As the NBA Finals steam towards their conclusion in what has become a best-two-out-of-three series, the conversations about what ifs are inevitable. What if LeBron James makes the step-back jumper over Andre Iguodala at the end of regulation in Game 1? What if Steph Curry doesn't airball his end-of-OT jumper in Game 2? What if the Warriors had moved to smallball lineups almost exclusively sooner?
Of course, there's a bigger what if that all Cavs fans must turn to after every loss. The series is tied 2-2 despite the Cavaliers being completely unable to score. What if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were available?
For Cleveland folks, the answer is obvious. "We would have wiped them out!" "Sweep!"After all, you take the low number of points Cleveland has scored in this series, 93.3, and you add Irving and Love's production, and how could the Warriors have stopped them? It's science!
This column isn't to make you believe that the Cavaliers are better with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love unavailable, the team is better without them. That's idiocy. Those are tremendous NBA players and their impact would have had a positive impact. Nor is this column to lead you to believe that with them on the floor, it would have been a cakewalk. If there's anything we've learned about the NBA from this series, it's that the dynamics of basketball through the lens of injury fate are even more complicated than we thought.
The Warriors swore there would be no letdown. Here's Andre Iguodala after word of Irving's injury circulated.
Well, we've seen it this year a few times. We had some games where we didn't play up to our level of talent because a guy was out. It snuck up and almost bit us a few times. You know, Steph saved us.
We've been through it and we've experienced it, so hopefully experience will help us with that. But at the same time, like I said before, they're going to make some adjustments. They play well with Dellavedova in there in the Chicago and the Atlanta series, so he's going to find a rhythm because he's going to be in the game more.
He's made some huge shots for them. So we're going to make some adjustments and we're going to be prepared. We're not going to lay down for it just because their great player is out.
The Warriors lost Game 2.
This phenomenon is something you catch onto if you're one of the junkies, sitting through those February games on a Tuesday in Milwaukee. Teams routinely lose to opponents without their best players. Last year the Spurs sat their entire starting unit, then went out and smoked these Warriors (who were a lesser team with a lesser coach then). The Spurs are routinely competitive in those games in which they rest their key guys. It's one of the reasons they can pull it off so often.
The interesting thing about it is that it's only seen as this negative effect. "Oh, they must have thought they could just take it easy with the opponents' stars out." There is certainly some of that which goes on. You see lax effort, more of a push to simply reach cruising altitude and let the talent do the rest, vs. forcing the issue and keeping the hammer down. What gets lost is the positive effect. When the Cavaliers lost Irving, all they heard for 48 hours was how they had no chance, the series was over. Professional athletes don't take well to that. Every one of the Cavs, from LeBron James to Joe Harris, has put in the work and has the talent to be at this level. You can say a team is worse without a player, but telling athletes at this level they can't win is a strike to their personal ego and professional pride.
When extremely talented players become highly motivated, things happen.
Some of what has happened in these playoffs for the Cavaliers is not only great for what they've accomplished this year, but is pivotal for them going forward. LeBron James talked early on in the year about how the team had to go through adversity to come together. Guess what? They came together. This unit is tighter, the bonds firmer, the trust deeper, and the collective strength greater because of what they've had to do without two of their stars.
When Love went down, the team turned to Tristan Thompson (after starting Mike Miller in Game 1 vs. Chicago for some ungodly reason), and the youngster responded with an absolute tear. That inspired trust in his teammates and belief in himself. Thompson's play is pivotal for understanding the Cavs' performance without Love. Love had just started to really fit in with the offense vs. Boston, finally being used in the post, getting more and more into the team concept. But Love was never going to be a good defensive presence. The formula the Cavs' found without Love, to slow the game down, to grind out wins, to be a defense-first squad, doesn't require all the complex basketball algorithms that a stacked offensive team does. We saw this in 2011 with the Heat, who were a mess trying to figure out how to make the Big 3 work together, but succeeded by starting with defense. Thompson's defensive impact changed all that.
It's wrong to say the Cavaliers are better without Kevin Love. It's correct to say the Cavaliers have played better with more Tristan Thompson. Thompson's struggles in the Finals have greatly corresponded with the team's struggles offensively.
There are times in the playoffs when the talent level is really the separation, as it was for Cleveland vs. Chicago. In the deeper rounds, though, Chicago and Atlanta were both more talented without Love, and then Irving when he suffered knee tendinitis. Cleveland dispatched them both easily because they had a greater confidence, cohesion, and gameplan. The Cavaliers could play loose because they were without so much firepower, and they played motivated because so many believed they couldn't overcome those losses.
Letdown plus increased motivation plus improved chemistry plus changed dynamic equals success.
There are X's and O's reasons as well. It's easy to point to Matthew Dellavedova's defense on Steph Curry and say "You were never going to get that from Kyrie Irving." Irving understandably has a bad reputation defensively. Irving was inconsistent this year defensively. He started off terribly, then improved in November and December. Fans started lauding the opposing point guard's numbers as proof of Irving being a lockdown defender. Which is a bit like crediting the rain for how your garden looks. Yeah, it has an impact, but point guard defense is a way more complex structure. He struggled defensively through much of the back half of the year.
In the playoffs, though, Irving was phenomenal. That peaked with his Game 1 performance vs. Curry which was one of the singularly best defensive games from Irving I've seen in his career. He was bolting around screens to rotate and contest the catch-and-shoot, staying locked in with Steph the entire time. He pressured the ball, made plays, and was generally awesome right up until overtime when he suffered a fractured kneecap. Of all the things that are a bummer about the injuries, maybe nothing is as sad as the lost potential of how Irving seemed ready to step up on both ends in these Finals.
There's a cost, however. Irving is an isolation-heavy, opportunistic point guard. He's also young, and extremely fast. Irving was likely to take off at a sprint and push the pace more in times in this series, something that the Cavs absolutely did not need. The Warriors are well-built to contest and counter Irving's individual scoring exploits, and likely would have begun posting Irving up with Shaun Livingston and Klay Thompson as the series progressed. For the points he would have provided, the precious, precious points the Cavaliers need so badly, he also likely would have changed the flow of these games, and that flow has been instrumental in the Cavs' two victories.
The same can be said for Love, without the scoring strength. Love would have instinctively wanted to kickstart the break with his outlet passes. An up and down game favors the Warriors, no matter the roster. It's true that having Irving and Love would have made it easier for the Cavs to run because they would have had a deeper rotation and more rest. It still would not have changed the fact that the Warriors have weapons at every position and the Cavaliers would have still needed J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert to knock down some shots. The offense would no doubt have been better, but the collective defense would likely have been worse, and then it becomes a series decided in the margins. The Cavs might have been able to simply overwhelm Golden State, but that essentially becomes a coin flip.
The important function is that the way these games are played changes, and that's had a lot to do with the Cavaliers' success. If the Cavaliers had gone to more smallball lineups with Love playing center to goose their offense and counter the Warriors' smallball, would that have worked? Would the defensive cost have been outweighed by the sheer production from their stars? It's certainly possible. Again, the idea is not that they would have won more or fewer games in this series with Love and Irving. It's that the dynamics are so complicated, we don't know.
What makes basketball one of the most hyper-analyzed games on the web is the complexity of all its dynamics. Star players matter more than anything, but you can neutralize them if they don't have help. Pure talent doesn't always result in wins due to how the team's collective identity comes together. There are so many factors that go into how a team plays, and they're all influenced by on and off court variables. Beyond all that lies the Finals, where no matter the matchups, the advanced metrics, the x's and o's strategy, or the narratives, all that has to happen is for one team to beat another team four times at basketball. That sample size creates wild variability in outcomes. Bad games played well. Good games played terrible by both teams. In the end, the Cavaliers are half-way to a title because they outplayed the Warriors in two contests, and effectively played them to a draw in the first game, only to come up short on the few bounces every team needs to win such games.
They can still win the title, and have become a great team, in part because of, not just despite, these injuries.
There's no way to tell, either way, what impact Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love would have had on these Finals. The Cavs would have been deeper, but their short rotation has lead to some of the greatest performances from LeBron James we've ever seen. They had less talent but more motivation (despite already having a lot because, you know, it's the Finals). They can't score as much, but they defend better. They're not as talented, their chemistry is better. Adding Irving and Love wouldn't have made these Finals a cakewalk, just as removing them hasn't taken them completely away from being able to win this series vs. a team that won 67 games in the Western Conference.
The Irving and Love injuries were certainly disappointing for all basketball fans and a significant blow to Cleveland. Unfortunately for those that would want to boil down their impacts to simple narratives, the reality is far more complicated.
We know that the Cavaliers aren't as talented, or as "good" of a basketball team without Irving and Love. As for what would have happened had they played? Like any hypothetical, it truly is unknowable.