Whither Kyrie?

May 15th, 2013 by Nate Smith

I’ve been of two minds lately.  My inner pessimist keeps spouting off: Kyrie Irving’s not good enough. He’ll never play defense. He likes making commercials more than making improvements. The half empty glass whispers, The Cavaliers would be better off trading Kyrie Irving. It’s a dialogue between doubt and faith.

Faith knows that Irving is as good a young offensive talent as has ever played in the league.  His rookie numbers were up there with the all-time greats.  But his sophomore season?  He regressed in a couple of areas.  His shooting splits dropped from .469/.399/.872 to .452/.391/.855 with his usage going up from 28.7 to 30.2, these are still fantastic numbers, and fairly minor fluctuations.  His assist rate dropped from 36.5 percent to 32.7 percent, but his turnover percentage also went down from 16.1 percent to 13.8 percent.  Irving passed a little bit less and shot a little bit more.  Most of these changes were fairly unremarkable.  And Kyrie once again led the NBA in  crunch time scoring per 48 minutes.

2012-2013 NBA Season Crunch-Time Stats

Production per 48 Minutes of Clutch Time
Team Player Gm Min +/- +/- Fga Fg% 3pA 3p% Fta Ft% Pts Ast’d Reb Ast T/o Blk Stl
CLE Irving 35 130 -20 -7 38.8 .467 11.1 .300 17.4 80% 53.6 10% 5.5 6.7 10.0 0.4 2.2

2011-2012 NBA Season Crunch-Time Stats

Production per 48 Minutes of Clutch Time
Team Player Gm Min +/- +/- Fga Fg% 3pA 3p% Fta Ft% Pts Ast’d Reb Ast T/o Blk Stl
CLE Irving 24 78 -18 -11 34.9 .544 3.7 .667 17.8 89% 56.4 19% 8.6 3.7 4.3 0.0 0.6

But  his efficiency dipped considerably.  Irving was ridiculously good in 2011 and clearly expected the same success this season.  But he was much better at shooting, rebounding, and not turning the ball over in crunch-time during his rookie season.

He was a turnover machine at the ends of games his year.  10 turnovers per 48 is awful, and a .67 assist to turnover ratio is Drew Gooden territory.  Much of this was due to the fact teams figured out how to defend Irving: trap him high, and force him to give up the ball or try to make a hero play.  If Byron Scott deserved to be fired, one of the key reasons was that he let Kyrie develop some very poor late-game habits. Kyrie is not good at passing out of high double teams.  He doesn’t get any zip on the ball: he loops it or jumps to pass, and the ball gets picked off a lot.  He also overdribbles, and more than once dribbled off his foot in a key moment, or stumbled and threw up a weak shot as time expired. He hasn’t yet adjusted to the defenses teams throw at him when the Cavs absolutely need a bucket.

These are the sorts of scenarios Irving will encounter with increasing frequency if the Cavs grow over the next few seasons into a perennial playoff team. Which brings me to another troubling fact: the NBA playoffs historically belong to big men.  The ability to get a shot up over the defense is key to winning and winning consistently, and being inordinately tall just helps.  Of the last 23 NBA champs, only one team has featured a point guard as its best player: the 1989-90 Detroit Pistons, who featured Isaiah Thomas. The 2004 version of Chauncey Billups might have some claim to that mantle as well, and Tony Parker nabbed a Finals MVP in ’07, but neither player was head and shoulders above everyone else on their team the way Thomas was, or the way Kyrie is. (Plus, Chauncey had Sheed, Parker had Duncan, and Isaiah… well, prime Isaiah was a transcendent player.)  If Chris Paul’s brief Clippers tenure proves anything, it’s that it’s hard to dominate in the NBA playoffs if your best offensive player is a point guard.

And we all know and bemoan Irving’s defense, as late as April 5th, Kyrie was guilty of inexplicably lazy defense.  Those games didn’t matter in any tangible sense—the Cavs were firmly in the hunt for lottery balls by the time April rolled around—but in a game the Cavs eventually won, Kyrie docilely stared at a Jason Terry fourth quarter three from the left block.  I said in November that, “Kyrie’s sins aren’t sins of execution or understanding, they are failures of effort, focus, attention, and accountability. If he doesn’t fix the way he plays defense, he will not win. It’s as simple as that.”

But, Kyrie did get better since I penned these two pieces (part 1, part 2).  Take Kyrie’s Synergy stats in comparison to a player whose defense I respect a lot, Eric Bledsoe. (Irving’s numbers are on top, in the white rows.)

Here, Kyrie is comparable to Bledsoe.  He has much better numbers against isolation, but I’m betting a lot of this is because Irving consistently gets put on the worst isolation offensive player and is often helped with double teams (which would explain Kyrie’s 19 percent defensive turnover rate against isolations), whereas Bledsoe is consistently put on above-average isolation players.  If we compare some other numbers, we see that Bledsoe holds opposing point guards to 14.9 PER, while holding opposing shooting guards to 22.7 PER.  He also helps his team defend 4.9 points per 100 possessions better when he is on the floor.  Irving, by comparison, holds opposing point guards to an 18.1 PER, and his team defense is 2.1 points per 100 possessions worse when he’s on the floor.  But the difference isn’t as stark as you might think, and .87 points per possession by Kyrie is a lot better than I thought he’d be before I looked at the numbers.  It has been clear in limited stretches that Kyrie can play defense when he wants to, with focus and effort.

It’s also clear that, at times, he sticks to screens like they’re made of fly paper, makes horrible defensive pick and roll decisions, and gives up on plays.  What frustrates people is that Kyrie doesn’t seem nearly as focused on improving as a player as some of his peers.  Damian Lillard is rumored to be locking himself in the gym with Gary Payton this summer to learn defense.  Steph Curry is currently leading the Warriors on an extended playoff run.  Meanwhile?  Kyrie Irving is doing clinics, making a paid appearance at Interop for Cisco, and has plans to teach Kangaroos how to dunk down under.  My worry is Kyrie is satisfied with where he is as a player and doesn’t seem to be willing to put in the work to be anything more than a friendlier and better shooting version of Allen Iverson—that Kyrie thinks it’s all about gettin’ buckets, not preventing them…

OK, That’s an unfair criticism.  Kyrie’s not stupid — far from it.  Kyrie has to know that the key to being a great player, is learning to play defense, and learning to be an elite point guard — not just an elite scorer.   Knowing what one needs to do in order to improve, and having the will, desire, and the ability to accurately self-evaluate in order to make those changes, are very different things, and those things take time.  Kyrie has a reverence for Malcolm Gladwell and his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.  According to Kyrie, he put 10,000 hours into basketball by the age of 19.  If he has that kind of dedication to being a great basketball player, he’ll put in the next 10,000 hours to be a winner.

But I fret, because that’s what fans do: what if Kyrie has peaked?  What if he has put in his 10,000 hours, and he’s done growing as a player?  What if he’s happy where he’s at: all star, ankle breaker, commercial maker…?  Of course my expectations are immense, and completely unfair.  Look, Kyrie’s going to be a very good player. it’s just that he needs to be really freaking great if  the Cavs are going to win a title with him. and even then, he’ll need help.

If the Cavs are smart, they will realize that Irving’s preternatural abilities come with preternatural weaknesses.  He’ll never get to be a good defender.  He’ll never be able to get his shot off consistently in crunch-time.  He’ll never learn how to pass hard out of the double team.”

You’re a 37-year-old blogger from Alaska who hacks everything that moves in pickup games.  What do you know about being a 21-year-old millionaire basketball prodigy?  Damian Lillard is a year older.  Steph Curry is 25. Give Kyrie time.  He’ll learn.  Just because he’s not giving interviews to Spin Magazine about summer training with Gerald, ‘The Jordan Buster’ Wilkins, doesn’t mean that he’s not working on defense.  KI logged 10,000 hours in the gym before he went pro.  That’s dedication, Holmes.

What if the Cavs’ best option is to trade him now, and build the team around a lesser point guard and an all-star big man?  Could they flip Kyrie and the #19 pick into Al Horford and Eric Bledsoe, then try to trade for Gasol or Pierce?  Will they some day be settling for the four quarters for a dollar trade that Oklahoma City got for Harden, the hodge podge of young assets Orlando got for Dwight Howard, or the near-nothing Cleveland got for LeBron James…?  What they really ought to do is trade Kyrie for a shot or two at Wiggins or Jabari Parker…

You’ve been spoiled.  Even if everything works out perfectly, it’s going to be a long climb.  The Cavaliers aren’t taking the Heat to game six of the conference finals in two years.  Do you know what kind of effort that is going to take?  Look at what the greats had to do to to get to the finals: LeBron in 2007: 25 points, 8 boards, and 8 assists.  He was 23.  Dwyane Wade in ’06?  28.4/5.9/5.7 and 2.2 steals.  He was 24, and he had Shaq at the end of his prime.   How about Tim Duncan?  In his first finals, ’99? 23.2/11.5/2.8 with 2.6 blocks, and the Admiral playing on his team.  In 2003?  27.6/14.4/5.0 plus 4.3 blocks.  Duncan was 23 and 27.  Holy pantheon.  It’s obvious that this kind of greatness doesn’t even start till 23.  The lone exception to this?  Magic Johnson, who was 21 in his first finals team, but that Lakers team was loaded, and Magic is 6’9″.  Kyrie’s development has been matched only by the all time greats.  He’ll do his part.  The rest of his game will get there, and everything else is up to his teammates and the organization.  If there’s anything Mike Brown can teach young players, it’s how to guard the pick and roll.  Don’t let Mike’s fart-whiff face get you down.  No one ever succeeded without failing first.

ARGH we’re all guilty of irrational optimism.  We’re going to be spending the next few years waiting for some other shoe to drop.  But despite my well reasoned malaise, there’s no way the Cavs are trading Kyrie any time soon.  Still, I can play with the trade machine to get multiple all-stars for Irving. Meanwhile, the wallabies better be helping Kyrie channel his inner Mookie Blaylock.