As Kyrie Irving held the All-Star Game MVP trophy above his head Sunday night in New Orleans, his confident smile seemed to give off a sense of relief. In what Kyrie himself has described as one of the toughest seasons of his career, going as far as to call it “a wake-up call,” you sort of got the sense that Kyrie needed this.
This season hasn’t been much fun for anyone associated with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In one of the worst seasons of basketball in the history of the Eastern Conference, the Cavaliers somehow find themselves in 11th place in the conference with a 20-33 record. And it took a four-game win streak1 just to make the record look that good. There’s been fighting, poor play, “pouting,” confusion, insecurity, and a complete void of fun in the Cavs’ world.
But something seems to have changed in the past couple weeks. From the moment GM Chris Grant was fired, the team seemed to flip the proverbial switch. Young SG Dion Waiters has spoken openly about how he took Grant’s dismissal personally, taking accountability for his inconsistent if not poor play. But in the wake of one man’s loss, the team did something remarkable. They came together, they started winning some games, and above all else they started having fun.
Both Dion Waiters and Kyrie Irving carried the momentum into All-Star weekend and neither one failed to deliver on a spectacular performance. Waiters scored 31 points on 10-13 shooting in the Rising Stars challenge while Irving followed that up with 31 points of his own along with 14 assists and 5 rebounds in the main event Sunday night. It was a thrilling display for Cavs fans and a tantalizing taste of what could be yet to come.
That’s really the question, though. What does this mean for the Cavaliers and where do they go from here? All-Star weekend is a fun event, but we’ve seen Kyrie mesmerize in previous All-Star weekends, only to not exactly translate the experience into regular season success.
After Kyrie was elected to the starting lineup by NBA fans, the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd wrote his second-most scathing rebuke of Kyrie this season2, asking the question: “Who will Kyrie Irving be when he returns from New Orleans?”
Perhaps the better question is how will Kyrie and Dion interact when they return from New Orleans? ESPN’s Michael Wallace wrote about Kyrie’s MVP award in Monday’s Daily Dime column, and he pondered whether Kyrie and Dion can truly coexist:
One takeaway from the weekend is that it was obvious how confident and effective Irving and Waiters are when they’re separated. But with Thursday’s trade deadline looming, the question in Cleveland now is whether more patience is prudent with the young and talented pairing, or whether they should part, with Waiters being dealt elsewhere.
Of course, the reality is, Kyrie and Dion have spent plenty of time separated this season. After a brief experiment with starting Dion early in the season, Mike Brown quickly moved Dion to the bench and Kyrie and Dion’s minutes have only sparsely interlaced since then. If the Cavaliers weren’t a team divided, they certainly were a backcourt divided.
The odds of the Cavaliers making the playoffs this season are miniscule. It could happen, but the Cavaliers will have to play much better basketball and several teams will have to start playing really bad basketball.
Either way, the thought of trading Dion Waiters after his explosive performance Saturday might seem counter-intuitive. But the other side of the equation is that acting GM David Griffin could use the spotlight to showcase to other teams that Dion just needs a fresh start, and he’s worth giving up real assets to acquire.
But I hope it doesn’t come to that. The trade deadline is coming fast, but it’s coming at an inopportune time for the Cavaliers. Just as Kyrie and Dion seem to be bonding in a way we haven’t seen yet, the harsh reality is that if they can’t figure out how to put together consistent performances together, a clean break might be best for all.
To be clear, this is not advocating trading Dion Waiters. This is just saying, if that’s the route the Cavaliers did want to go, this could be the best time to do it. But anyone who observes the Cavaliers day in and day out can recognize the energy between Kyrie and Dion has been different lately. And by different, I mean definitively better.
So if someone was looking for a takeaway from the All-Star weekend, this could be it. This can be, and perhaps should be, the springboard to the Cavaliers taking the next step, whatever that may be. It might not mean a playoff berth, but it could be setting a real backcourt foundation to build around. Kyrie and Dion may not always be best friends, but they need each other more than they perhaps realize.
This weekend was a showcase of just how talented the Cavaliers’ backcourt really is. Sure, the Rising Stars game was a showcase of arguably the two worst drafts of recent memory, but Waiters showed that he belongs in the conversation of best young players in the NBA. And for Kyrie, he may not have had the scoring explosion of players like Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin, but by bringing home the game’s MVP honors, he solidified his status as one of the elite young players in the game.
The Cavaliers can’t afford to squander this. Having two such dynamic young players is a luxury, not a liability. Despite reservations with overlapping skill sets, these two players are simply too good to not figure out how to play together on the court.
Kyrie’s smile of relief wasn’t one of “Mission Accomplished.” It was more of vindication. In a tumultuous season, Kyrie proved he still has it and still belongs in any discussion of best rising stars in the NBA. Kyrie is capable of being a top 5 player in the NBA, but now he needs to figure out how to elevate his team. He can’t do it alone. He needs Dion Waiters to be the same player he was Saturday night in the regular season. If these two players can figure it out, though, who knows just what the Cavaliers are capable of.