Kyrie Irving is a supremely talented basketball player. Anyone with functioning eyeballs and any interest in the game can see that. Irving was rated the second best prospect in his high school draft class. He was the consensus and obvious number one overall selection in the 2011 draft. He deserved those accolades. But with his Cavaliers down 2-0 to the historically world-beating Golden State Warriors and Irving about to wrap up his fifth NBA season, it’s worth wondering, just how good is Kyrie Irving?
It’s a question many are now asking. It lead ESPN radio personality Bomani Jones to wonder on his excellent radio program, The Right Time (the discussion begins at the 30 minute mark), whether Reggie Jackson (Reggie Jackson!) might be a better option for the Cavs than Irving.
Deadspin’s Kevin Draper posed this exact question in a quick post yesterday, concluding:
I don’t want to overreact to a two-game sample, but Irving’s defense has been awful since he entered the league five seasons ago, and furthermore, no matter what advanced metric you look at, he grades out as good-but-not great. Despite this, he has a max contract, a signature shoe deal, three All-Star games, an appearance on the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup team, and all the other trappings associated with being one of the league’s superstars.
So, with two more days before Game 3, here are the big questions: Are the Cavs better without Kyrie Irving than with him, and is there anything they’re willing to do about it?
To all of this I say, welcome aboard, America to the “Kyrie is overrated” bandwagon. Irving’s standard issue box-score numbers have always seemed to inflate his impact and whenever you look at how Irving actually impacts the bottom line of points scored versus points surrendered, you can see just where he is lacking. Irving puts up great offensive stats. He’s hovered around a 20 PER (career: 20.9) every year for the last five years. His offensive Box Plus-Minus (OBPM) has hovered between +4 and +5.
Season Age Tm Lg Pos G MP PER TS% 3PAr FTr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS WS/48 OBPM DBPM BPM VORP 2011-12 19 CLE NBA PG 51 1558 21.4 .566 .245 .262 3.1 11.2 7.0 36.5 1.8 1.0 16.1 28.7 3.4 0.6 4.1 .125 4.9 -1.7 3.3 2.1 2012-13 20 CLE NBA PG 59 2048 21.4 .553 .261 .271 1.8 10.8 6.1 32.7 2.3 0.8 13.8 30.2 4.2 1.1 5.3 .125 4.9 -1.6 3.3 2.8 2013-14 21 CLE NBA PG 71 2496 20.1 .533 .278 .273 2.3 9.5 5.8 31.6 2.2 0.8 12.1 28.2 4.6 2.1 6.7 .128 4.1 -0.9 3.2 3.3 2014-15 22 CLE NBA PG 75 2730 21.5 .583 .306 .296 2.3 7.5 5.0 25.0 2.2 0.6 11.8 26.2 8.4 2.0 10.4 .183 4.7 -1.4 3.3 3.7 2015-16 23 CLE NBA PG 53 1667 19.9 .540 .298 .217 3.0 7.6 5.3 26.6 1.7 0.9 11.4 29.5 3.2 1.7 5.0 .143 3.0 -1.4 1.6 1.5 Career NBA 309 10499 20.9 .555 .280 .267 2.4 9.2 5.8 30.0 2.1 0.8 12.8 28.3 23.8 7.6 31.4 .144 4.4 -1.3 3.0 13.3
Data courtesy: Basketball-Reference.com
It’s worth noting here that Irving had his worst season of his career this season and he’s never really shown much improvement by the box-score numbers. Still, if those offensive numbers were representative of his actual impact, then even without improvement, he’d be a really good and valuable player worthy of his maximum contract. Unfortunately, there is a lot of evidence to indicate that’s not the case.
Looking at Irving’s career Real Plus-Minus numbers1 we see a picture of a player who is, by and large, a slightly above average impact player.
It’s important to consider here that a significant portion of Real Plus-Minus comes from Irving’s box-score numbers. The box-score prior – which is fairly similar to BPM – conveys a fairly significant chunk of the information in Real Plus-Minus. So what if we remove the box-score influence? What does regularized adjusted-plus minus (RAPM)2 say about Kyrie for his career?
Kyrie again hovers right around the average point of 0. That’s hardly the impact we’d expect from a guy who is touted as a superstar level talent. For comparison’s sake, Chris Paul, in his age 30 season, just put up a RAPM of +4.5 per 100 possessions with splits of +2.9 per 100 on offense and +1.6 per 100 on defense.
Irving has incredible skills handling the ball, snaking through tight spaces, and finishing through contact. He’s a very good shooter. When you watch him, unless you’re paying close attention, it’s very easy to miss why he’s not a superstar level player when it comes to impact. There are a few reasons that Irving is not as great or impactful as his skills suggest he should be. He dribbles the air out of the ball, stagnating the Cavaliers’ offense, and taking more difficult shots than he could perhaps get for his teammates or even himself if he swung the ball and got open off-ball more often. The next time you’re watching Kyrie pull this act, watch how frustrated LeBron looks watching him do it. Then remember that LeBron is one of the smartest basketball minds the world has ever seen. Kyrie also doesn’t have particularly great court vision. For all his fancy dribbling and ability to slither into the lane, he doesn’t use the defensive panic he causes to create a great look for a teammate nearly often enough. Most damaging, Irving is just absolutely lost on defense, almost all of the time. He can occasionally hold up one on one in an isolation situation, but involve him in any sort of screening action both on and off the ball (which the Warriors have done over and over), and he is toast. Add all those things up and most of the positives he brings get neutralized.
Real Plus-Minus and other adjusted plus-minus metrics aren’t everything, but they can tell us quite a bit, particularly about how a player is succeeding in a given role. Irving has been in two wildly different contexts in his career, first as the lead guard on a relatively talent-less team that went nowhere and now as the second option on a stacked team with one of the two or three greatest players of all time. In neither situation has he particularly thrived. In fact, looking over his career, he’s been roughly average for almost all of it, and he has shown few signs of improvement. At this point, 5 years into his career with Irving wilting on the league’s biggest stage, it’s fair to question whether he ever will.