Kyrie Irving was perhaps the most consistently enjoyable feature of the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2014-15 season. Coming off a season in which he failed to connect with former coach Mike Brown, or former shooting guard Dion Waiters (at least on the court), and which saw several of his shooting numbers stumble, there were a lot of questions about the 22 year old point guard. He had just signed a massive maximum contract extension. His defense improved, sometimes, but was still far from where you'd want it to be. The Cavs didn't have the personnel to cover it up.
More uncertainty was added, though I can think of no better uncertainty. LeBron James returned, and many spent the summer and training camp wondering just how the two would fit together. Irving had struggled with the ball-dominant Waiters and Jarrett Jack; would James be the same?
While Irving is still far from a defensive plus, he lived up to his promise as an elite offensive force, and in fact excelled next to LeBron James. He played in 75 games, made All-NBA third team, and was the only NBA player to drop 50 or more points in a game more than one time over the course of the season. His efforts against the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs were all-time performances.
He plays a fun breed of basketball. His ballhandling ability cannot be described as pointless, as he was perhaps the NBA's best isolation player. No one in the league with over 200 isolation possessions scored more than his 1.09 points per possession. His shooting helps him fit into any offensive role, even when he doesn't have the ball. After some tough love from LeBron James, his distributing stepped up a notch.
In short, he became one of the game's premier scoring guards. Two NBA players used 24% or more of their team's possessions while on the court and boasted an assist to turnover ratio of better than 2:1 and a true shooting rate of over 58: Kyrie Irving, and Stephen Curry. He averaged 21.7 points per game on 47/42/86 shooting and handed out over five assists per outing.
The team scored 111 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the court, an elite number that would have ranked first in the NBA for the season had he never left the court. Of course, that's not all on Irving; he plays with LeBron James and Kevin Love. But coming in to the season, there was cause to wonder if he made his team or teammates better. When Irving and James shared the court, the Cavs scored a blistering 113.4 points per 100 possessions, a sample size of over 1800 minutes.
So the question is, as Irving gets ready for his age-23 season: can he keep this up? Shooting numbers are among the most volatile statistical output that gets measured from basketball games. Irving is now a career 39% three point shooter, which is very good, but shot 35.8% from distance just a year ago. Can he shoot 41.5% again? A year ago at this time, Trevor Magnotti was wondering about why Kyrie Irving's catch and shoot numbers were so bad. The folks at Nylon Calculus have come up with the number 750 to describe just how many three point attempts it takes to know for sure what kind of shooter you're dealing with. Irving has taken less than 1200 in his career.
We can reasonably guess that Irving enjoys getting set up by LeBron James. The year prior, the Cavalier who assisted on the most Kyrie Irving makes was Anderson Varejao. That's insane. James took over that spot this year, and Kevin Love and Matthew Dellavedova were helpful as well. So it makes some basketball sense that Irving's catch and shoot numbers from three point range jumped over 10% per SportsVU numbers available on NBA.com.
Can Irving match the 46.6% numbers on catch and shoot threes that he put up last season? Can he play 75 games again while trying to take his defense up a notch? It's possible that Mo Williams will be able to lessen the load he must carry on offense. It's been years since Williams was in a situation where he could defer to talents like James and Kevin Love (and Irving). If James is healthier, and if Kevin Love's role in the offense is a bit more seamless, Irving may be able to expend less energy. As all three gain trust in one another, you may see Irving's assist numbers tick up.
Offensively, it's difficult to overstate Irving's value if he is an elite shooter, as he was last season. He doesn't turn it over often, he can beat you off the dribble, and he's willing to defer. Over nearly 1200 three point attempts, he's been a 39% three point shooter, and shown he can play with LeBron James. As Irving becomes comfortable with his status as one of the NBA's best scorers, he might be willing to step back even more.
At this point, though, the Cavs might not want him to.
All stats courtesy of nba.com/stats.