Many a wise person has offered advice on how to deal with trolls on the internet. The prevalence of social media gives people limitless outlets to express themselves, which is obviously both a good and bad thing. Trolls aren't a new concept, but nowadays, they've got more avenues than ever to unleash their devious bluster. Combine that with the passions of fandom, rapidly expanding media coverage for professional sports teams and the heightened scrutiny that comes with being a former number one overall pick, and you've got all the exposition you need to understand why Kyrie Irving seems to attract a curious number of troll-like creatures.
Kyrie is not immune, nor should he be, from criticism. There have been legitimate things to scrutinize, such as his defense (which has been better this season, but still has room for improvement), and fourth quarter shot selection. All players, even great ones (especially great ones?) will be dissected ad nauseam; such is the nature of the business.
However, there's a difference between unflattering, yet fair critiques and irrational, unfounded slights. "Kyrie Irving isn't a point guard," a talking point that seems to bubble up whenever Kyrie doesn't have a certain number of a assists in a given game, or "takes too many shots," crosses the line from legitimate assessment to baseless wisecrack. It's shallow rhetoric rather than a well-formed argument.
While sometimes it's best to avoid outlandish takes altogether, dissecting positional attributes is a common discussion around the league, and is therefore worthy of examination. Accusing Kyrie of "not being a point guard" comes from more than just random people on Twitter. Some popular pundits, especially Grantland's Bill Simmons, have been vocal about expressing disappointment in Irving's game, and especially his ability to be a "leader," recent reversal of course notwithstanding.
There are ways to argue that line of thinking, especially against out-and-out trolls or archaic analysts who seem to believe there's a magical assists per game threshold (or any objective statistical metric) required for a point guard to actually be a point guard.
Arguing that one player having more assists than another is an indication of the first being a better passer or a more "pure" point guard is a little like assuming racking up steals equals good defense. If someone is constantly jumping passing lanes, and one in every ten gambles leads to a steal and a bucket the other direction, but two in every ten results in easy basket for the other team, that player is likely a net negative on the defensive end of the floor. That single statistic ignores a great deal of important context. Similarly, assist totals are a function of how certain players are used in different offensive systems, the skill level of their teammates, and the pace at which the team operates.
The NBA is also becoming dominated by scoring point guards like it's never been before. Almost every single important rule change that has been made over the past 15 years or so has favored the offense, particularly ball handlers. The results are becoming more and more apparent with each passing season. Rather than dribbling at the top of the key as other guys run complicated sets, point guards are able to get their own shots or play off the ball. The result is a sharp rise in their usage rates, and slight declines in assist per game totals.
The following chart shows the point guards who played the most minutes for each of the eight conference semifinalists in 1994-95 and 2004-05, as well as the point guards for the top four teams in the East and West in 2014-15:
Notice how dramatically the usage rates increase and how assist per game totals have slowly declined. Keep in mind, too, that the pace is significantly higher in 2014-15 than it was 10 or 20 years ago, meaning that there are more possessions available for point guards to rack up assists nowadays, and yet they aren't. Has it spelled doom for NBA offenses with such "ball hogs" running the show? Hardly. Offensive numbers haven't been this efficient and fast-paced since the run-and-gun (read also: crappy defense) style of the early 90s.
Teams that win titles don't need "pure" point guards either. Just two of the past 20 Finals MVPs - Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker - have played point guard, and the last time the league's assists per game leader won a ring was 1987. And that was Magic Johnson. That's more important than any single statistic is having dynamic, creative ball handlers, either at point guard or at one of the wings, which brings me to my next point.
LeBron James is one of the most statistically unique players in the history of the league. Since he's played alongside LeBron, Kyrie's assist rate and raw assist totals have dropped, which puzzles some people, but isn't too complex to understand. James is a ball dominant wing who is an exceptional passer, but gets a good chunk of his own offense driving to the hoop off the dribble or in transition. There are only so many assist opportunities to go around, LeBron uses many of them, and Kyrie isn't likely to assist LeBron due to his playing style.
Despite all of that, if you plug in some of Irving's 2014-15 numbers, some very interesting comparable seasons pop up. Since 1977, 36 players have done what Kyrie is doing this year, which is to average 22 points and five assists on a 25 percent usage rate while accounting for at least 24 percent of his team's assists while he is on the floor. Perusing the list is like looking at a veritable who's who of great shooting guards and small forwards over the past four decades, from Pistol Pete to Michael Jordan to Allen Iverson to Kobe Bryant to Dwyane Wade to (of course) LeBron James.
There are several point guards on the list as well, including some that just about everyone, even the trolliest trolls on the interwebs, would consider synonymous with what a point guard "really" is:
Zeke, Magic, KJ, the Glove and CP3 are pretty good company, right? The presence of Baron Davis is kind of unexpected (it's easy to forget how good a healthy, young, motivated Baron could be) but then the list skips to four of the finest point guards of the present day: D-Rose, Russ, Steph, and Kyrie. It's odd that Rose, Westbrook and Irving are all accused of "not being real point guards" in light of their predecessors. They both score and assist teammates at a high rate; what's the fuss about, exactly?
The critic may point out that Kyrie's raw assist numbers and assist percentage are by far the lowest on the above table, but keep in mind he plays with LeBron James... who has ELEVEN 22/ 5 / 25% usage / 24% AST% seasons to his name, the most in league history. If you search for Irving's pre-LeBron numbers (21 / 5 / 28% usage / 30% ASt%) the list gets even more exclusive and includes just prime Tony Parker, Derrick Rose and Steph Curry at the point guard position.
Irving's adjustment to playing with LeBron has been fantastic. As Justin Rowan pointed out on the most recent Fear the Sword podcast, Kyrie's the only one of the "Big Three" who seems to have made the most seamless transition to their new offensive system. Are there criticisms to be made about his game? Sure. But he's a point guard, plain and simple.
The expectations for what a point guard "is" and "does" have changed over the past couple of decades, and if anyone is still clinging to antiquated definitions, that's their problem. So if you find yourself dealing with a troll on this matter, take heart, because statistics, as well as the unstoppable evolution of the game, are on your side.