Cleveland Cavaliers fans know Kyrie Irving is great. Or at least they think he’s great, and vocally disseminate that opinion. Fans tend to favor the objects of their own affection in that way. But there’s become a large and confusingly obstinate sector of the basketball viewing population that is convinced that Irving is less than a special, that he’s (gasp!) “overrated,” a back-handed compliment that has somehow come to be more damning than just being “bad,” because the implication is that the target is unworthy of the praise bestowed upon them—that they actually deserve less than they receive.1
In a season where everything about the Cavaliers from mustache twirling to in-huddle attentiveness to bowling to subtweeting about fitting in/out has been a national news story, the Irving chatter became an annoyance. The Kyrie Irving Haters Club, Team Boo Irving, et al., filed suit against the City of Cleveland and Cavs fans, arguing that Irving is an overrated player and poor point guard. These pests have raised such a ruckus that Kyrie Irving’s All-Star candidacy was openly questioned a few weeks ago, and few gave it a second thought when fans selected Washington Wizards guard John Wall and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry to start over him. Granted, the other individuals competing for the last spots on the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves are excellent players, but that Irving’s legitimacy could become a matter for debate seemed ludicrous to Cavalier fans and the City of Cleveland. If Cavs fans want to silence the Irving detractors, they must have a stronger case than their opponents.
The Court has been asked to decide whether Kyrie Irving’s ability as a basketball player is overrated. So what is it then, Clevelanders? Are you so blinded by the love of your star guard that you can’t even see that he’s an overrated, selfish, wannabe Allen Iverson? Or is Irving a young stud and wunderkind destined for greatness unless fate meddles with the inevitable? Let’s start by examining the two main arguments perpetuated by the Kyrie Irving Haters Club.
Myth No. 1: Kyrie Irving is an awful defender.
The Irving detractors first line of defense is Kyrie Irving’s own perceived defense. Pointing out the inadequacy of Irving’s defense is the most salient and meaningful criticism of his game. And before this season, it was perfectly accurate and incontrovertible.
But with the luxury of a functioning offense, Kyrie has been able to exert more effort on the defensive end. He will probably never be a great defender, because he simply lacks the length and lateral quickness to stop the quickest point guards in the league. But ninety percent of defense is simply being willing to defend. Like being an extra in a movie, you just need to show up, be in the right place, and not screw up. Communicate, rotate, direct your man to the right place, and don’t be caught staring at the ball.
By following these principles, Irving has been able to dramatically improve on defense—from a terrible defender to a serviceable one. He struggled mightily against the lightning fast Derrick Rose last Thursday night, but he may otherwise be a dare-I-say good defender.
This far into his career, the Cavs have given up 3.0 more points per possession when Kyrie Irving is on the floor, a strong indicator that he is a bad defender because the defense is three points worse when he’s one of the five people trying to stop the other team. However, he’s reversed that trend. For the first time in his career, the Cavs defense is better this season with Irving on the floor. Granted, it’s by slimmest of margins; but it’s better than being a huge defensive liability.
Another way to evaluate Irving’s defense is to examine how opposing point guards have fared against Irving. Since January 15th, the unofficial date when the New Cavs first took the floor, opponents’ starting point guards have averaged 13.4 points per game on 31.8 percent shooting, summarized in the table below. Holding your opponent’s starting point guard to 13 points on less than 32 percent shooting is a huge victory on a night-to-night basis—especially when your starting point guard is dropping 21 on 45 percent shooting. Not every opposing team had Lorenzo Brown running the point, either—Russell Westbrook went 7-of-26 in that span, there were two poor Chris Paul performances, and although Derrick Rose caught fire on Thursday night, he shot 5-of-14 the preceding time he faced Irving and the Cavs.
Of course, this isn’t all Irving’s doing. He’s not always matched up on the opponent’s point guard, and Irving has benefited more than anyone from having the Everlasting Gov-stopper behind him to lessen the blow of mistakes. But directing guards in the direction of the Gov-stopper is part of playing defense. Overall, Irving has improved dramatically on defense, to the point where he’s no longer a defensive disaster. His attentiveness are visible during games, such as in the .gif below, and the numbers show improvements. The counter-punch that Irving is an awful defender simply doesn’t deliver a knockout blow anymore—taking a lot of the force out of any anti-Irving argument.
Myth No. 2: Kyrie Irving is a ball hog.
Another dead horse the anti-Irving crowd insists on beating on is that Kyrie doesn’t pass the ball enough. This perception is so widely accepted that during last Wednesday’s game on ESPN, Chris Broussard led off his mid-game segment on in-season drama the Cavs have faced with, “They have a point guard who doesn’t pass.”2 A point guard who does not pass. Period, full stop, end of sentence. Broussard didn’t even bother to qualify his statement.
But this is misleading. One of the best statistics to show how much a player is holding onto the ball is usage percentage (or usage rate). NBA.com describes usage rate as the “percentage of a team’s offensive possessions that a player uses while on the court.” That’s descriptive, but doesn’t explain how it’s calculated. Basketball-Reference’s glossary contains the formula, which involves the player’s field goal attempts, free throw attempts, turnovers, and minutes played; and the team’s minutes played, field goal attempts, free throw attempts, and turnovers.3
That’s a lot of numbers used to calculate usage rate, and it’s somewhat confusing. But the only thing that’s important is that assists do not elevate usage rate. So, a ball hog like Irving should have a much higher usage rate than supposedly altruistic, pass-happy folks like John Wall and Mike Conley, because Irving is jacking up shots non-stop while hogging the ball—because, you know, he’s a ball hog.
Kyrie Irving’s usage rate is 25.2 percent, meaning that Irving uses barely over a quarter of the Cavs’ possessions when he’s on the floor.4 That’s tied with Utah Jazz center Enes Kanter for the 36th highest usage rate in the league, and very near peers Gordon Hayward (25.4 percent), Kyle Lowry (25.4), Jeff Teague (25.3), John Wall (24.9), Mike Conley (24.6). Irving’s usage rate isn’t within 10 percent of league leader Russell Westbrook. Other folks in the top 25 that have much higher usage rates include Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, teammate LeBron James (32.7—fifth overall), Derrick Rose, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Damian Lillard.
Irving does attempt 25.5 percent of the Cavs’ field goals while he’s on the floor, a number that is fairly high for a point guard, but not worthy of ridicule.5 The table below shows the usage rates and percentage of team’s field goals attempted for select guards throughout the league.6
In seasons past Irving’s usage rate were fifth, third, and sixth, but Irving has adjusted to having a better team surrounding him. He’s not the only guard putting up heavy usage rates year after year. So, if Kyrie Irving is a ball hog, then so are Westbrook, Harden, Wall, Curry, and others.
Another way to evaluate how willing a passer a player is by determining his pass rate, or how often he passes the ball when he touches the ball. Obviously, a player who passes 50 times per game makes a lot of passes, but he’s not very giving if he’s touching the ball 100 times. A player who makes 20 passes on 25 touches is fairly generous, on the other hand.
Kyrie Irving receives 84.8 touches per game (10th in the NBA) and makes 60.0 passes per game (13th in the NBA).7 His 70.8 pass rate is 29th among the 47 players with more than 4.0 assists per game and 20 games played; a middle of the pack figure. While Irving keeps onto the ball at an elevated rate for a point guard, the table below shows that the case for him being a gunner is weaker than the likes of Westbrook, Harden, Tyreke Evans, Kobe Bryant (the lowest pass rate among qualifiers), Derrick Rose, Hayward, and even LeBron James (63.9 percent pass rate). Notably, Stephen Curry has a lower pass rate than Kyrie Irving.
Conceding that Kyrie Irving isn’t a ball hog, should he have more assists?
If Kyrie Irving isn’t a ball hog, and is a willing passer (if not the most willing passer in the league), the question remains whether Irving should have more assists than he does. If he’s not a ball hog, does he need to be even less of a ball hog? Or is Irving a lousy passer?
Well, I definitely wouldn’t consider Irving to be a lousy passer, but Irving’s assist totals are hindered by more the latter than the former. The numbers show that Kyrie is a willing passer for a superb scorer. He’s more than willing to pass the ball when comparing him to some of the league’s more selfish players and accounting for how productive he is when he does hold the ball.
But Irving’s passes are less effective than Cavs fans would hope. How do we know this? Well, Irving creates very few assists per 48 minutes for qualifying players. Also, if we look at the passes made per assist, Irving makes 11.1 passes per an assists. This means that it takes Irving more than 11 passes in order to earn a single assist—consider this a sort of “Pass Efficiency Rating”; the lower the number the better. Contrast this with LeBron James, who only requires 7.2 passes to earn an assist. LeBron is a much more efficient passer than Irving at this point in his career, as illustrated by the table below.
Again, all this numbers gobbledygook means little unless it backs up what can be observed as basketball fans (yes, Charles, there is a link between observable basketball skills and analytics). Irving’s poor pass efficiency rating backs up what the tape shows. Watch Kyrie during Cavs games. He often botches the pocket pass to the rolling big that LeBron has mastered. He doesn’t use screens or time his attack as well as other great guards. He often has his attempts to lob balls over the top deflected. But he’s steadily improving in all of these aspects, as shown by the pass to Mozgov below.
Irving’s low passing efficiency rating also provides a hint as to why Irving has a reputation as a selfish player that’s mostly undeserved (as shown in the previous section). Because his passes lead to an assist less frequently than some of the more assist-centric point guards, he probably receives less credit for being a good teammate than he deserves. He’s not a bad passer by any means. His total assist-like results per game (assists plus secondary assists plus free throw assists) is 18th in the NBA—not bad at all. But there is room for him to grow as an effective passer, something I’d argue he continues to do nightly but which hasn’t made itself apparent in the numbers yet. Iman Shumpert would likely agree.
Kyrie Irving’s numbers compare favorably with other young guards, and he’s also younger at the same stage in his professional career.
Thus far, most of this post has been arguing against detractors that probably would be unimpressed if he broke Wilt Chamberlain’s single game scoring record unless he earned 30 assists while doing it. The preceding sections showed that his perceived weaknesses are greatly exaggerated, but existent nonetheless.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for Kyrie Irving’s assist numbers to jump dramatically over the next few years. In fact, Kyrie’s assist numbers compare favorably with the other young point and shooting guard studs through the fourth year of their careers, as shown in the table below. Meanwhile, his scoring numbers surpass his competitors across the board.
As expected, Irving has fewer assists than several of the other point guards, but not the shooting guards. John Wall has always created many more assists than Irving. On the other hand, Irving has kept pace with Curry’s assist numbers in the early part of his career, and averages more assists than Mike Conley at the same point of each one’s career. Meanwhile, Irving is scoring at an advanced level, surpassing the four-year averages of great scorers Curry, Thompson, and Westbrook.8
But the thing that is most astounding about all of these comparisons is Irving’s age. If Cavs fans want to simultaneously feel great about the future of their team and depressed about their accomplishments, they only need consider this: Kyrie Irving is only 22. At the tender age of 22, Irving has already become an adept point guard, a world class scorer, and repeat All-Star; been selected first overall in the NBA Draft; and won Rookie of the Year, the three-point contest, All-Star MVP, and FIBA MVP. I can’t speak for the most precocious of the readers, but my only notable accomplishments at 22 were two fancy pieces of paper with my name on them, a driver’s license, and a mildly impressive Star Fox 64 score. Excuse me, I’m going to go fix a drink.
But this is great news for Cavs fans. To put it in perspective, Kyrie Irving is the still the youngest player in the NBA to be averaging 17.5 points and 5.0 assists this season, milestones Irving cleared when he was a 19 year old rookie. It’s conceivable that Irving’s numbers could jump slightly, such as when Curry’s assist totals jumped from 5.3 to assists per game to 6.9, then 8.5, beginning around when he turned 24.
Conclusion—Okay, neat. Get to the point spreadsheet guy: How good is Kyrie Irving?
Cries that Irving is overrated—that he hasn’t earned the prestige of a superstar—are terribly flawed. The statistics and the tape show that he’s no longer a defensive disaster, and if Irving’s detractors are going to label him a ball hog, they do so at the expense at every All-Star point guard.
The league is full of great scorers and great distributors, but very few who excel at both. Even fewer of those rarefied folks do so at an efficient pace, a necessity in today’s NBA that recognizes 30 points on 35 field goal attempts isn’t necessarily a great game. This isn’t Kobe and Iverson’s NBA, anymore. Kyrie Irving is the rare player who scores, involves teammates, and does so while shooting at a high level and seldom wasting possessions.
How good is Kyrie Irving, Cavs fans? Kyrie Irving is a superstar. Already. Irving is the youngest member of an exclusive class of players that can score and help teammates at a high level (only 14 players in the league are averaging 17.5 and 5.0 this season, and Irving is the youngest). He’s one of 44 players in recorded NBA history to have three 20.0 point per game, 5.0 assist per game seasons (and one of 19 to do it three of his first five seasons).
He’s one of six players to be in the midst of a season 20.0 points per game, 5.0 assists per game, and true shooting percentage of .550.9 He’s one of nine players to have those numbers over the course of his career (along with five active players prominently throughout this post). Every player on Basketball-Reference to have played over 30 minutes per game for at least 200 games is shown as a data point in the chart below.10 The larger points reflect those had a high true shooting percentage while averaging 20 points and 5 assists. Because some of the names are obscured, here is the list of such players: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and Kyrie Irving. All studs, no duds on that list—no one stumbles onto a list with only Oscar, Jerry, Larry, and Michael by mistake.
The other “holy shit” list is the list of players who have averaged 20.0 points, 5.0 assists, with a .450 field goal percentage and .375 three-point field goal percentage throughout their career. The list is below, and has only three members: Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, and Larry Legend. That’s it. Irving’s the only one in league history to be on the list through the first four years of his career, meaning that Curry and Legend only later earned the qualifications.11
Kyrie Irving has a beautiful, stylish game that Cavs fans should take great joy in watching. Irving is gifted with one of the silkiest smooth skill sets in the league: dazzling handles that stun opponents and one of the purest jumpers in the league that’s deadly off the dribble or off the catch. He elegantly weaves through the traffic of bigger bodies and gracefully finishes at the rim like few guards have been able to do. He’s a hybrid guard with a three-ball that GMs throughout the NBA wish they could create like a player in 2K15. If LeBron James is a charging rhinoceros that tramples opposing defenses, Irving is the snake that strikes at the defense’s jugular in a fraction of a second. Two contrasting but (hopefully) complimentary styles—both among the game’s elite.
Throughout the league, some point guards in the league play the position more traditionally (Wall and Conley) and others play it less traditionally (Westbrook, Rose, Curry, and Irving). This post isn’t meant to disparage the abundance of great guards across the league. John Wall is a great. But based on the evidence before me, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most valuable point/hybrid guards to have over the next 5-to-10 years are Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving, with a slew of great ones close behind. And it’s time that basketball fans start speaking of Irving in the same awed fashion that they do Curry.
The Court holds that Kyrie Irving is one of league’s great players, and a legitimate superstar. He’s not overrated, and his weaknesses have been greatly exaggerated by the Kyrie Irving Haters Club. He has unlimited upside, and is already in rare company in several statistical categories. Irving has the rare complete package of scoring, passing, and efficiency. The Court rules in favor of the City of Cleveland, and orders the Kyrie Irving Haters Club to find something else concerning the Cavs to complain about, and to perform 50 hours of community service.
Kyrie Irving even had his own share of vocal critics among Cavs fans during the first three years of his career, which spanned the Byron Scott Era and the Mike Brown Era, Part II.
I could not locate the exact quote, but believe the paraphrasing accurately reflects the content.
The complete formula is USG % = 100 * [(FGA + 0.44 * FTA + TOV) * (Tm MP / 5)]/ [MP * (Tm FGA + 0.44 * Tm FTA + Tm TOV)].
According to NBA.com. All data in this post should be current through the All-Star break. For usage rate, it only includes players that have played in more than 20 games and over 1000 minutes.
Irving’s 25.2 percent is 31st in percentage of team’s field goals attempted, but 8th in team’s field goals made. That’s called efficiency.
It’s mostly an arbitrary list, but inclusion was based on subjective criteria for hybrid guards comparable to Irving, or just because the number or player seemed to warrant it.
Via NBA.com’s player tracking possession data and passing data.
Maybe the most interesting thing about this comparison table is that Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving’s numbers are almost identical. Lillard is only in his third season, but he’s also older.
True shooting percentage takes into account performance on two-point field goals, three-point field goals, and free throws.
The chart was created using Raw.densitydesign.org/.
All of these lists are of course courtesy of the indispensable Basketball-Reference.com.
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