One of the biggest points of contention when it comes to the game of Kyrie Irving has been his play-making, or the lack thereof. Since entering the league, Irving’s biggest gift has been his ability to provide efficient volume scoring and create his own shot. While he will never play the game like John Wall, there has been substantial growth this season from Irving in the play-making department. Growth that has largely flown under the radar.
Irving apologists, such as myself, have argued that using him as a traditional point guard would be a waste of his talents. He is arguably a top five scorer in the league, and his pre-LeBron teammates didn’t exactly provide a multitude of assist opportunities.
The team briefly had success in his fourth season after the departure of Andrew Bynum. The team went .500 after the Bynum trade, partly because it helped surround Irving with floor spacing for the first time in his career. C.J. Miles, Luol Deng, as well as Spencer Hawes helped create room for Irving; who recorded a career high 6.1 assists per game that season.
But while the numbers were up, the decision making was still relatively immature. Irving struggled with his efficiency that season, partly as a result of indecision. Under the coaching of Mike Brown, he improved his defensive play as well as increased his assist numbers, but would appear passive at times. High assist games would come at the expense of his point totals, and occasionally felt like a silent protest.
Reads weren’t being made within the flow of the offense, and Irving struggled as a result. This indecision and lack of awareness didn’t end there. There was an adjustment period for Irving when learning to play alongside LeBron James. No longer the primary initiator of the offense, Irving had to improve his ability to play off ball. When tasked with being an off-ball scorer, scoring would occasionally become his only focus. On a team that lacked play-making, sometimes they needed more than just his efficient high-volume scoring.
This isn’t to say that Irving wasn’t an effective player. On the contrary, Irving had the best year of his career to that point. But there were visible growing pains and an increased level of scrutiny on his deficiencies as a play-maker.
When you come into the league as polished as Irving was as a scorer, the improvements made can often be harder to track. It’s easy to see a player without a jumper add a three point shot by looking at a boon in three point percentage. It’s not as easy to statistically track maturity, and an increase in court vision.
This season started off in a way that wouldn’t surprise many. Averaging a career-best 24.5 points per game in October and November, Irving’s assist totals dropped to 4.5 per game. It seemed as though the Cavs had embraced Irving taking over as a primary scorer, and letting LeBron preserve himself.
During that time, Irving averaged 9.6 potential assists per game. That was up from 8.6 potential assists per game last season, which shouldn't be surprising considering he was playing about two minutes more per game.
In December we began to see the true evolution of Irving. His assists per game skyrocketed to 7.8 in the month. Over that time his points per game dropped to 23.2. Both figures would be career highs for him.
In January, his points per game were up to 25.5, while his assists went down to 5.2 to game. In February his points held steady at 25.4 per game, while recording 7.1 assists per game.
This is what improvement looks like. Since November, Irving is generating 12.6 potential assists per game. As a frame of reference, LeBron created 13.2 potential assists per game last season. He's doing this while playing off ball alongside one of the most gifted passers ever, while averaging a career high in points per game.
On the year, Irving is generating 11.8 potential assists per game. This puts him ahead of Isaiah Thomas (11.7), Damian Lillard (11), Kemba Walker (11.3), and Steph Curry (11). With the exception of Curry, everybody else is the primary initiator in their offense, unlike Irving.
When the improvement comes from within the margins, it can appear as though a player’s growth has become stagnated. In Irving’s case, what we’ve seen this season has been his evolution towards becoming a floor general. The days of deciding on it being a scoring or passing possession ahead of time have mostly become a distant memory. Irving is seeing the floor with an increased sense of maturity, and learning to manipulate a defense to create for others.
Coming into last season, Irving worked on his pull-up and floater game to make him more unpredictable to a defender, as well as limit the contact he takes at the rim. This season his work in the film room to improve his vision has helped make him increasingly dangerous.
At the end of February, Irving is averaging a career high 24.6 points per game, while averaging 6 assists per game, just shy of his career best mark of 6.1 assists per game. He is finding balance in his game to help make his teammates better, while also becoming a more lethal scorer.
As LeBron James continues to age, this development is crucial for Irving. Without James on the floor, Irving has a usage rate of 41.3 and an assist percentage of 44.7 percent per NBAwowy. Not only that, 194 of Irving’s 428 minutes without LeBron on the floor have come without Kevin Love either. While the team has a net rating of -4 in those minutes, it helps Love and James get valuable rest without losing much ground. Add Love to the equation, and the team has a +2 net rating.
For a shallow, flawed team that’s dealt with it’s fair share of injuries, Irving shouldering that load is very valuable. The stellar play of the big three all season has helped hide the flaws of the roster. But with the additions of Kyle Korver, Deron Williams, and the looming return of J.R. Smith, the Cavs may finally be able to ease the pressure off their stars while reaching another gear as a team.
While playing with LeBron brings an increased level of scrutiny, Irving has handled those pressures with poise and continued to improve his game. While his growth may fly under the radar for some, it doesn’t make it less valuable to the Cavaliers.
The beauty of basketball is that there are many ways to win. The Cavaliers won the championship one way last season, but continue to look to improve in order to maintain success. Increased ball movement has made their isolation attacks more menacing and have helped keep everybody involved.
It’s clear that Irving is absorbing the valuable lessons that LeBron is able to teach him. He’s made improvements to his conditioning, and style of play to help make him more durable. He’s also learned how to add play-making to make him a more lethal scorer.
Irving received much ridicule for his recent theories, including the shape of the Earth. But what was lost in all the hysteria was his expressed desire to achieve freedom of thought and balance in his life. As he strives for balance off the court, that has translated to the game of basketball with increased maturity and poise.
As Irving said himself:
But now, there is a certain aspect of life in which I want to tell people about, which is this true journey of really becoming a complete individual and total freedom of thought.
Whatever beliefs Irving has are ultimately meaningless. His growth has been meaningful and has yielded great results for himself on a personal level, as well as team success. While some narratives still remain, Irving is a much different player than the 21 year old LeBron chose to join in the summer of 2014.