Discussing the 2015-16 season for Kyrie Irving is not an easy one, as the recovery from knee surgery forced Irving to be limited in terms of the minutes he was able to play at the start of the year, as well his ability to space the floor from deep.
While his range was impacted post surgery, he still managed to maintain overall production in-line with what he's done for his career when you look at his per 36 numbers.
While the three point shot hadn't returned to until playoffs, the step back this season that was most noticeable was on the defensive end of the floor. While last season he had improved as a defender to the point where he could be considered average overall, it was clear that he was simply not exerting the same energy on that end of the floor.
As Irving admitted himself, he was playing his way back into shape throughout the season and his energy was allocated primarily to offense. His effective field goal percentage in catch and shoot situations for the season was down to 51.9 percent, from 65.4 percent last season.
While Irving's struggles were occasionally used as an indictment on how good he was, as well as how he fit with the team, his ability to reduce the workload for James (usage rate of 28.7 with Irving on, 35.8 with him off) as well of the rest of the team was significant as they prepared for a playoff run.
Playing with James comes with extra scrutiny. The assist totals of Irving were put under a microscope once again, forgetting to factor that he played on a minute restriction for over a month this season and once again was playing off ball while James was on the court. As you can see with his per-36 numbers, his assists per game were up. When James was off the court, Irving was actually in the top-10 for point guards in assist percentage. But as Irving tried to get his rhythm back, it's hard to deny that there were times where he would try to force the issue more than he did last year and that lead to some poor team basketball.
Once April came around, Irving started to show the return of his three ball, shooting 42.3 percent from behind the arc in the final five games of the season.
Against the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs, Irving was masterful, averaging 27.2 points and 4.8 assists per game on 47.1 percent shooting from the floor and 47.1 percent from behind the arc. In doing this he became only the second teammate of LeBron James to ever outscore him in a playoff series. The Irving/James duo continued their devastating run throughout the playoffs and ultimately achieved their goal of bringing a championship to Northeastern Ohio.
Irving's final playoff numbers were stellar, averaging 25.2 points and 4.7 assists on 47.5 percent shooting from the floor and 44 percent shooting from three. Irving struggled in the first two games of the NBA Finals to adjust to the incredible defense the Warriors were playing. But from Game 3 on, Irving made the necessary adjustments and was able to impose his will regardless of who the defender was. It all lead to his incredible Game 5 that James described as one of the greatest Finals performances he's ever seen.
Irving just turned 24 years old before the playoffs and has now earned the trust of LeBron James. He's starting to grow and mature as a player, but he showed that he is good enough to be a large contributor on a championship team already. The next steps are going to determine whether or not he can validate James' statement that he can be an MVP in this league and the best point guard in the association. Time will tell, but the way Irving was able to shake off the frustration of battling back from knee surgery, shooting struggles, make the necessary adjustments throughout the playoffs and play some of the best two-way basketball of his career speaks to his character and drive.
It felt like this might be a lost year in terms of development, and if you look at the regular season it was. But Irving found a way to dig deep and silence a lot of the hate that was directed his way. The sky is the limit with him, but he is now a champion and in the eyes of many is back on track to becoming an elite point guard in this league.