Kyrie Irving has had a controversial season this year for the Cavaliers.
He's had his playmaking called into question by both the media and teammates, and remains not the most stalwart defender.
Still, Kyrie had the propensity to pound the rock and absorb a healthy amount of possessions last year, and nobody would describe him as Gary Payton-esque on the defensive end then either.
So what's changed for Kyrie? He was lauded last season for his ability to take pressure off of LeBron James and is now the perceived cause for the Cavaliers stagnation.
It certainly hasn't been about easing the load for LeBron, which Kyrie is still doing. Per NBAwowy.com, LeBron's usage percentage has been 35.4 with Kyrie on the bench. With Kyrie on the floor, it's down to a much more reasonable 28.
It turns out that the real change for Kyrie has been an inability to recapture last season's magic from beyond the arc.
These difference between these numbers is pretty stark, and that's even accounting for a significant improvement in Kyrie's stroke since the All-Star break.
My first reaction to these numbers, as yours should be, was,
"Wow, Kyrie Irving was shooting hot, hot fire out of his hands for the entirety of 2014-15."
And that's true. Some of these numbers are bonkers. His 47.1 percent on threes with defenders within 0-4 feet was on nearly two attempts per game, which is astonishingly high. After pounding the hell out of the rock, he was making his threes at 44.1 percent of the time on 1.1 such attempts per game.
In tight spaces against defenses that were locked in, Kyrie was magnificent, and it just hasn't translated over.
Clearly his catch-and-shoot numbers are recovering, though not quite to the astonishing heights they were, at least, season, but his pull-up game still needs work.
His low percentage on threes where he's pounded the rock is likely the source of frustration. Smart fans love to say that they value process over results, but when those ridiculous shots are going in at the rate they did last season, they're a lot easier to stomach. Now that Kyrie is down to making just 1-5 of those shots? Let's just say the Twitterverse isn't having it.
Luckily, Kyrie's been able to mitigate his shaky three-point stroke by lighting it up from midrange. Here's a shot chart since the All-Star break:
As you can see, he's taking significantly more shots from midrange at in the key, but not all the way at the rim. Defenses in the NBA do a nice job of taking away the paint, so Kyrie has been forced to settle for shots that are a little reminiscent of Mo Williams before Irving came back.
Once again, he's certainly making them at a more-than-acceptable rate, but you just can't score as efficiently from midrange as he was from three last year.
He's actually putting up more threes per 36 minutes than he was last season, but you sense hesitation to fire away on shots he seemed to relish taking last year.
On the first play, LeBron whips the ball to Irving in the left corner with plenty of room to fire. Instead, Irving half-heartedly pump fakes before deciding to take a contested step back from 17 feet out.
On play two, Irving's defender goes waaaaay under the screen, providing an ample opportunity to fire away. Unfortunately, the percentages don't bear that move out at the moment, so Kyrie takes a page out of Elfrid Payton, Rajon Rondo and hundreds of non-shooting guards' books by snaking the screen and using it twice to free up space. He ultimately finds a little room, but Jusuf Nurkic blocks the ball into oblivion.
This play isn't inherently bad, but it's the kind of play that optically just doesn't look great. He's pounding the rock, using a screen over and over again without looking for the pass. Also, it'd look a hell of a lot better if it were a 3-point attempt that dropped through the net.
On play three, Kyrie finds space on a switch, and again, instead of firing away, he takes a step into where he's more comfortable. He makes the shot, but again, a long two is just not as effective as a three.
The key here is not to imply that Kyrie has not been effective, or unhelpful to the Cavaliers offense. It's been quite the contrary. He's averaged 20.6 points, 4.4 assists on 56.2 true shooting percentage. The Cavs have scored 114.6 points per possession with him on the floor and 108.9 points per possession with him on the bench.
He's very, very good. The difference is that he's not as insane as he was last year, which makes his bad habits look worse. As he continues to regain his form coming off his fractured kneecap, the Cavs should expect his numbers continue to rise, even if they don't hit the ridiculous peak they were at in 2014-15.
It sounds dumb to say that for Kyrie just needs to shoot better to turn around the perceptions of him this season, it's probably true.
In fairness, it's probably true for the rest of the Cavaliers. Chris Manning took a deep dive into Kevin Love's extended shooting slump, and LeBron's woes from distance have been well established. This team shot the cover off the ball during the stretch they went 32-3 last season, and unless their stars can regain the form they showed, it's just simply going to limit their ceiling.
Irving has not fundamentally changed as a player as compared to last year when we were all slobbering all over him. He's just not making as many shots.