0 FG%
PF KEVIN LOVE
16.0 PPG; 9.9 RPG; 41.9 FG%; 36.0 3FG%
C TRISTAN THOMPSON
7.8 PPG; 9.0 RPG; 0.6 BPG; 58.8 FG%
SF MIKE DUNLEAVY*
7.2 PPG; 2.7 RPG; 41.0 FG%; 39.4 3FG%
SG IMAN SHUMPERT
5.8 PPG; 3.8 RPG; 37.4 FG%; 29.5 3FG%
PF CHANNING FRYE
6.1 PPG; 3.3 RPG; 43.8 FG%; 38.7 3FG%
TELLING NUMBER 25.2
A rival scout sizes up Cleveland
Ty Lue did a nice job. He'll be better this year than he was last year, when there were definitely growing pains. Ty's always had a great ability to command the respect of his peers and his teammates, and now his players. LeBron James respects him. Kyrie Irving respects him. They have a lot of good players, and he got them to try on defense and to share the ball.... Kevin Love is making it work in a difficult situation for him. They were probably going to trade him this summer, but then they won, and he played decently and had that great defensive stand on the key possession [in Game 7 of the Finals]. But Kevin was very unhappy last year; I expect he'll be pretty unhappy this year. He's still a very good player despite some limitations.... I see Kyrie continuing to be a brilliant offensive player. His defense is really bad, and without Matthew Dellavedova [who signed with the Bucks] to push him, it might be even worse. His great ability is that he can create his own shot and score at the rim, pretty much at will. In a key situation, like in the Finals, that's really valuable.... In the regular season, if LeBron's resting or out, they'll struggle a little. Kyrie does not make his teammates better the same way LeBron does. He doesn't defend with enough effort.... Who knows what's going on with Iman Shumpert? He really struggled in the playoffs. And he just seems to have a lot of weird stuff going on, in general.... Nobody in the East can seriously threaten them when it matters. But I don't see them being anywhere near the caliber of the Warriors.
It's crazy to bet against the Warriors, but if the Cavs are clicking, betting against them isn't much easier.