With the Cleveland Cavaliers entering play on December 28 at 24-11 and with the third-best record in the Eastern Conference, it seems like so long ago that the team was 5-7 and seemed to have some pretty significant identity issues.
Just like it seems like so long ago that the team traded away Kyrie Irving.
What makes the Cavs interesting, among everything else, is the fact that, to this point, they traded away Irving and haven’t been able to put a comparably talented piece on the floor in his place.
That’ll all change once Isaiah Thomas takes the floor, and his return is imminent.
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The Cavs are currently in the midst of a stretch where eight of nine games will be played on the road. The team improbably lost to the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night and had Thursday and Friday off before visiting the Utah Jazz on Saturday. With Thursday being an off day, the team is expected to hold practice specifically for the purpose of allowing Thomas to scrimmage with his team for the first time on Friday.
“It’ll be a practice, get some shots up, cover defensive rules and principles and also scrimmage a little bit so Isaiah can get a feel and play 5-on-5,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said on Wednesday, according to ESPN’s Dave McMenamin.
What makes the return of Thomas interesting is the fact that the Cavaliers haven’t been fully transparent about when they expect him to return to the lineup. Even before Thomas was dealt to the Cavs, the estimates for his return to active participation were estimated to be sometime in January. Still, after the trade was initially announced in August, the Cavs requested additional compensation from the Celtics after Thomas underwent his physical. The perception was that Thomas’ injury was more severe than the Celtics initially let on and that the Cavs felt that his inclusion as the primary piece in return for Irving was done under less than transparent circumstances.
Since then, the exact timeline for Thomas’ return has been based on rough estimates, though the guard did discuss his return with the Associated Press a few weeks ago.
“When that time comes to where I’ll be out there, I’m sure everybody is going to know and I’ll be out there playing the way I’ve always played,” Thomas was quoted as saying on December 20 by the Associated Press.
“I’m just trying to get as close as 100 percent as possible and to be out there to be special. Not just to be out there and be another body. However long that takes — it might be next week, it might be a week after that. We don’t know and we’re really not trying to put a date on it because it just depends on how my recovery is.”
For the record, December 27 made one week since Thomas’ comments and January 3 would make the second week. Interestingly enough, the Cavs will visit the Celtics for the first time this season on January 3, and it’s reasonable to assume that Thomas would like to be in the lineup for that game. It would be irresponsible, however, for him to rush back to active participation (or for the Cavs to allow him to take the court) prematurely. As the guard has been out of action for about seven months, most training staffs would want the player to get at least three or four practices under his belt before returning from such a prolonged absence.
Although scheduling and team practice decisions are often made on the fly, the Cavs play at Utah on December 30 and will likely return to Cleveland after the game. They’ll spend December 31 and January 1 at home before hosting the Portland Trailblazers on January 2 and then will travel to Boston for the January 3 contest against the Celtics.
The most likely scenario for Cavaliers would be to have the practice that Thomas will participate in on December 29, visit the Jazz on December 30, have December 31 off, practice in full on January 1 and then play on both January 2 against the Blazers and on January 3 against the Celtics.
What we will find out in short order is whether two practices and two game-day shoot around sessions will be enough for Thomas to responsibly find his way back in the lineup. According to McMenamin, Thomas will be on a minutes restriction upon his return to the lineup, so seeing him take the floor for the first time on January 2 or January 3 seems within the realm of possibility, if even only for 10-15 minutes.
The Cavs first visit to Boston on January 3 was already full of enough drama as it is. Thomas’ pending return only adds to it.
It’s not everyday that a team has to wait several months to get the primary piece of a blockbuster trade into its lineup. That the Cavs have been as dominant as they have been without him is a testament to the team’s greatness.
And with Thomas having yet to take the floor, it’s fair to assume that, for the Cavs, the best is yet to come.
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