This will not be two-thousand words like the article on Tristan; then I wanted to highlight some non-box score strengths of his game. With Kyrie, everyone knows the drill; this is absolutely the least essential of this series. For a twenty year old, his offense amazes, with performance rarely paralleled in recent years. Respected analysts describe him as “a breathtaking offensive talent”. Unfortunately, defensive “train wreck” came with that particular description. For better and worse, frequently both items ring true.
On offense, Kyrie has been ridiculous. A few snippets:
- Both his career 109 offensive rating and 29 usage are ahead of Russell Westbrook’s lifetime marks, despite Westbrook debuting at six months older and entering his prime. They also are equivalent to Derrick Rose’s 110 and 28, despite Rose debuting at six months older and playing four seasons.
- Of all rookies drafted since 2000 that played 5o or more games, Kyrie ranked third for PER behind Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Paul kicked-off his career 10 months older than Kyrie, with Griffin a full two years older.
- Kyrie ranks 16th in the NBA this season for PER. Only one player ahead of him is within three years of his age; James Harden is 2 years, 209 days older.
At this end of the court, the start to Kyrie’s career is elite; there are no two ways around that. A spectacular ball-handler and phenomenal shooter, the “future superstar” projection rests on his mantle. This year, he averages 23.5 points per game on 47 / 43 / 83.
A small negative resides in his “point guard stats”. His assist rate plunges from last year, and his assist to turnover ratio decreases substantially. Some of this rests on teammate inefficiency at shot-making, and some on an occasional apparent lack of confidence in those teammates, but a tendency towards hero-ball also rears it’s head.
Kyrie’s defense is not ideal, but rather than re-hash a thoroughly discussed idea, I will run through a couple of game recaps, then as a summary, provide an over-arching thought on where his defense stands.
January 2nd, 2013 – Sacramento at Cleveland
Kyrie tallied 22, 5 and 6 on 53% true shooting with 3 turnovers as Cleveland suffered a painful loss to the Kings, who played without Marcus Thornton and Tyreke Evans. The first quarter started well, as Kyrie took advantage of the smaller Isaiah Thomas, scoring six points in the first eight minutes without missing a shot. On one possession, Irving also drew defensive praise from the Sacramento announcers for fending off Thomas on repeated penetration attempts. Repeatedly running pick-and-pop sets with Zeller and Walton resulted in three missed-assist opportunities, as the Cav bigs could not convert. As the quarter wore on, Kyrie’s play slightly diminished; he missed two shots in the final eleven seconds, and I swear he stalled for a full second on a Jimmer Fredette pick. Just to be clear, Jimmer Fredette set the pick.
As typical, Kyrie sat the initial seven minutes of the second quarter. He missed both shots for the quarter, including another beautiful, yet failed, isolation play near the end of the half. A give-and-go dish to Alonzo Gee resulted in another missed jumper. Defensively, he strolled behind a couple of pick-of-rolls and offered the anti-TT experience, with a thought process apparently of “can’t someone else do it?”
The third quarter again offered good and bad. Isaiah Thomas drove past Kyrie for an and-one, and an ill-advised switch allowed a Demarcus Cousins mismatch in the post. Bright sides included Kyrie and Tyler corraling the ball-handler to step on the baseline through solid pick-and-roll defense, and he hounded Thomas into an ugly miss to end the quarter. Kyrie’s passing resulted in two assists on shots from deep, however three other would-be assists rimmed out; Sacramento pretty much quit guarding Luke Walton. Kyrie scored eight, including a spot-up three and a magnificent behind-the-back-into-between-the-legs-into-tough-elbow-pull-up!
Kyrie checked in with 5:40 to go in the fourth. Several Sacramento possessions featured Kyrie finding himself out of the play, and the remainder of the possession devolving into chaos and a Kings bucket. Aaron Brooks blasted past him for a crushing lay-up that extended Cleveland’s deficit to four with 18 seconds remaining. Offensively, Kyrie converted a mind-meldingly-tough baseline shot and also scored six points in the final two minutes to keep the game close. Unfortunately, all three of his turnovers came in the final four minutes, helping shut the door on a comeback. The iso-heavy, non floor-spaced offense that Cleveland frequently features in crunch time lead Kyrie into a ball-handling miscue and also tripping / throwing a pass out of bounds.
This was a relatively representative Kyrie game. He scored 22 with reasonable efficiency and some circus shots. His defense was…uninspiring. His six assists easily could have been 9 or 10 if a few teammate jumpers fell. Let’s move on to the next one.
January 7th, 2013 – Cleveland at Chicago
This was certainly not one of Cleveland’s best efforts; that will happen when profiling a random selection of games. In 29 minutes of a Bulls blowout, he tallied 15 points on 55% true shooting with 6 assists and 3 turnovers. The game started magically, largely fueled by Kyrie-related brilliance en-route to a 30 to 20 lead. His nine points and four assists included two transition dimes, a pull-up 20-footer off a pick, a slick-dribbling pull-up, and a sweetly-stroked three after bringing the ball up-court. His jumper was on, he located open teammates…all cylinders were firing. The final possession of the quarter featured an iso-drive from half-court for a miss.
As Kyrie sat the first seven minutes of quarter two, an eight-point lead crumbled into a two-point deficit. His five minutes of play featured some lackadaisical pick-and-roll defense and halfway committed post-help. On several possessions, his positioning best describes as no-man’s-land. Tightly-controlled ball-handling lead to four shot attempts, but unfortunately all were missed; this included two in the final ten seconds. For anyone counting at home, that is seven shots taken in the last twelve seconds of the six quarters profiled, with only one make. Kyrie can be a crunch time ninja, but hopefully a part of his growth includes incorporating additional appropriate opportunities to pass in these situations. Certainly the defense is paying a lot of attention to him.
The third quarter was ugly for the Cavs, as they gave up 35 points. Generally, Kyrie’s defense aided the Chicago explosion, but I am bored of talking about it. He made his final field goal of the game less than two minutes into the quarter and then sat out the fourth. It was a stupid second half. Let’s move on to the…
Kyrie is a top twenty offensive player in the league. Right now. And he cannot legally enter drinking establishments for two months. That is spectacular, and finds him progressing toward the upper echelon of NBA stars.
His defense is less phenomenal. According to RAPM, of 364 players with over 400 possessions this season, Kyrie is 294th as a stopper. And this needs to improve, lest he be overrated; it’s a two-way game.
He is young though. His defensive RAPM has improved by one point per 100 possessions from last year to this one, the PER he allows his opponent is down 1.5, and his steal rate is up. He always rebounded well. With continual improvement to his effort and performance on defense, and only incremental upticks on offense, he can be the best player on a championship team. Let’s see him do that.