Fantasy owners are eagerly awaiting the return of Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, and it could come as soon as this weekend. By now the story of Irving’s injury is familiar: a fractured left patella (kneecap) suffered during the opening game of the NBA Finals in June that required season-ending surgery and a lengthy rehab. Following a period of post-op immobilization to ensure fracture healing, Irving faced a challenging process of regaining full range of motion in a stiff knee while strengthening the muscles around his hip and knee to pre-injury levels.
It’s worth noting he was dealing with chronic patellar tendon issues in the same knee prior to the fracture, adding complexity to the overall rehab picture. After surgery, the Cavaliers released a statement which read, in part, that Irving’s “return to basketball activity is projected to be in three to four months.” Irving did, in fact, return to some level of basketball activity in November but it was almost six months to the day post-surgery before Irving was permitted to rejoin full 5-on-5 practices. And that was just two weeks ago.
So what should fantasy owners expect upon his return? Two of the main questions on most people’s minds when it comes to Irving are:
1. What kind of playing time will Irving realistically see when he returns?
2. How productive will Irving be when he sees his first game action since June?
The Cavaliers and Irving won’t even commit to a return date, though it appears to be imminent, so it stands to reason they’re not making public his planned rollout as far as usage. But here are a few things to consider:
Returning to competition is always considered the final phase of rehab. No amount of drills or 5-on-5 practice can simulate in-game competition where the environment is noisier, adrenaline runs higher, opponents hit harder and play is far more reactionary than scripted. With distractions at their peak while the body is under its highest demand, the recovery -- in this case Irving’s knee -- will be subjected to a new level of testing. It’s no longer about the healing of the fracture; rather, it’s about the total reconditioning and return to form of Irving the basketball player.
Will he have the strength to be explosive? Will he have his trademark quickness? Will he have the confidence to aggressively move through traffic? While he may have trained to the point of readiness to return, those skills may not be on display, at least not at their pre-injury levels, for some time. Time will help Irving return to his prior form, but he and fantasy owners will need to be patient because . . .
. . . Irving likely will become reacquainted with the game gradually. It’s more common than not to employ minutes restrictions when players come back from significant injury. For all the same reasons that runners train for marathons by starting small, and incrementally working their way up to the full distance, athletes who haven’t played in a game in six-plus months don’t typically start with a full shift. While the medical personnel and coaching staff may have a tentative plan, that plan is influenced by the athlete’s response to each outing. Any unusual soreness, swelling or other discomfort can result in adjustments. As Irving returns, every uneventful outing (relative to his left knee) boosts confidence in not only his knee but in his overall game. And confidence in returning from this injury is particularly important for Irving given that . . .
. . . Irving has a fairly extensive injury history, dating to his 2011-12 rookie season. Despite his impressive rookie statistics, including averaging 18.5 points per game, he was limited to just 51 games because of injury. In his second professional season, injury again held Irving back; he played in only 59 games. Last season, Irving was having his healthiest campaign yet in terms of games played (75) until the injuries took him out in the playoffs.
One of the potential benefits of a significant season-ending injury is that it allows the player the opportunity to address any physical issues such as strength and flexibility imbalances or faulty mechanics that may have contributed to past injuries. Presuming this has been an element of Irving’s rehabilitation process, he could potentially emerge this season as a more durable version of his former self. After all, he’s just 23 years old.
Patience is the name of the game when Irving does make his return -- for him, the Cavs and fantasy owners alike. He’ll likely start with limited minutes and his play may take a while to warm up, all of which should be expected coming off a major injury. But once Irving’s game starts to reflect a restored confidence in his left leg, there’s no reason he can’t resume his All-Star status. In fact, a healthier Irving might mean a more efficient Irving, one who potentially appears more frequently (as in more games), even if his minutes played per game decreases slightly.
The best Kyrie Irving may be yet to come.