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Kyrie Irving struggles to break out in third NBA season: what criticism is fair?

Kyrie Irving had sky-high expectations coming into his third full NBA season. He hasn't quite lived up to them. What criticisms are fair? Which ones aren't?


The NBA is a game dominated by stars. Have one, like Minnesota with Kevin Love, and you have a good start to build around. Put two together, and like the Clippers with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, you have a great chance at putting together a team that can contend. If you can somehow lasso in three stars, like the Miami Heat with LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh ... well, you aren't going to lose very often.

It isn't that simple, obviously. Even when you get multiple stars you have to find complimentary pieces. The Cavaliers selected Kyrie Irving in the midst of a lockout in the midst of the fallout from LeBron James leaving. The Cavaliers were coming off a season in which they had gone through a period of losing 36 of 37 games. Even with Irving, they weren't expected to be much better in his first year. And they weren't, really.

But Irving was a revelation. A 19 year old shooting 47% from the field, 40% from three point range, and 87% from the free throw line? 18 points, 5 assists, 3 rebounds per game? Only LeBron James and Tyreke Evans had put up those kinds of numbers at that age. The assumption was that Cleveland had found itself a star. Two years and two All-Star game selections later, the next assumption would be that everything in Cleveland was happy, with a town embracing the 21 year old Duke product.

That ... isn't what is happening. And there are some real reasons to criticize Irving in his young career. Let's take a look at what I consider to be the big ones.

Where is the progression?

Let's take a look at some of Irving's per 36 minutes averages in his first few years.

Kyrie Irving, year 1: 22 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 47/40/87 shooting, 57% true shooting, 16.1% turnover rate.

Kyrie Irving, year 2: 23 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 45/39/86 shooting, 55% true shooting, 13.8% turnover rate.

Kyrie Irving, year 3: 22 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, 43/36/84 shooting, 52% true shooting, 11.3% turnover rate.

To give a little more perspective on Irving's third season, if we ignore the first month of the season when he found himself in a horrific shooting slump, and look at the 29 games he has played since November 30th, his numbers improve quite a bit. Putting up a 44/39/87 shooting line, 54% true shooting, and a 9.7% turnover rate.

It's pretty clear that outside of his turnover rate, which he has consistently improved upon, Irving's numbers are either stagnant or trending slightly downwards. There clearly hasn't been the third year jump many expected, even controlling for a large shooting slump to start the season.

This could speak to a number of things. Does Irving have a work ethic issue? Is it all his teammates fault? Is he like Tyreke Evans, who failed to build on an amazing rookie season? Did he simply shoot a bit better than his actual ability in his rookie season? I don't know what the answer is. But it seems fair for Cavaliers fans to wonder why Irving isn't improving. My suspicion is that it isn't all on Irving, though a lot of it probably is. Defenses are geared to stop him. NBA teams have had time to scout him, and the Cavaliers still don't have a reliable 2nd scoring option. Suffice it to say, Irving needs to do a better job of keeping the ball moving and not taking shots so early in the shot clock. This is especially true in the 4th quarter of games, when defenses are even more keyed on him.

It's important to note that even if Irving doesn't improve on these numbers at all, he is a really valuable offensive player. His ability to cut down on his turnovers appears to be largely unnoticed by a big segment of the Cavalier faithful, and I don't  think that's really fair. His turnover rate this season of 11.3 is significantly lower than Chris Paul's 12.9 mark, and lest you think that's a happy accident, Paul has only had a rate lower than Irving's once in his entire career.

Too many midrange jumpers

The midrange jump shot is the least efficient shot in basketball. It's far away from the basket and only worth two points. You don't fouled that often when you take them. For whatever reason, Irving is taking way more of them than he had in his first season in the league.

I asked Kyrie about the fact that he was taking more of them before the season:

"I've been attacking every game, finding my spots on the offensive end."

Jason Lloyd, from the Akron Beacon Journal, asked him in the same interview if part of the reason was to avoid taking a physical pounding. He said no:

"If I did that I wouldn't be myself. It's not the way the game is played ... it's impossible for NBA players to play like that. For me, it's about staying aggressive and finding my spots."

Whatever Irving says, the fact of the matter is that he is taking more shots from the midrange. Teams like Houston and Toronto on the cutting edge of the basketball analytics movement are working to take this shot out of their team's offensive sets almost completely. For Irving, they comprise over 1/3 of his total shots. Getting it back down to 25% or less of his field goal attempts would be a step forward. He is a great three point shooter, and is proficient at getting to the foul line. He needs to do it more.

Until he does, he is a part of one of the major issues causing problems for the Cavs offense. As Jared Dubin of Bleacher Report explains:

Cleveland averages 41.2 field-goal attempts per game from the back half of the paint (outside the restricted area) and mid-range combined, per, the single largest number in the league. OnlyMemphis attempts a greater percentage of its total shots from those two areas than the Cavaliers.

Those shots carry lower conversion rates than close attempts but without the benefit of the extra point of a three-point shot. They are the worst areas on the court from which to be attempting shots, and the Cavs have made those attempts into nearly half of their offense-48.4 percent of their shots originate from the back half of the paint or mid-range.

Issues with Kyrie's attitude: Has he bought in?

I have written a few times about how Irving's attitude has bothered me. Both times, I ultimately took the optimistic view that Kyrie was (and remains) young and had plenty of time to "get it". I thought coming into the season that he had learned from skipping out on fan appreciation night, and from not sticking up for former coach Byron Scott, just what kind of spotlight was on him and what was asked of him.

I don't think that optimistic view is particularly justified right now. It seems as though every 6 months or so we get a report about Irving wanting to play in New York or leave Cleveland. Once he signs an extension with the Cavaliers this summer, which is all but a complete certainty, the whispers will stop - for awhile. And I don't blame Kyrie Irving for being unhappy with the consistent losing. In last night's loss to the Mavericks, some Cavs fans (rightfully!) were mad about Irving laughing on the court at the end of another blowout loss. But 90% of the time, the criticism of Irving is that he is pouting. Which is the complete opposite of what he did last night. He can't win.

Point is, he is in a difficult spot. If my team was awful, and I didn't know how to fix it, I wouldn't be thrilled with the prospect of signing up for 5 more years on an uncertain future either. But here is the thing: Irving needs to realize that he is the crucial factor on how it improves. A true competitor would want to do everything he could to get his team, and his teammates, on track. I don't think you can say Irving has bought into that, and that is disappointing to me.

But who cares what I think? Jason Lloyd  got a Cavs player to say this:

"He’s acting like he doesn’t care," one Cavs player said of Irving.

And that is an issue. Irving has said all the right things about being a leader this season. Whether it is because of his pouting, or because he hasn't bought into Mike Brown, or because he doesn't trust his teammates, or because of whatever, he isn't giving off a good vibe to his teammates. I am not qualified to know why the player felt that way. Maybe Irving shouldn't have to be the leader at age 21. But Irving does need to make sure his teammates know that he cares.

Kyrie Irving isn't a fiery player. He doesn't get too excited even after making big plays. He doesn't show a lot of emotion. I don't think this means he doesn't care. People have different personalities, and just because you pound your chest doesn't mean you put effort into all facets of the game.

His defense though ...

His defense still doesn't bother me. Mike Brown's system has him fighting through screens and he just isn't a big guy. The Cavs haven't constructed a roster to help him defensively at all. To my eyes, he has improved each year in the league on defense and his numbers overall defensively on Synergy really aren't that bad. Do bad point guards have good games against him? Sure. But it isn't against him. Defense is played as a team, and the Cavs are collectively awful. Irving plays a role in this. He doesn't play the biggest role in this.

When you have one guy on your team that can score in a consistently efficient manner, I don't know why you would spend your time killing his defense. I hope and assume that as his body grows and he gets smarter and understands Brown's system he will continue to get better. Not many 21 year olds defend in the NBA. That's just the way it is.

And so here we are.

We're sitting here with a player almost certainly likely to be a Cavalier for the next five years or so. He isn't flawless. He hasn't improved like we might have hoped. He remains 21 years old. He is smart, if he isn't self-aware. I'm not going to bury his character because I don't think we know enough about him. There are warning signs. Maybe a better locker room fixes it. I can't pretend to know.