On the whole, the 2016-2017 season was a tremendously successful one for Kyrie Irving. After the previous season was essentially a write-off as he recorded from knee surgery, we once again were able to see a year of growth from him. He even managed to stay relatively healthy coming off a long championship run, and a busy summer with an Olympic gold medal.
With improved health came a lot of career best numbers for Irving. Including points per game (25.2), field goal percentage (47.3), and free throw percentage (90.5). He also shot 40.1 percent from the three point line and increased his assists per game to 5.8.
Irving’s growth as a passer was one of his biggest developments this season. He generated 11.3 potential assists per game on the year, which is up 8.9 the previous year. The recognition of these opportunities helped him become less predictable offensively and helped him achieve his best offensive season of his career.
However Irving’s overall role didn’t change too much this season. Rather, he just added a few wrinkles to his game and improved within the margins. With LeBron James on the court, he still primarily functions as a scorer. He assisted on 24.6 percent of his teammates field goals with LeBron on the court this season, up from 20.7 last season. When LeBron sat, Irving assisted on 45.3 percent of his teammates field goals, up from 40.2 percent the previous year.
By all accounts, Irving had a terrific regular season. But with him the biggest question has been his ability to impact the game in ways other than scoring. His floor as a player is already at an All-Star level. But it’s his ability to potentially outplay any point guard in the league over a playoff series that is so important to the Cavs.
To start the playoffs, Irving struggled significantly offensively. He wasn’t able to find the range on his jumper and there was speculation that his late season knee pain was still a factor.
But while his shot wasn’t falling, we got to see a side of Irving’s game that wasn’t present before. We saw him find ways to still be a net positive without his typical efficient scoring.
The best example of this was the Cavs second round series against the Toronto Raptors. For the series, Irving averaged 22.3 points and 8.5 assists per game shooting 37.5 percent from the floor and 36 percent from three. Recognizing his shot wasn’t falling, we saw Irving facilitate more without becoming passive offensively. He took the shots he should take, regardless of the results, and didn’t force the issue.
In the past, when Irving would try to accumulate assists he would neglect his offensive game. He would force passes and look disengaged on offense. That wasn’t the case here and the team benefited as a result. Irving was a team high plus-73 in that series, even ahead of LeBron at plus-67.
Of course, there was no shortage of playoff heroics from Irving during the playoffs.
With LeBron in foul trouble, Irving kept the Cavs in it and reduced the deficit by the time halftime rolled around. The Cavs were at risk of falling to 2-2 against the Celtics, but Irving stepped up when they needed them. Including an incredible 21 points in the third quarter to give the Cavs the lead.
After two rough games to start the 2017 Finals, Irving responded with 78 points in games 3 & 4 to help give the Cavs a chance to extend the series:
The high watermarks from Irving show off the potential to enter the conversation of best point guards in the league. But it’s his ability to consistently play at that level that may determine the ceiling of this team moving forward.
In the playoffs opponents shot 2.7 percent worse than expected with Irving guarding them. In the regular season they shot 5.2 percent better than expected. Nobody is expecting Irving to transform into Gary Payton, but he has shown the ability to be a passable defender and sometimes even make a positive impact on that end.
It can feel hard to hold Irving accountable for a lack of effort when that is the signature trait of this team in the regular season. But as a 24-year-old, during the season it’s on him to set the tone and bring life to the team. With limited resources at the Cavs disposal, one of the best ways to close the gap between them and the Warriors is Irving taking the leap to full-time top-tier point guard.
In order for that leap to happen, it will take a concentrated effort from both the team and Irving. Without rehab or Olympics taking up his summer, Irving has the opportunity to rest up and work on his game; something he hasn’t had in over three years.
From the coaching staff, there will need to be an increased emphasis on building offensive sets around Irving and putting him in positions to succeed.
In the 632 minutes Irving played without James this season, only 312 of those came with Kevin Love on the floor. His most frequent teammates in these situations were Tristan Thompson (420 mins), Iman Shumpert (408 mins), and Richard Jefferson (392 mins). Injuries and a shallow rotation forced the teams hand to some extent, but the numbers point to not a lot of support for Irving in those minutes.
Despite little shooting around him, Irving managed a true shooting percentage 58.3 in these minutes with a usage rate of 41.8. As previously mentioned, he assisted on 45.3 percent of his teammates field goals during these minutes as well.
But for the Cavs to be successful moving forward, they are going to need to find ways to maximize what Irving brings to the table when LeBron sits. The individual brilliance hasn’t translated to team success. With LeBron and Kyrie together the team has a 117.5 ORTG, yet that number drops to 103.1 when LeBron sits.
Whether the answer is putting more shooting around Irving in those minutes, developing more sets that revolve around him initiating the offense, or playing him with Kevin Love (or another All-Star) more when LeBron sits. Irving has shown the willingness and ability to play as a more traditional point guard in these minutes over the past few seasons. Now it’s time for the team to put him in a position to succeed.
You can’t expect a player to grow without practice. Without an emphasis put on developing Irving to the point where he can carry a team, it’s unreasonable to expect him to do anything other than work on getting better in his current role. Once the opportunity is there, it becomes his responsibility to make the best out of that opportunity.
Whether it be in an expanding role, or becoming more consistent in his existing one, Irving’s growth is one of the most important Cavs story-lines moving forward. He already is one of the best point guards in the league, but at 25 years old now is the time for him to take the leap and truly become one of the league’s elite point guards.