Kyrie Irving is in his third year of playing basketball since high school. In those three years, he’s sustained three significant injuries: ligament tears in his right big toe that kept him out of all but 11 games during his college career; a shoulder injury last year; and now, a hairline fracture in his finger that will keep him off the court for the next month. You can see the fracture below; a freak accident, it seems to happen when Darren Collison rises for a layup and his knee collides with Irving’s hand. Irving tries to shake it off and continues to play, but he left the game for good pretty soon afterward.
Irving looks like he might be one of those guys who can’t stay healthy no matter what, who seem to have bones made of licorice and ligaments like rubber bands — let’s call them the Perpetual Injury Guys. It’s a group where Stephen Curry, a tremendously exciting player, has become firmly established after missing all but 26 games last year with a bum ankle; Greg Oden and Yao Ming were members. Is Kyrie Irving a Perpetual Injury Guy? And if he is, what does that mean for the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Watching Irving, you see the type of innate, fluid ability that very few athletes possess, the ability to change the nature of a play that can’t be taught so much as felt. Check out the play below, in which Irving seems to lose the ball but in fact has it on a tether; after splitting two defenders, he slings a pass behind his back to a subsequently wide-open Anderson Varejao.
Irving plays like a hurricane, and most players play like human beings. Not their fault; he’s just on another level. And when he doesn’t choose to drive into the paint, he can sink shots from beyond the arc like a kid throwing pebbles into the ocean. It’s easy. Things look easy for Kyrie Irving. Which is why this whole injury thing seems so strange — it’s a limitation that seems completely incongruous with the idea of Kyrie Irving, Natural Superstar.
If Irving never plays more than 60 games in a season, he’ll be stymied from becoming a superstar by no fault of his own. His team, counting on his yearlong contributions, will be perpetually limited. The Cavs aren’t going to be competitive this year no matter what; in sitting Irving they might just be taking an approach of extreme caution. Right now the Cavs are the 2008-09 Oklahoma City Thunder, who were equipped with a young Kevin Durant, a rookie Russell Westbrook, and little else. That team went 23-59. A year later, the Thunder were a playoff team.
Whether Kyrie Irving can be Kevin Durant is what Cleveland needs to figure out. After LeBron James left, the assumption was that the city would slide back into the same morass that it inhabited pre-James. But Irving has once again given Cavs fans the rare hope that only comes with your team having a bonafide star-candidate. Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that, even if Irving is a Perpetually Injured Guy, and his future is destined to be a saga of disappointment, rehabilitation, and re-disappointment, there isn’t much Cleveland can do. You can’t give up on a dude with the potential of a Kyrie Irving, even if he has shown signs of fragility. If you’re the general manager that traded Kyrie Irving, Superstar, you lose your job. If you’re the GM that traded Kyrie Irving, Perpetually Injured Guy, you helm a mediocre, starless team. As a fan of a team with a Perpetually Injured Guy as its franchise player, you occupy an angst-y existence, always hoping that your man will finally buck a career-defining trend and reach his lofty heights, maybe this year, or next year, or the year after that.
We can be pretty sure that, if Irving stays on the court, he’ll be an MVP candidate. But so many things need to go right for a player to achieve superstar status, starting from birth, and one of them is “having strong bones and tendons.” Cleveland fans’ biggest enemy right now isn’t a rival team: it’s their marquee player’s uncertain genetic destiny.