Kyrie Irving can cook. There is no more dazzling one-on-one player in the league. When Irving really heats up, that proficiency can extend to going one-on-two or three or four. Crowding multiple defenders around Irving only seems to stoke his creativity, coaxing out even more impressive moves and even more unexpected angles. Irving does things with a basketball on a regular basis that no other star could would even think to attempt, much less pull off.
Yet what made Irving so successful as a Cavalier was that his game struck a functional balance. The time would come in every game when Irving would be called upon to roast his defender to create some specific advantage. Just as crucial were the times when he wasn’t. To play with LeBron James is to defer some China Jerseys level of control, and over the course of their partnership, Irving proved that his shooting—bolstered by the added threat of a quick counter drive against any over-eager defender—could be the perfect counterbalance to a collaborative superstar.
Cleveland may have to temporarily reimagine that equilibrium after trading Irving to the Celtics. It’s easy enough to slot in Isaiah Thomas as a conceptual replacement given all of the overlap between his game and Irving’s. It could be months, however, before Thomas assumes that role (he reportedly could be sidelined until February), and it could take months more before he’s fully comfortable in it. The starter in the interim appears to be Derrick Rose. This is both the most talented replacement the Cavs could hope for under these circumstances and a particularly awkward fit—the sort of experiment that puts the chemistry of the game on full display.
Tempting as it is to entrust the best player in the world with as much on-court responsibility as he can handle, LeBron can’t do everything. Cleveland badly needs point guards who can create so that James might steal a few minutes of rest. It needs a ball-handler who can strike up the band while understanding the greater arrangement: where Kevin Love is most successful, when shooters like J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver can help, and how best to play off of Tristan Thompson. One can piece together what the Cavs might have imagined for Rose, a resurgent pick-and-roll player last season, in taking his place within a championship infrastructure.
The catch is the sort of off-ball work that Irving made look easy. When Rose doesn’t have the ball in his hands, he loses most everything that makes him an effective basketball player. Instead, he waits. Rose never had much of a nose for cutting, nor has he expressed much interest in improving. Rarely will you see Rose setting a screen that hasn’t been called for explicitly by a set play; that kind of action just isn’t a part of his improvisational game. So Rose stands idle at the three-point line, utterly without purpose until some incoming pass awakens him again.
Defenses can feel relatively safe while diverting their attention. Even if Rose’s man were to wander away in help, it’s not as if a quick pass would lead to an immediate scoring opportunity. Rose shot 20.5% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season, per NBA.com, making him one of the least effective spot-up shooters in the league. Irving, by contrast, shot 47.9% on the same type of shots. We shouldn’t ignore the difference between a high-functioning, LeBron-orchestrated offense finding looks for Irving and a perpetual wreck in New York sorting out opportunities for Rose. Yet there is a material difference between those two players that strikes precisely at what made Cleveland so special. Even though James and Irving didn’t always get along, their games were mutualistic. The Cavs thrived on their give-and-take. Even if we assume that Rose can in some way replace the practical part of the offense Irving created—a rather charitable assumption—we have no reason to believe he will make good on his role as a satellite scorer to a much more valuable teammate.
The entire arrangement promises an awkward dynamic. Irving’s request to be traded from the best team in the Eastern Conference will linger in the air all season, independent of Rose. Still it will course around him, inviting comparison whenever Rose shoots poorly from the field or struggles to find his place in what was one of the league’s best offenses. It has long been Rose’s inclination, as the primary creator on so many teams, to clutch the ball even more tightly in tense moments. Now he’ll have to give it up, all while searching for ways to make himself useful.