It's been a quiet year for Kyrie Irving. The Cleveland Cavaliers weathered his absence early in the year quite well, and were comfortably the East's top team while he recovered from knee surgery. For the first time since his rookie season, he missed the NBA's showcase All-Star game. His return coincided with the release of his second signature Nike shoe, which seems to have been well-received. Still, the All-Star version of the shoe was mothballed after Kyle Lowry rode the twitter votes of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to a starting gig.
In the meantime, Irving still seems to be a magnet for criticism. The defense, the injuries, the dribbling. When the Cavs offense goes stagnant, Irving tends to take a significant brunt of the blame. This makes sense, except for one small detail: the Cavs' offense is usually pretty darn good when Irving plays.
Irving joined Stephen Curry last season as the only players in the NBA to use at least 26% of their team's possessions, record an excellent true shooting rate north of 58%, and maintain an assist to turnover ratio of better than 2 to 1, so you'd be forgiven for assuming Irving would get a bit more leeway. Adding to that the fact that he recorded over 2700 regular season minutes and played in 75 games, it's a bit surprising that his value would be in question at all. And yet here we are.
How has Irving been this season? Is the consternation surrounding his play justified? Where can he get better? Let's dive in.
Irving's role in the offense
The offense functions exceedingly well when Kyrie Irving is on the floor. In 855 minutes played with Irving, the Cavs are scoring 113.1 points per 100 possessions. The next highest on the Cavs is LeBron James at 111 points per 100 possessions. For context, the Golden State Warriors offense is scoring 112.5 points per 100 possessions on the season.
This isn't to say that Irving is directly responsible for all of the Cavs' offensive success when he's on the floor. LeBron James is having an incredible season, and Kevin Love has settled into an elite role player plus, which might make for some awkward moments, but has worked for the team. J.R. Smith struggled without Irving in the early part of the season, but has been very good since the clock struck 2016.
Alternatively, though, it does seem to indicate that arguments Irving is holding the offense back lack any particular merit. Irving, Love, and James have picked up right where they left off last season. In 552 minutes playing together, the Cavs are scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions. Take out Mozgov's minutes with the Big 3, and the numbers are even more impressive. Per NBAwowy.com, the Cavs are scoring 121.6 points per 100 possessions in 416 minutes with Irving, James, and Love, and no Mozgov. Without having played one in a half decade or so, I'm forced to make an educated guess that these are video game numbers.
So in terms of playing off of James and Love, it seems that Irving is doing just fine. And his individual numbers back up the notion that he's a high-level offensive player. Irving's usage and assists rates have gone up from last season, and his already minuscule turnover rate has dropped as well. That's pretty hard to do. After a brutal start shooting the ball, he's starting to recover there. His 54.4 true shooting rate is comfortably above league average, and doing it on a usage rate of his level is impressive. And while there is a constant focus on Irving's assist totals, his assist to turnover ratio of 2.34 is elite.
Only five players in the NBA match the arbitrary statistical thresholds of having a usage rate over 28%, a true shooting rate over 54%, and an assist to turnover ratio of better than 2.1 to 1: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas, and Damian Lillard. It's a good group to be with. Per basketball-reference, Irving's true shooting rate is at 57.2% over his last 17 games. If Irving stabilizes at a number close to his career 55.7%, the Cavs will take that. He's still shooting just 29.9% from three point range despite being a career 38% shooter from distance. He's likely to regress a bit from midrange, but his threes should help him.
Irving's value to the Cavs offensively is amplified by his effect on LeBron James. This season (and it mirrors the previous one) James' offensive load is considerably lighter when paired with Irving. With Irving off the court due to injury or rest, James uses 34.3% of the Cavs' possessions. With Irving on the court, though, James' usage goes all the way down to 25.5%. As James gets older, reducing the burden on his game will be supremely important. Having a player like Irving who has shown he can lead a high-efficiency offense in his prime is a nice jump-start.
The Cavs' defense has been steadily giving up more points per 100 possessions since mid December when Irving came back, and some of that is likely a function of Kyrie Irving's inconsistent defense. It's better than it was in his first three years in the league, but he remains inconsistent navigating screens. The Cavs putting Kevin Love as the big trying to defend the pick and roll with Irving remains problematic. That being said, there have been times in which Tyronn Lue has given Irving credit the way he's defended, and Irving continues to say the right things about it being a focus.
I'm not a fan of really any defensive metrics, but let's take a look at what we have. ESPN's Real Plus-Minus ranks Irving as the 38th of 78 point guards defensively (he's the fifth best point guard offensively, according to the metric). His backup, Matthew Dellavedova, has proven to be a very solid defensive guard in minutes just under what you'd give a starter. For the season, the Cavs give up 101 points per 100 possessions. With Irving on the floor, that number jumps up to 104.1 points per 100 possessions.
Since Irving came back on December 20th, that 104.1 figure put in the context of the rest of the NBA would put the Cavs at 14th in the NBA. Not good, but Irving isn't exactly sinking the defense. Irving is just one player, there's been some regression for LeBron James on that end as well. As you'll see towards the end of the article, it hasn't been impossible to put Irving in lineups that do very well defensively. Despite this, it seems that the smartest criticisms of Irving would still be predicated around his defense.
Where Irving can get better with his teammates
There's a classic scene in the classic film Bull Durham where the young Nuke Laloosh is told by Kevin Costner's Crash Davis that he should stop accumulating so many strikeouts. Laloosh is understandably confused, so Costner explains that strikeouts are undemocratic, and in fact fascist.
The idea is that strikeouts don't keep the whole team involved. They're boring. Now, it's a funny movie. It's a joke. Baseball's sabermetricians have affirmed the value of strikeouts, and Crash Davis had other goals. But the scene reminds me of Irving's role with his teammates. Yes, he's an efficient scorer. Yes, he is a good passer that very rarely turns it over. He can get where ever he wants on the court. It's hard for these things to be bad for an offense.
At the same time, basketball requires synergy with teammates on a completely different level than that of baseball. Irving's teammates do spend a lot of time watching him dribble. Irving does miss open teammates. That might have effects that are both quantifiable (Kevin Love's counting stats) and unquantifiable. Do his teammates enjoy playing with him? Do they like to watch him dribble? Do they want more shots? Does the lack of involvement in the offense lead to less defensive intensity?
It's possible questions like that are a problem for the Cavs, though it's hard to say how much or to what degree. Players are human after all. Irving and Love have only played 74 minutes together without LeBron James, which is an insanely low number. You'd hope the Cavs would give those guys run when James sits, but that hasn't been the strategy.
However, Irving lineups without James have been incredibly good. In 198 minutes the Cavs are still scoring an elite 111.8 points, and giving up just 98.3 points per 100 possessions. That's even crazier when you take into account that on the season the Cavs are outscored by 6.2 points/100 possessions when LeBron sits. Irving can absolutely get better at picking his spots on when to attack and when to defer. But it's hard to look at the numbers and conclude anything other than that he's been tremendous this season for the Cavs.
Stats courtesy of nba.com/stats unless otherwise attributed.