A year ago, Kyrie Irving was the toast of the NBA – a 23 points per game scorer and the leading “clutch” performer in the league at just 20 years old. “It’s Kyrie Irving’s world; soon we’ll all be living in it,” proclaimed one excited reporter. In the offseason Irving was ranked by ESPN as the 8th best player in the league.
Firstly, the hype was somewhat unfounded – many were basing their inflated opinions of Irving on stats and highlight plays alone rather than a deep understanding of his game and his influence on a team that remained heavily under .500.
Secondly, and most maddeningly, Kyrie has not only failed to make a leap in his third season as a pro, he has actually regressed from last year.
His scoring is down, he is shooting an eyebrow-raisingly bad 42.8% from the floor, his defensive effort is feckless and his team has looked generally void of leadership, direction and emotion. Whether he is actually a top 8 point guard – let alone a top 8 player – may rightly be questioned.
The Cavs are 26-43 in a putrid Eastern Conference and will miss the playoffs again despite being tipped by many to clinch the 6th or 7th seed. This should not happen under a franchise point guard’s watch. Perhaps Kyrie Irving is simply not a franchise point guard.
With his season now for all intents and purposes over due to a biceps injury, let us investigate in detail: just how uninspiring has he been on both ends of the floor and as a leader in general, and where does he truly rank among the league’s best?
Kyrie, who is 6th in the league in field goal attempts per game this season, has displayed a level of decision making on offense that leaves a lot to be desired. Though he has more talent around him than ever, he is taking more shots and shooting a lower percentage.
He appears unable to orchestrate an offense and is focused on scoring even when the opportunity is not available. He comes off the pick-and-roll generally looking to get his rather than find his teammate, he has proven unwilling or unable to make the most basic of post entry passes, and he is taking more and more long and/or contested two-point jumpshots:
Per NBA.com, 36.1% of Kyrie’s field goal attempts this season have come on mid-range jumpers – up from 24.8% during his rookie year. This is a worrying statistical development that confirms the eye test: Kyrie is settling more and more for the least efficient shot in basketball whilst the league as a whole continues to move away from it in favour of threes and layups.
Most disturbingly, he will often dribble the ball up the court and throw up a contested shot early in the clock without looking to involve a teammate in any way:
There were promising signs of improved ball movement from Kyrie during the Cavs’ six-game winning streak in mid-February – witness his beautiful consecutive 4th quarter assists in Detroit on Feb. 12 – but despite having the 7th highest usage rate in the league, Kyrie is just 29th in assist percentage.
What must Luol Deng have been thinking here when he established position against Raymond Felton in the low post and Kyrie, a mere 8 feet away, did not pass him the ball?
Kyrie’s volume shooting and inability to properly quarterback the team are surely key reasons why Jarrett Jack was inserted into the starting lineup on Feb. 1. Jack has been given the responsibility of bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense at times, shifting Kyrie to the wing in the process, in a bid to get the team into a rhythm:
Alas, the Cavs remain 25th in offensive efficiency and 29th in effective field goal percentage. Damning numbers indeed.
As Greg Anthony cogently observed during the TNT broadcast of the Cavs’ loss at New York on Jan. 30: “It’s funny when you watch (the Cavs). They don’t really have a sense of purpose offensively.”
Certainly coach Mike Brown, who no one has ever mistaken for an offensive genius, must take a chunk of the blame for this, but the Cavs appear to take their cue from their ball-dominant on-court leader – iso-ball and mid-range jumpers reign supreme.
Kyrie’s Twitter bio reads: “Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.” It would be nice if he applied this mantra to the defensive side of the floor, where his effort has been consistently lacking since he came into the league.
The examples of his lacklustre effort, minimal attention to detail and poor fundamentals on defense are plentiful.
Here he gives the olé to Isaiah Thomas who drives in for the unmolested layup:
Here he is wallowing around in the paint as his man (Monta Ellis) launches and hits a comically wide open three:
Here he watches Damian Lillard blow by him for two of his 36 points at the Q:
Here he completely loses track of a hot Brandon Jennings, who knocks down the open triple:
Here he offers no resistance as Monta blows right by him, collapsing the Cavs’ defense and leading to a Samuel Dalembert jam:
Here he mistakenly goes over the screen as Lillard makes a simple back cut for the lob dunk:
Here he lollygags under the Kings’ basket after missing a layup and shows no effort to get back on defense as Thomas goes coast to coast for the layup:
This is very poor.
No one expects Kyrie to be a great defender. Very few perimeter stars have ever possessed the requisite ability and energy to put up 20 points a night and still perform at an elite level defensively. But it would be nice if the max-salaried face of the franchise actually appeared engaged on that end of the floor – especially considering his inefficiencies at the other end.
He needs to set a better example.
Kyrie lacks basic leadership skills, and would probably not be much fun to play with.
In general he does not make life easier for his teammates in ways that a talented point guard should. He picks up assists (5.8 per game for his career) by way of constantly handling the ball rather than consistently seeking out the best available look for a teammate. He seems to lack the combination of vision, intelligence and level of caring that allows one to successfully quarterback an NBA offense.
Moreover, he does not energize teammates with his personality. He carries himself with a general look of detachedness.
Whilst on the bench he cuts a sullen, solitary figure, sitting with a towel wrapped around and over his head and rarely reacting to successful plays by teammates.
His body language tends to rank somewhere between a little toxic and Dwight Howard-level toxic.
One NBA scout describes him as being “like a quarterback who makes a good throw, but when the receiver drops the ball he lets everybody in the stadium know it was the receiver’s fault.”
That the Cavs have rarely looked like a team with good chemistry is no coincidence. Kyrie has clashed with Dion Waiters and during his time in Cleveland Andrew Bynum thought he “shot and dribbled too much.” Mitch Lawrence’s report on a dysfunctional locker room in which young players “undermine” the head coach reflects a lack of accountability and maturity.
Kyrie’s ranking among elite point guards
Without question, Kyrie cannot be considered on the same level as Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Steph Curry or John Wall.
Westbrook is a good point of reference. He has received a bad rap in some corners, where ill-informed fans see him as unfit to play the point guard position due to his occasional ill-advised shots in high profile moments.
Yet Westbrook is an all-round force who puts his personal stamp on games even when his shot is not falling, something Kyrie does not do. Westbrook’s all-out activity and balls-to-the-wall style of play are both effective and infectious. A vastly better defender, rebounder and finisher than Kyrie, he has 9 career triple-doubles to Irving’s zero. Regardless of stats, Westbrook passes the eye test in ways Kyrie does not come close to replicating.
Yet TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott predicted this past offseason that Irving will be the best point guard in the league in 2018, “because I still don’t really see (Russell) Westbrook as a real point guard.”
Kyrie is a “real point guard”? Westbrook has averaged 7+ assists a game in four different seasons; Kyrie has yet to do it once.
Wall is in the same mold as Westbrook: not a leader by way of immense basketball IQ or an innate passing gene, but by way of emotion, drive and example. He never takes a play off, and is now consistently using his ridiculous athleticism to both create open looks for his teammates and affect the game defensively in ways Kyrie will likely never be able to match.
“Wall is a competitor,” enunciated Bill Simmons on his podcast. “Wall is more of a leader – you can feel it through the TV. Kyrie Irving is just out there. He’s got some teammates, he’s going to do his thing, but he doesn’t take the responsibility to make them better.”
Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry too have had vastly more inspiring seasons than Irving across the board. Frankly, on the top 10 point guards list, he is currently battling out with Ty Lawson for the No. 8 spot.
It would also be remiss of us not to take note of Irving’s injury history. Having played only 11 games at Duke due to an obscure toe malady, he has now missed 43 of 217 games in his NBA career due to an assortment of injuries. For such a young player, his inability to stay on the floor for a full season is of genuine concern.
Would any team trade a top 5 pick in this year’s draft for Irving? I doubt it.
“I’d take Ennis over Kyrie Irving. … He does all the things that help a basketball team win basketball games. … I would take this kid right now and trust him to run my team.”
The implication on the part of the GM is that Kyrie does not do all the essential things that help a team win games. The GM is correct.
Since Irving got to Cleveland, the Cavs are 71-146 (.327). He has displayed high levels of individual brilliance over that time but has had little impact on his team’s fortunes and has yet to smell the playoffs. At this stage he is a high volume, inefficient shooter who handles the ball an awful lot but does not do a great job of putting teammates in a position to succeed. In short, he is a losing basketball player.
However, Kyrie is by no means a lost cause. He turns 22 this weekend, and has put up 21 points per game this season in spite of his poor shot selection and rough shooting numbers. He remains one of the best ball handlers in the league, was the MVP of the All-Star Game, and can still do things like this seemingly effortlessly:
We must also take into account that Kyrie is playing for a head coach who has yet to prove able to construct or implement an NBA-level offense. With the benefit of experience and better coaching, he may grow into being a more serious leader and better court general who takes less ill-advised shots and puts forth a halfway credible effort defensively.
The cold hard truth of the matter though is that to date he has not made improvements consistent with his perceived ceiling as a player, and is nowhere impactful enough to be considered a top 18 player, let alone a top 8 one.
We are left with the very real possibility that this is who Kyrie Irving is and will be: a talented individual scorer and ball handler who does not make those around him better and is not capable of leading a winning team.
That, in my book, is not a franchise player.
 Jordan, Pippen, Dumars, Payton, Kobe, Artest and, now, LeBron and Paul George come to mind.