By Brady Klopfer
Kyrie Irving is a magician. It’s nearly impossible to watch him with eyes less than agape, jaw not fully on the floor. It’s hard not to ask, “how in the world did he do that?”
A good magician never reveals his secrets and Kyrie is no exception. He’s not tall, or incredibly strong. He’s quick, but not eye-poppingly athletic. And yet, his handles evoke a master yo-yo trickster, the ball flitting back and forth faster than the eye can keep up with, defender as confused as observer but Irving fully in control and amused by his own deception.
His All-Star talent is clearly the result of a lifetime dedicated to the gym. To watch Kyrie Irving dribble, drive and finish is to watch a live-action depiction of Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of 10,000 hours.
But there’s a basic question that all basketball fans grapple with: where is the line between effective and impressive?
Unfortunately, the former is not always connected to the latter. There’s little doubt that Irving is supremely talented, but is he as good as most people think? And can an NBA team win with him, not LeBron James, as their best player?
Irving is an elite scorer, finishing this year 11th in the league with 25.2 points per game and a true-shooting percentage of .580. When a possession ends in Irving shooting, it’s bound to be a net positive for his team. But basketball is a fluid game, with all five pieces influencing each other at all times. Irving is an isolation scorer, not a system scorer, which means he needs the ball in his hands to be effective. On the year, Irving’s touches were an average of 4.85 seconds long, with 4.71 dribbles – incredibly high numbers that were only surpassed by garbage-time players and assist-hunting point guards.
Because Kyrie needs to slow the ball down to be effective, the offense takes a hit when he doesn’t finish the possession. When Irving catches and holds the ball, the defense is able to adjust, set and sometimes reset.
During the NBA Finals, there were numerous times where the Cleveland Cavaliers had a mismatch, but while Irving was holding the ball, the Golden State Warriors’ defenders were able to swap back to their desired matchups.
That does little to stop Irving, but when he gives up the ball, the advantage swings to the defense and his teammates are put in positions where they’re less likely to succeed.
When Kevin Durant shared the court with Stephen Curry this year, his true shooting percentage rose from .619 to .672; when Bradley Beal stepped on the court with John Wall, his percentage shot from .571 to .596. Yet, when LeBron James played as Cleveland’s lone star, his percentage of .628 was only marginally lower than the .632 mark achieved when Irving was on the floor.
Of course, this problem only arises when Irving isn’t shooting, which isn’t all that often. Because he needs to shoot in order to be effective, Kyrie tends to hijack the offense with some regularity. This may sound like a champagne problem, but it rears its head when Irving shares the floor with another great player.
Over the course of the season, Irving attempted 117 percent as many shots per 100 possessions as James; the same James who happens to be the second-best player in NBA history, and who scores at a wildly more efficient clip than Irving. Irving shooting with a .580 true shooting percentage is a good thing; Irving shooting instead of letting someone with a .619 percentage fire, is a limitation.
It bears noting that Irving is a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body. The fiery young guard has improved his passing since he entered the league, but at 5.9 assists per game, he was still only 21st in the NBA this year.
And yet, despite having a shooting guard’s mentality, he much more resembles DeMar DeRozan than Klay Thompson in terms of style. He doesn’t cut with great frequency (he was only assisted on 95 field goals from 10 feet or closer, all year) and he doesn’t sprint from baseline to baseline, weaving through picks like a wideout at the combine, trying to get an open look and, in turn, forcing the defense to adapt and adjust.
Instead, Irving is content to stand on the wing, hands on his knees, waiting for the ball to boomerang back to his arms. If there’s one thing Golden State taught us this year, it should be that any time an off-ball player garners defensive attention, the floor opens up and the offense flows beautifully.
Of course, no article on Irving’s limitations can ignore his defensive ineptitude, which is well-documented. It’s not just Irving’s inability to play that end of the floor, it’s his lack of knowledge and scheme. Watching Kyrie defend the pick and roll is akin to watching a Labrador when three tennis balls are thrown in three directions: his head is on a swivel, he bounces and twitches, but he ultimately has no idea where to go. While most poor defensive point guards are simply bad in isolation, or off-ball, Irving constantly puts his teammates in poor situations by showing no understanding of when, or even how to switch in the pick and roll.
On the year, Irving allowed 0.96 points per possession when defending the ball handler in the pick and roll, a mark that was in the 18.7th percentile. When defending the roll man, he ceded 1.10 points per possession, which was in the 19.6th percentile. Just as with his offensive brilliance, Irving’s defensive characteristics continually put his teammates in unfavorable situations.
It’s no surprise, then, that the advanced metrics aren’t kind to Irving. In ESPN’s Real Plus Minus, Kyrie ranks 13th among point guards and 43rd overall. Even removing defense, arguably a weakness of Real Plus Minus, Irving is eighth among his position, and 14th in the league—decent numbers, but hardly ones that give him a strong case for being a superstar, as so many claim he is.
If Real Plus Minus isn’t your stat, let me spoil the ending for you: you won’t find an advanced statistic that sings the praises of Irving.
Add all of these ingredients together and the final result is the Kyrie Irving conundrum: player who is as captivating to watch as he is confusing to understand; as brilliant as he is problematic.
His talent is both endless and undeniable, but his flaws are equally at the forefront. We’ve watched this movie before, with dynamic scorers whose talent seemed incapable of boosting those around them, giving No. 1 guy production, but at a second or third guy value. Worse yet, there’s not much room for Irving to improve. His defense won’t get better and there’s no historical precedent for isolation scorers evolving past those lifelong traits. He can always get his shot, so his efficiency is unlikely to spike. It’s one of the reasons that his age 22 season was virtually identical to this past year.
Irving is emphatically and incontrovertibly one of the league’s elite talents. Yet, despite what our eyes want, talent does not always equate to value.