Kyrie Irving may be bruising ankles and egos as he cements his place as one of the most devastating shot creators in the league, but he still has a long ways to go before he enters “the top five point guards in the NBA” conversation.
For years, the phrase haunted Clevelanders of their past, disappointment-filled sports history. Down goes Craig Ehlo; up and fist-pumping was Michael Jordan. If you’re a basketball fan, you’ve probably seen the iconic game-winner more than you can care for by now.
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But all that changed in the storybook year of 2016. LeBron James delivered his promise to his hometown (close enough), and ended the Cleveland Cavaliers‘, and the city of Cleveland’s, 52-year championship drought.
En route to the euphoria of overcoming a 3-1 deficit to perhaps the most decorated regular season team in NBA history, the Cavs’ superstar guard, Kyrie Irving, also put on an offensive show for the ages, averaging 27.1 points, 3.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game on 56.4 percent True Shooting (TS%), as he outplayed and outdueled the unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry.
He also redefined “The Shot” for all Clevelanders alike. No more is Jordan’s silhouette the ire of many basketball nightmares around Southeast Ohio — his double-clutch hanger is all but forgotten.
Irving’s game-winner in Game 7 of the Finals effectively erased such harrowing feelings, and replaced them with a heroic sequence, which ended with Kyrie draining a step-back fadeaway three right in the grill of the aforementioned Golden Boy.
No one can argue Kyrie made a statement last June, one that NBA junkies will not soon forget.
If a segment of us did, however, Irving issued a gentle reminder as to exactly how spectacularly of a ballhandler and late-clock/game creator he really is on Christmas day.
This time, serving as the linchpin to the Cavs’ 14-point deficit fourth quarter comeback, Uncle Drew once again ripped the souls out of the Dubs by hitting a hanging turnaround fadeaway over the outstretched 6’9.5″ wingpsan of Klay Thompson.
It’s moments like the above that prompt people to declare Kyrie as “the best point guard in the East”, or more outrageously, “the MVP of the Cavs.”
He somehow hypnotizes us with his unadulterated wizardry, especially in the clutch, to mask his throngs of shortcomings in the other areas of his game.
Now in his fifth season in the association, Kyrie is statistically enjoying a career year. He’s averaging a career high in points, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage, while his advanced metrics, from his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) to his Box Plus/Minus (BPM), have all reached similar crescendos.
Yet, when compared to the current crop of elite point guards in the NBA, and there are a ton, Irving’s numbers fall surprisingly short in many areas in contrast.
More specifically, he’s 12th among guards in PER, 10th in VORP, and 12th in BPM, according to Basketball-Reference. Likewise, he ranks 10th among all point guards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus (RPM) stat. Most notably, he consistently trails the likes of Kyle Lowry, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas in such statistical categories — a.k.a. his chief point guard competition in the East.
When watching Irving, it’s easy to see why. Discounting the last two minutes of a close nationally-televised game, Kyrie is for the most part disinterested in playing any defense. Rarely does he fight through any screens with any conviction, save for the 2016 NBA Finals, and his playmaking — while he has made some noticeable leaps in that department over the last several weeks — still leaves a lot to be desired.
The stats pretty much back this up. He ranks 70th in Defensive RPM among lead guards and 53rd in Defensive BPM. Moreover, opposing point guards post a 24.4 PER when playing against Irving, while shooting 53.6 percent effectively when he is manning the point, per 82Games.com. In comparison, Wall limits his matchup at the point of attack to just a 18.1 PER, while Lowry and IT concede a 20.1 PER and 17.6 PER, respectively, to their direct counterpart.
Serving as the pick-and-roll ballhandler, Kyrie, more often than not, is looking for his own. Although he has shown a more concerted effort of finding the roll-man (i.e. Tristan Thompson) or his flaring big (i.e. Kevin Love, Channing Frye or LeBron), he only does so when his avenue to the hoop is impeded while failing to find an opening the launch an off-the-dribble three — a.k.a. the James Harden strategy.
Even with his recent epiphany as a playmaker, though, Irving still ranks a lowly 23rd among all guards in assist percentage at 31.0 percent. In contrast, Russell Westbrook and James Harden are No. 1 and No. 2 in the league in said category, nearly double Kyrie’s output, at 58.9 and 52.8 percent, respectively.
For now, Kyrie Irving is what he is.
Kyrie: "For me turning that corner and putting pressure on the back side of the defense, it'll give [LeBron] a shot or other guys a shot." pic.twitter.com/Qr64qlFkHk
He is an unbelievable, breathtaking one-on-one savant, but he is flawed in many other areas. The good news? He is playing alongside the most complete and all-encompassing superstar of this era, if not ever, in the King.
In many ways, the two feed off of each other as many great duos do. What Kyrie lacks in the defensive and playmaking departments, LeBron’s got his back. What LeBron is deficient at as a late-game shot creator, especially when his midrange J occasionally desserts him, Irving is more than willing to pick up the slack.
Is he best point guard in the East, or the MVP of the Cavs? Not yet.