Cleveland Cavaliers

Tyronn Lue’s biggest challenge after J.R. Smith injury is staying true to his long-term goals

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Already lacking a backup point guard and thin along the frontline, the Cleveland Cavaliers will be forced to play without their starting shooting guard for the foreseeable future, testing their depth even more.

J.R. Smith’s fractured right thumb requires surgery. It also requires head coach Tyronn Lue to stay true to his own decree from earlier this season.

“For me, it’s always been most important having health, so if it’s a chance we can get (home court advantage), great, but if our health is gonna be a factor in that, then I’ll take health over home court,” Lue said.

We’re all about to find out if that was just lip service. And it’s a tough balance.

With any Cavaliers injury, the natural temptation is to ask more from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Minus Love and Smith (in the second half), that was the answer on Tuesday, playing James and Irving a combined 92 minutes to sneak out of Milwaukee with a win on the first night of a back-to-back.

That’s the easy solution. Cleveland’s talented trio is capable of elevating its game and carrying more of an offensive burden. It might take that to stay in first place.

But there’s a danger involved. It’s only December and demanding the triumvirate do more at this time could wear them down before it truly matters.

Part of Irving’s Finals brilliance last June was tied to a shortened regular season. Irving played 53 regular season games, missing the first few months while rehabbing a fractured left kneecap. The Cavaliers clearly missed his offensive wizardy early, but benefited late, as he looked fresher and healthier than his counterpart — Stephen Curry — in the Finals.

Averaging 34.7 minutes, Irving has already complained of tired legs after playing deep into the summer for the U.S. National Team. Plenty is already on his plate, being the lone true point guard on the roster — at least one capable of providing minutes. Mo Williams is taking up a roster spot while the game continues to look to fast for rookie Kay Felder.

Meanwhile, James is averaging an NBA-high 39.4 minutes per game in December. The goal was to keep him around 36. But once he’s active, it’s been hard to keep his workload in check, especially when the competition really picks up.

James has taken on a variety of roles. Besides the usual, he’s the second unit anchor to keep the Cavs from fading when the starters exit and de facto center in certain lineups.

The result: his minutes are already creeping to a level in which no one in Cleveland should be comfortable.

In the past weeks, Love has spoken a few times about his back locking up. On Tuesday, he missed the 114-108 overtime win against Milwaukee after banging knees in the previous contest. Love and the Cavs don’t seem worried. Still, it’s worth wondering how his body will hold up if his playing time and usage rise.

The Cavs have always referenced a “next man up” mentality. That would be best given the upcoming Smith-less stretch.

The good news is Iman Shumpert, once looked at as the long-term starter with Smith coming off the bench, appears capable again of filling a bigger role following a terrific start to the season, one fueled by dropping weight and altering shot mechanics. 

In 25 games, Shumpert is averaging 7.0 points on a career-best 46.2 percent from the field, including 41.9 percent from beyond the arc in 23.0 minutes.

His stats are much better and he’s making up for last year’s struggles, but Shumpert’s not the same kind of catch-and-shoot specialist as Smith. Shumpert is hitting 38.3 percent from the field in catch-and-shoot situations and 38.6 from beyond the arc. The other problem: he’s Lue’s pseudo backup point guard, helping run an already enigmatic second unit.

It’s also worth wondering if expending more energy on the offensive end will lead to slippage from him defensively.

Richard Jefferson and Mike Dunleavy, both 36 years old, need to stay underutilized until later in the season. Jordan McRae, a player the organization spoke about glowingly in the off-season, seems to have been passed on the depth chart.

There’s also DeAndre Liggins, who will most likely go into the starting lineup and see an uptick in consistent playing time. The defensive specialist has already shown growth and risen up the depth chart in an unexpected way. That could continue in the aftermath of Cleveland’s latest setback.

Even though he’s expected back for the most meaningful time of the year, Smith’s injury is a blow to the Cavs, who knew his importance when re-signing him to a four-year deal this summer. They will explore every option. But the best answer is for someone internally to step up.

Lue needs to resist letting that include James, Irving or Love — even if it means sliding out of the East’s top spot. 

Before the season started, Lue had a list of goals. Winning the East wasn’t at the top. Health was. It still is. That plan shouldn’t change at the first sign of adversity. 

The regular season is a grind. Taxing the Big Three now for the sake of a handful of wins and East control could prove detrimental to the Cavs’ ultimate goal, which can’t be reached for months.

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