The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving and the Portland Trail Blazers’ LaMarcus Aldridge on Monday were named NBA Eastern and Western Conference Players of the Week, respectively, for games played Monday, Dec. 9, through Sunday, Dec. 15.
Kyrie Irving is turbulence. Each dribble and juke is a disjointed performance art piece, helter-skelter movement in a major progression toward a heightened pulse for all on board. Movement seems possible in every direction, both for Irving and the ball. As one goes toward the rim, the other heads left; a behind-the-back dribble perpendicular to the baseline comes next. Soon enough, defenses are broken like so many plates in a Chicago china shop, and either Irving himself or the recipient of a pinpoint pass ends a possession…
…in a lot of different ways, at least this year. Irving’s been off, and so have the Cavaliers. Cleveland’s struggles aren’t exclusively due to his play, but they certainly must be included in any explanation. After holding steady from his rookie season to his second year was mostly deemed a downward pitch, Irving’s struggles this year represent something of a continued devolution, a plummet from what not so long ago seemed celestial destiny. Even in a week where he played well enough to be named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week, there was some variance in his performance, with strong games against the Knicks and Magic and a not-so-strong showing against the Heat. But a turnaround has to start somewhere. The Cavs look better every game, though where that ultimately takes them may say more about the competition than the competitor. And Kyrie does, too. If he can regress to the mean, as turbulence tends to do, things should become better in Cleveland, for everyone involved.
And struggles go both ways. Irving hasn’t been helped by the larger problems in Cleveland. Much of the team has stagnated, which is expected of some of the veterans but rather disheartening for some of the younger players. Recent draft picks are projects at best, and even the most optimistic Cavaliers supporter would likely admit they’re far from an optimal fit today. There’s not been much in either personnel or scheme for Irving to work with on offense; for both he and the team, the flashes of brilliance and peak performances have been too few and much too far between.
It’s no coincidence that the Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving both trended up in the same week. As your superstar goes, so goes the team, and so it should be. The questions going forward are whether Irving can play like a superstar, and whether the Cavs will play like a team deserving of one.
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LaMarcus Aldridge, on the other hand, is anything but random. His is one of the steadiest presences in the league. Where’s LaMarcus? would be the most boring game in the history of leisure, an exercise in the obvious and unchanging. Were a basketball court feudal territory, Aldridge would long ago have staked his claim as the unassailable King of the Midrange, land ceded by the noble minded for its unpleasing efficiency and turned into a veritable gold mine by the new monarch. And then there’d be dragons, probably, and those dragons would look suspiciously like Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard, and the floppiest-haired Knight of the Round Table in history.
Though he’s a pillar of stability, that’s not to call him unchanging. He’s continued to improve his game, particularly as a rebounder. Always good on the glass, last season was a career year no matter your statistic; he posted his highest total rebounds, rebounds per game, rebounds per 36 minutes and total rebound percentages. And in 2013-14, he’s blowing those numbers out of the water. For all the celebration of his constant success on a mix of long twos — open jumpers from either wing after Portland’s buzzsaw offense does its thing, post-up up-and-unders, post-up fadeaway turnaround jumpers that make no sense coming from someone that large, face-up shots with the defender in his face — what should truly terrify opponents at once and in the future is Aldridge’s potential growth from rebounding force to fully functional rebounding machine of ultimate destruction. Scoring 31 points in a win over the Rockets is impressive; 25 rebounds inspires.
Yet even if he’s not random, that’s not to say there is no variance. The long two-pointer is essentially a gamble. Aldridge and the Blazers have turned it into one that’s extensively in their favor and will pay off handsomely in the long run. While not entirely reliant on mid-range jumpers, they’ve thrived on them, generating quite a bit of offense from open looks. They shoot the 3 well, and their wings make exquisite cuts when defenses do clamp down. Damian Lillard gets to the rim well, though he’s shooting 19% below the league average on attempts in that area. Given enough possessions, enough games, the Blazers are a team who stands to finish a season rather well.
But a player of Aldridge’s caliber, and a team of Portland’s, are bound to run into a few rough streaks here and there. In a tournament, where opponents can plan around your every tendency, those chances of things going against you go up. Open shots become contested. Screens that generated space in the regular season just take up time in the playoffs. The number of possessions over which a team can leverage its advantages diminish, and the coin flips can start stacking against you. Disadvantages become glaring weaknesses. None of it’s random, but it’s all subject to chance.
The Portland Trail Blazers can win in the postseason, especially with LaMarcus Aldridge playing like one of the best power forwards in the league. They can keep winning in the regular season. Nothing that they’re doing is a matter of luck. It’s skill and hard work, careful preparation and precise execution. But none of it is immutable.
Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com/stats