It's a brand new Kyrie Irving this season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. His struggles last year were always overplayed, but this is the first time since Irving's first season as a professional that you can see the fun that he is having. The Cavaliers' wins over the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors since coming back from a shoulder strain are a microcosm of the season Irving has put together. He was hyper efficient, scoring 44 points on 27 shots. He handed out 13 assists to just four turnovers, and his usage rate of 25% is healthy without dominating the offense or interfering with what LeBron James does.
After the blowout win Tuesday against the Celtics, the media filed into the Cavs locker room. Irving's locker is nestled in between J.R. Smith (who had told Allie Clifton that this was the most fun he's had in the NBA) and Iman Shumpert. It's easy to forget that Irving is the baby in the Cavs' locker room, the youngest player on the team. Smith and Shumpert, though, made it readily apparent, giving Irving the good-natured grief 1000's of older brothers give younger brothers every day. Irving smiled through it all, trying to give it back as best he could.
The smile. You just didn't see it that often when Irving was struggling through losing seasons with the Cavs, going about his business, trying to get better, trying to make it work, all too often seeing it fail. He's at ease, he's having fun. And he's playing phenomenal basketball. One reason why? He's picking his spots, and once he does, he's incredibly aggressive.
Once Irving finally told Smith and Shumpert to "Let me live! Let me live!" and addressed the media, he talked about the importance of the last 20 games on playoff preparation and staying focused and being consistent, Fear the Sword asked him about one area of his game that has stood out: he's taking less midrange jumpers.
The chart above doesn't tell us anything about whether or not Kyrie Irving makes shots or not. They simply tell us what shots he is taking at all. Last season, a full 36.1% of his shots were two point shots outside the paint. In today's NBA where the three point shot and driving ability are celebrated more than ever, it was less than ideal. Irving was still really good offensively once he survived a November slump, but it wasn't the best way for him to be scoring.
Fast forward to this season.
Irving's answer for Fear the Sword attempting to explain this phenomenon:
"I feel like it’s just trusting what’s going on out there. On every pick and roll obviously I would love to stay in the paint everytime. I don’t know if it’s maturity or just the shots that I’m getting now … but I feel like going downhill and getting my teammates involved and seeing the weakside come, because I draw so much attention in the paint and obviously if the midrange shot is there I’m going to take it but as I continue to progress as a basketball player I’m just trying to be aggressive and if it’s there it’s there and if not I can pass it to one of my teammates."
It could be any number of factors leading to this. The Cavaliers' spacing is infinitely better, so when he comes around picks the lane probably looks a lot more clear for drives. He has more trust in his teammates and might be passing off a bit more. David Blatt's offense, with the shooters the Cavaliers have, seems to emphasize three point attempts, particularly in catch and shoot situations.
Kyrie's more judicious decision-making when considering pulling up from midrange appears to be paying off a bit. He's shooting 47.2% on two point shots outside of the paint this season, a full 7.1% better than league average. It may not be the most efficient shot for most of the league, but Irving gets about as close to making it one for him as a guard really can. And it's worth pointing out that you don't need to be a new-age stats guru to understand three pointers and drives tend to lead to better offensive outcomes. People have known this for years. Defenses are geared towards encouraging midrange jump shots. For Irving, knocking down the shot is an important tool in his arsenal. There simply isn't a place in the halfcourt that the defense can lose Kyrie, even for a moment.
As Irving says, this might be an area where the 22 year old is simply maturing and growing and learning. And if that's still a process that's going on, the NBA is on notice.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats