In the Cleveland Cavaliers' Thursday win against the New York Knicks, Kyrie Irving was the best player on the floor for the majority of the game. If you watched Cavs' win on TNT while also incrementally checking Twitter, you wouldn't have been lead to believe that Kyrie Irving was the best player on the floor.
Sure, the TNT announcing duo of Mike Fratello and Marv Albert acknowledged Irving's scoring outburst, but much of their Kyrie discussion was focused on his assist totals. For the game, Irving finished with two assists and neither came until the fourth quarter. The discussion amongst some media on Twitter was much of the same.
But Irving had what was probably his best game of the season on Thursday. Against the Knicks, Irving scored 37 points on 12-18 shooting and carried the Cavs offense as LeBron James and Kevin Love both struggled to score. And while James was better in the fourth quarter, Irving was the leader of the Cavs offense in the Cavs' 90-87 win. Without Irving's 37 points, the Cavs don't beat the Knicks.
The narrative on Irving, as this shows, is that he's not a point guard because he doesn't pass the ball enough. People then say he's a shooting guard and say because he's playing the wrong position, he hurts Cleveland's chances of winning.
It is true, at least in the traditional view of point guards, Irving doesn't fit the mold. The NBA's all-time greats at point guard - John Stockon, Steve Nash, Magic Johnson, etc. - were pass first players. In the Cavs franchise history, the best point guard - Mark Price - was a pass first player as well.
But this shouldn't matter. Irving is amongst a group of modern players - Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, etc. - who don't fit that traditional mold. Like his contemporaries, Irving has been a scorer his entire basketball life. It's what got him to the NBA, what earned him a max contract and what makes him an integral part of the Cavs' core.
Kyrie's assist numbers, on the surface, back up the narrative that he's not a good passer. He's averaging 4.8 assists per game, well below the numbers posted by many of the league's elite point guards. His assist percentage, the number of teammate field goals he assists on while he's on the floor, is a career-low 22.1 percent. He's also averaging just 9.4 assist opportunities per game. That is less than four players' average in assists per game, and puts him firmly between noted pass-first players Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith. At first glance here, Kyrie must really not be an effective point guard this year.
However, that definitely does not tell the entire story regarding Kyrie as a passer. The numbers look bad, but they are hurt because of the positive meshing of Kyrie's skill set with the rest of the roster.
The biggest reason Irving isn't passing as much is because he's not the best passer on the floor for a majority of his minutes. LeBron James is a better playmaker than Kyrie, and he's taken over the role of the primary playmaker on the offense; he's averaging 7.5 assists per game, and has an assist percentage of 37.9 percent, the third highest of his career. That's freed up Irving to score at high volume, and he's responded by far surpassing his previous career highs for shooting percentages.
Previously in his career, we've seen Kyrie attempt to be the primary passer and scorer in the offense, and he's put up in the ballpark of six assists per 36 minutes. The only other time he's played with a player who assisted on more than 30 percent of his teammates' field goals was his rookie season with Ramon Sessions. Now that he's spending time with a player who's at the very least his equal as a passer, Kyrie is free to concentrate more on scoring, knowing that LeBron can set teammates up. This helps LeBron in turn, which is important to note; LeBron doesn't have to attack as much to generate scoring, which keeps him fresh. It's a perfectly synergistic approach for maximizing the effectiveness of both players.
Irving is still also converting assist opportunities at a high rate; teammates are turning 51.1 percent of his assist opportunities into assists, a rate around that of league leaders Ty Lawson and John Wall. His low numbers aren't to say he can't pass; they just say he's not taking the option to, because he's looking to score and looking to let LeBron create instead. So far, it's working out perfectly; the Cavs are 5-1 when Kyrie scores at least 24 points, including that Knicks game - where everyone seemed to glaze over that James had 12 assists, then his season high.
These numbers reflect the entirety of the Cavs season. That means they cover the bad losses against the Wizards and Jazz, the big wins against Denver and New Orleans, and the middling wins against the Knicks and Bucks. Although the quarter season mark of the season has not yet hit, this data is a fair representation of what has happened so far and is a sign of what's to come.
And Irving, as he has in the past, will probably have a game where he dishes out 10 assists in a Cavs blowout. But more often than not, Irving is going to look to score before he looks to pass. With LeBron being an elite passer, and Kyrie being Kyrie, that's a natural and effective outcome.
But don't just take my word for it. I talked it over with Trevor, and the result is a podcast of sorts. Check it out.