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The Kyrie Irving Question
Breaking Down the Point Guard of the Moment

Written by: Dan Bechtel (@DanBechtel)

2016 has been good to Kyrie Irving. He hit the biggest shot of the NBA season to win the NBA Finals for his Cleveland Cavaliers. He, along with Carmelo Anthony, bailed the USA out against Australia in Rio. He proceeded to win a Gold Medal to top it off. Irving is having the best summer that a basketball player — or any athlete, really — can imagine. Despite his undeniable success this year, there are still some critics of his game. I happen to be one of them.

Social Media Superstar

Kyrie Irving is on a short list of the Most-Vineable Athletes [RIP Vine]. There are some athletes with a knack for making outstanding plays that generate a ton of buzz on social media. On this list would be athletes like Irving, Odell Beckham Jr., Russell Westbrook, and Simone Biles, to name a few. These athletes are explosive and have the ability to do amazing things that maybe only a few people on earth can do. Usually these plays have an enormous degree of difficulty and leave viewers with their jaws on the ground. Kyrie Irving definitely checks this box with his insane dribbling, tough fadeaway jumpers, and crafty layups in traffic.

Kyrie Irving is absolutely an electric athlete and one of the most skilled players in the NBA. He has a unique offensive skill set that allows him to drain threes, finish from impossible angles around the rim, and put the best defenders in the league on skates. There might not be another player in the league that can do all three of these things at such an elite level, no disrespect to Stephen Curry. When Irving is on, there is no stopping him. He can carry an offense for quarters and even games at a time. This is evidenced by his career 20.8 points per game scoring average. Irving has established himself as one of the top scorers in the league. His scoring average dipped under 20 points per game this past season for the first time since his rookie year, but this is largely due to battling injuries and playing alongside LeBron James.

There are no questions about it — Kyrie is one of the best scorers in the league and appears to have the crucial clutch gene. Every other part of Irving’s game makes me question whether he is truly an elite player. I believe that his elite highlight reels have incorrectly shifted the casual fan’s perception of his value.

One Dimensional

To assess Kyrie Irving’s value, it is important to know what else he brings to a team other than his scoring. When taking his defense and non-scoring offensive game into account, it becomes clear that Irving might be the definition of a one dimensional player.

Can he do anything other than score in bunches? Irving averaged a weak 4.7 assists per game last year (5.0 so far this year), a number slightly deflated by playing alongside the ultimate point-forward in LeBron. Considering the talented shooters around him on the Cavs and the attention he receives from opposing defenses when he has the ball, this assist number feels too low for an elite point guard.

Irving shot the ball poorly last season as well (44.8% from the field, 46.9% so far this year). Shouldn’t that number be higher with LeBron on the court? Dwyane Wade posted the most efficient numbers of his career sharing the floor with LeBron. In his final season with LeBron, Wade shot 54.5% from the floor alongside James, and immediately after the number plummeted to 47%. Throughout James’ career he has elevated everyone else around him and has created easier shots for his teammates. For some reason Irving has not experienced the same LeBron related bump in his percentages. The same ability that makes Irving one of the most exciting players to watch drags his shooting percentages down and limits his offensive value: he takes difficult shots with alarming regularity.

It is no secret that Irving tends to slack on the defensive end of the floor. His supporters will subscribe to the theory that he was much better and more engaged when it mattered in the playoffs. Personally, I actually thought he looked better on defense during the playoffs as well. My eyes deceived me, though, because the team was atrocious defensively with Irving on the floor. This was true in the regular season, and actually got even worse in the playoffs. The Cavs stepped up their defense in a huge way in the playoffs, but this was due to the defensive effort without Irving on the floor.

When Irving was on the floor during the regular season last year, opponents posted an offensive rating of 107.4, while in the playoffs opponents torched the Cavs to a rating of 109.2. In the playoffs, the Cavaliers held opponents to a stingy 94.6 offensive rating with Irving off the floor. These strikingly poor defensive numbers wipe out the positive impact that Irving has on the Cavs’ offense. Both in the regular season and even in the playoffs, the Cavs were better with Kyrie Irving on the bench. His net impact was -0.8 in the playoffs and -0.2 in the regular season. It is important to keep in mind that Cavaliers played with a net rating of +21.1 in the playoffs and +16.5 in the regular season with LeBron on the floor. Irving shares the court with LeBron nearly 70 percent of his time on the floor which make his negative numbers look drastically worse.

This season Kyrie has been even worse despite his soaring scoring numbers.  The Cavs have been 9.4 points better per 100 possessions with Kyrie on the bench.  They are 25.1 points better per 100 possessions with LeBron on the floor than without him.  Kyrie has shared 72% of those -9.4 numbers with LeBron this season, yet LeBron is still +25.1 and Kyrie is still -9.4.  These numbers should be frightening for anyone trying to argue that Kyrie is a superstar.

To try to give Irving the benefit of the doubt, I decided to look at the numbers of the other starters on the Cavs. J.R. Smith had a +8.6 during the playoffs. Tristan Thompson was +6.2. Even Kevin Love was +8.8. Given his teammates’ success, Irving’s numbers are shocking even to a critic of his game like me.

The other three starters on the Cavs all posted significantly positive on/off court numbers. The Cavaliers were slightly worse with Irving on the floor but markedly better with the other four starters than without them. Elite players need to make their teams better. They need to carry the team on both ends of the floor and set the tone for their teams. Irving has not proven to be this guy. When LeBron has been hurt (or on vacation) over the last two plus seasons, the Cavaliers are only 4–14. For a team that has two other players who are billed as stars, and a solid supporting cast and bench, this is unacceptable. Irving needs to be better.

Using just net rating from the regular season last year, Irving’s -0.2 does not compare favorably with most other high-profile point guards:

Steph Curry (+22.2), Chris Paul (+16.6), Russell Westbrook (+12.9), Ricky Rubio (+8.3), Mike Conley (+7.7), Kyle Lowry (+7.3), Eric Bledsoe (+6.1), Reggie Jackson (+5.2), Goran Dragic (+5.2), John Wall (+4.9), Kemba Walker (+4.3), Isaiah Thomas (+3.0), Damian Lillard (+2.0), George Hill (+0.5), Raymond Felton (-1.0), Rajon Rondo (-1.3), Derrick Rose (-4.8), MATTHEW DELLAVEDOVA (+8.2). (All according to Basketball Reference)

The Cavaliers were significantly better with Matthew Dellavedova on the floor than with Irving during the 2015–2016 season.

I will repeat that..

The Cavaliers were significantly better with Matthew Dellavedova on the floor than with Irving during the 2015–2016 season.

When Matthew Dellavedova replaced Irving with James, Smith, Thompson, and Love on the floor, the results are more than alarming. Compared to when Irving is on the floor with this group, per 100 possessions the Cavs with Dellavedova:

  1. Shot 4% better from the field.

  2. Shot 6% better from 3 point range.

  3. Averaged 15.5 more points.

  4. Grabbed 6.7% more of available rebounds.

  5. Averaged 6.3 more assists.

  6. Averaged 0.6 more steals.

Am I suggesting that Matthew Dellavedova is a better player than Kyrie Irving? I don’t think so, not straight up. But I do believe that we have to rethink what we mean by better player. Kyrie Irving, to this point in his career, has shown that he does not want to adjust his game to fit with the players around him. When the Celtics formed their Big 3 in 2007, Pierce, Garnett, and Allen all significantly modified their games in favor of winning. When the Heat formed their Big 3, James, Wade, and Bosh each made sacrifices and changed their style of play to fit better as a team. As of right now, Dellavedova’s skill set was a better fit for the rest of the Cavaliers starters than Irving’s. He does not produce the raw numbers that Irving does, but he enables other players to do it more efficiently by understanding how he can best fit into the team to win. A team full of players like Dellavedova would probably not be successful, but when surrounded by talent, they may be more valuable.

When Kyrie plays his brand of basketball, it has translated to losing. The greatness of LeBron is the reason that the Cavaliers can overcome the questionable play of Irving.

Bottom Line

Do I believe the Cavs would have won the title last year with at least a dozen other starting point guards? Yes. Would most of these point guards have made the three to seal the game or have scored 40 points in a Finals game? Probably not. But, they are well-rounded and contribute in more ways than just putting the ball in the basket, and I think that is what the Cavaliers truly need from the point guard position.

At this point in Kyrie Irving’s career, he has not proven to be elite player, or even a great player. He is an elite prospect with tremendous upside. He is only 24 and still has a ton of room to grow. He is one of the most gifted athletes on the planet and fans of the Cavs have to be thrilled for the future. But as it stands, his team is statistically better with him on the bench. Can Kyrie become an elite player in the league? Absolutely, but he will need to use his ability to make shots to make the game easier for his teammates. He will need to commit to the defensive end and use his freakish athleticism to stay in front of slower, less explosive players with at least a hint of consistency. Maybe he will take that next step at some point in the 2016–17 season, but until then he cannot be considered one of the league’s great players.