Kyrie Irving is perhaps the most polarizing player in the NBA. Supporters – ranging from the average NBA fan to players like Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant – view him as the most unguardable player in the association. Yet, especially amongst the NBA analytics community, Kyrie Irving is criticized for playing inefficiently, not setting up his teammates, and being a horrendous defender.
The true state of Kyrie Irving’s value lies somewhere in between the two notions. Is he the best offensive player in the NBA? No, absolutely not. Is he a top-seven point guard in the NBA? Yes, probably.
The true legend of Kyrie Irving began during the 2016 NBA Playoffs. Here, the advanced analytics loved Kyrie’s performance. For example, Irving had the highest playoff win shares amongst guards of all-time, the fifth best box plus-minus amongst guards of all-time. and the third-best value-over-replacement-player amongst guards in NBA history.
In fact, the Wall Street Journal conducted a quantitative study and found that Kyrie’s shot that won Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals was the most important basket in NBA history. By using a regression analysis to study the impact of a made basket on a team’s chances of winning, and then applying a weight for the shot being a Finals winner, the author finds that
Cleveland’s win probability when Lue called timeout was a coin flip: 50.2%. It inched upward with every dribble and spiked when Irving shot. Cleveland’s likelihood of winning the game—and the NBA title—was suddenly 82.3%. That change in championship probability was, according to the Journal’s analysis, the largest swing the league has ever seen.
Unfortunately, Irving was unable to maintain this historically great performance during the 2016-17 season; however, that does not mean the year was unproductive. Kyrie Irving still averaged 47% shooting, 40% from the three-point line, 90% from the free throw line, with a 58% true shooting percentage and a 23 PER. These offensive numbers are outstanding.
Furthermore, the area where Irving is perhaps most deadly, is his ability to attack mismatches on offense. I have written about this previously, and Kyrie’s strengths in this regard mirror what makes the Cavaliers’ offense so dominant.
Per Synergy Stats, Kyrie Irving forced a mismatch on 155 total possessions throughout the 2017 playoffs. Moreover, he scored 1.13 points per possession on these opportunities. That number would be good for second best in the NBA behind Irving’s teammate, LeBron James. These numbers were only slightly lower during the regular season, where Irving averaged 1.12 points per possession on defensive switches. Below is a video compilation of how Kyrie attacks these mismatches.
Additionally, because of his threat attacking, teams overplay Kyrie on pick-and-rolls, resulting in easy passes like this:
This ability to see how his own ability opens up the floor for teammates has been Kyrie’s largest area of growth since LeBron returned to Cleveland. While LeBron is the better player, and Love has fewer weaknesses, in many ways the Cavs’ offense is reliant on Irving’s ability to attack.
With an offensive game so dominant that he can attack any position – bigger or smaller, faster or slower, stronger or weaker – successfully, why is it that the analytics community has grown frustrated with Kyrie Irving?
The fact is that, outside of scoring, Irving does not do much else at an elite level. He can pass, and has done a better job of that during the 2016-17 season; however, Kyrie is an atrocious rebounder and defender, does not always move off-ball, and sometimes can have tunnel vision. This is why, throughout their careers, a player such as Steph Curry has consistently done better under advanced statistical methods.
For example, for a guard, Kyrie Irving is a pretty pathetic rebounder. During the 2017 Finals, Steph Curry out-rebounded Kyrie 40-20, or a 2-to-1 ratio. Much of this is not an example of Curry beating Irving on rebounds, but rather, Irving not even trying to rebound.
During the playoffs, per NBA Wowy, when the Warriors play with Draymond Green at center, Steph Curry has an opportunity to gather 11.2% of all rebounds. On the other hand, when the Cavs play with either LeBron James or Kevin Love at center, Irving is only in position to grab 4.1% of all rebounds.
This, in part, is not entirely Kyrie’s fault. Per Synergy, the Cavs had the fifth worst transition defense in the NBA during the 2016-17 regular season, allowing 1.175 points per possession. Consequently, during the playoffs, Lue would send his guards back to prevent leak-outs in transition.
The problem is that, per NBA Wowy, Irving was only in position to grab 2.8% of all rebounds during the regular season. Thus, while Lue’s playoff adjustments may contain some degree of partial explanation, it does not tell the entire story. For example:
This video is the perfect example of what Kyrie needs to do better. First, he completely looses Steph Curry on the drive. Secondly, after Steph Curry shoots, rather than boxing him out, Kyrie moves to the side in preparation for a transition run. This decision allowed Curry to rebound his missed shot and easily score.
This is the reason why the analytics community has issues with Kyrie Irving. It is why, during the 2016-17 season, Irving ranked 12th amongst point guards in ESPN’s RPM, 9th amongst point guards in win shares, 15 amongst point guards in box plus-minus, 13th amongst point guards in value-over-replacement-player, and 0th amongst point guards in PER.
I.E., the advanced analytics rank him as a below-top-10 point guard. This is because Irving does not do little things like boxing out and attempting to fight through screens on defense. Guards such as Steph Curry, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, however, are better than Kyrie because of their ability to do these small things.
Now, should one only look at the advanced metrics? No, definitely not. Irving is penalized by these metrics because he plays with LeBron James. Additionally, stats like RPM have difficulty incorporating point per possession stats, mismatch exploitation, and off-ball movement. These two faults occur because the stats rely on box-score and +/- variants to run their regression. Furthermore, these are areas where Kyrie provides his greatest value.
Consequently, while discussing Kyrie Irving, it is important to look beyond the advanced metrics. Nonetheless, the analytics community has also revealed flaws in Irving’s game. During the 2018 Finals, Kyrie needs to be the third-best player in the series (behind LeBron and Durant). Otherwise the Cavs will lose. This means, like in the 2016 Finals, Irving needs to surpass Curry. This can only occur by fixing small problems, such as his rebounding, and continuing to be the most unstoppable offensive player in the NBA.
A lot of rhetoric has been spent deciding how the Cavs can beat the Warriors. Many say that the Cavs need to build a big four, change their offense, change their defense, etc. The fact is, though, the biggest improvement needs to come from Kyrie Irving. The superstar needs to build other parts of his game in order for his offensive play to truly shine.