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NBA Sunday: Will Health Hold the Cavs Back?

The Cavaliers will only go as far as Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving’s injuries allow them, writes Moke Hamilton.

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Updated 10 months ago on
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Even without Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving, the Cleveland Cavaliers came within two wins of winning the 2015 NBA Championship.

And as we look toward the commencement of the 2015-16 season, in light of the Cavaliers coming to terms with J.R. Smith on a two-year, $10 million deal this past week, the Cavaliers appear all but certain to return to the NBA Finals this coming season.

That is, of course, so long as their health permits.

During the 2015 Finals, while in Cleveland for Game 3 and Game 4, I had the opportunity to chat with a number of players on either side, including LeBron James. The recurring theme in many of the conversations was predictable: everyone marveled at what James had been able to accomplish without his two sidekicks and everyone believed it was possible that the Cavaliers could do the impossible and pull off the monumental upset, especially as the Golden State Warriors struggled with identity issues and seemed to have no answer for Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson.

Reality eventually set in, though, and the Warriors came out on top. Now, as the season draws nearer, for me, the question is not whether the Cavaliers are talented enough to win the NBA Championship this coming year, it is whether or not Love and Irving will actually be able to endure the rigors of a roughly 100-game NBA season. Each of their histories suggests that they may not be able to.

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By the time the Cavaliers convene for training camp, Love will be 28 years old and entering his eighth professional season. He has not managed to play as many as 80 games in a season since his rookie year and has missed more than 20 regular season games in three of his seven professional seasons.

Due to the dislocated left shoulder that he suffered during Game 4 of the Cavaliers first round sweep over the Boston Celtics in April, Love managed to appear in only four of the team’s 20 playoff games.

Over the years, Love has suffered a multitude of injuries, including a strained left groin, broken metacarpals on his right hand (which he re-injured after returning to full contact during the recovery period) and the dislocated shoulder he suffered these last playoffs.

At the very least, it is fair to question his durability and the same questions can reasonably be asked about Irving.

Irving, at 23 years old, joins Damian Lillard as one of the few point guards I have ever seen that came into the NBA ready to be a plus-contributor from day one. Irving, after four seasons, has been named an All-Star each of the past three seasons and is nowhere near his physical peak. That he has managed to score 21.9 points per game over the course of his young career in addition to his 3.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists is certainly noteworthy.

But once upon a time, we had the same sort of affinity for the likes of Gilbert Arenas and Deron Williams. As time progressed, each of the two, unfortunately, proved to us that their bodies simply could not handle the rigors of life in the National Basketball Association. Collectively, we simply overlooked the extent to which being able to stay healthy, add strength and prove one’s self to be durable is imperative to a long and illustrious NBA career. Had it not been for miscellaneous injuries, history might remember the likes of Mitch Richmond, Allan Houston, Chris Webber and Elton Brand completely differently. Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming and Brandon Roy are the three most obvious choices as the best players (of the last ten years or so) who were simply robbed of their places in history due to the deterioration of their bodies.

By no means is this suggesting that either Love or Irving will eventually find themselves on that list, but it is something worth thinking about as we look around the Eastern Conference and see the likes of the Toronto Raptors improving, the Washington Wizards seeming to turn a corner and the Chicago Bulls attempting to reinvent themselves in a way to become a more well-rounded basketball team.

It is so obvious that it seems asinine to even write, but the Cavaliers will only go as far as Love and Irving can help James carry them. And we simply do not know how strong their backs are.

Regarding Irving, in each of his first two seasons, he managed to play just 51 and 59 games, respectively. He missed 11 games in his third season before missing just seven games this past season. However, the majority of games he played down the stretch of last season were played with lingering pain and, even when he did suit up, it was obvious that he was not operating at 100 percent.

Like Love, Irving essentially missed the NBA Finals (except for an amazing performance in Game 1) and was not there when the team needed him most. That is not an indictment against him; it is just a simple statement of fact. Irving’s injury history over the first four years of his NBA career become even more disconcerting when one considers that the Cavaliers were forced to at least consider drafting Derrick Williams with the first overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft four years ago.

It sounds crazy, but Williams was coming off of a standout year at Arizona where he was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year and led the Wildcats to an Elite Eight appearance after knocking off, coincidentally, Irving’s Duke Blue Devils. Irving had appeared in only 11 games during the regular season for Mike Krzyzewski ’s team and returned before the tournament commenced. In his final game at Duke, Irving scored 28 points in the loss to William’s Wildcats. In many ways, he solidified himself as the top prospect, but there was concerns over his durability, because as Greg Oden has since showed us, prospects do not typically get healthier as they progress in their careers.

Since before Irving became a professional, even at Duke, missing games was not a foreign occurrence for the youngster. Since being drafted in 2011, despite his promise, it is something that he remained as consistent with as the release point on his jumpshot.

In his young career, Irving has had injury issues with muscles (a strained left bicep), bones (a broken nose) and ligaments (a ligament issue in his big toe is what sidelined him at Duke). He has similarly had shoulder issues, at least one concussion and now, most notably, documented issues with his left knee. It was a fractured left kneecap that prematurely ended Irving’s run with the Cavaliers this past spring, and this occurred after a severe bout of tendinitis with that same knee.

I am no medical expert, but what I do know is that NBA team doctors, trainers and general managers quickly grow weary of players who suffer injuries to their ligaments and tendons. Those are the types of injuries that recur most often and are often indicative of a body type that simply cannot withstand the rigors of the day-to-day grind.

Although he is atypical in many regards, for reference, LeBron James played in at least 75 games in each of his first nine years in the NBA. He has never missed more than 20 games in a season and remains the standard for consistency in the league.

Still, despite his gifts and his virtues, as we saw this past season, James may be able to win the Eastern Conference by himself, but he cannot topple the Western Conference alone. For that endeavor, he will need Love and Irving at his side. And to this point, we simply cannot be sure that he will have that.

* * * * *

From a talent standpoint, there is no question that the Cavaliers are the top team in the Eastern Conference. Heading into last season, the sole reason anyone would not have predicted them to win the conference would have been due to a dearth of experience. With that no longer a concern, the only issue now holding them back is their collective health.

With Dan Gilbert re-investing truckloads of money to re-sign the principal players who became free agents this past summer, the Cavaliers will again be looked upon as the favorites out East.

Still, even as J.R. Smith announced his intention to return to the team this coming season, their championship hopes and aspirations lay squarely on the balky shoulders of Love and the squeaky knees of Irving.

Unless each of them hold up, the 2015-16 season may ultimately be remembered as simply the second consecutive season in which injury concerns robbed the Cavaliers of their potential.

Together, let’s hope that, in terms of durability, Love is more Tim Duncan than Chris Webber and that Irving is more Chris Paul than Deron Willliams.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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