All through Kyrie Irving’s many basketball hiatuses over time — whether or not on account of accidents, refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine or, most lately, suspension for selling an anti-Semitic documentary — the mercurial star’s on-court brilliance has hardly ever been questioned. Contemporaries have usually known as him probably the most expert participant within the historical past of the NBA, with some going as far to say he ranks among the many league’s 75 finest gamers ever. And watching Irving definitely leaves you dazzled: You’d be hard-pressed to discover a extra maddening cowl on protection, outfitted with an arsenal of how-did-he-think-of-that strikes and the slipperiness to evade even the rangiest and most dedicated of stoppers.
However Irving’s standing because the darling of basketball aesthetes in every single place has obscured his general contributions to successful basketball — even within the uncommon instances when he’s on the ground. On a per-possession foundation, Irving has cracked the highest 25 of FiveThirtyEight’s regular-season Complete RAPTOR metric simply as soon as since arriving in Brooklyn for the 2019-20 season, and in his profession he’s reached that benchmark fewer instances (4) than he’s fallen exterior of it (5). For a participant whose observable talent set has lengthy confounded the superior metrics, it’s becoming that RAPTOR sees Irving’s impression in a different way than the standard knowledge does:
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The obvious perpetrator for Irving’s less-impressive-than-expected numbers right here is his protection. Listed at 6-foot-2, 195 kilos, Irving has all the time been a straightforward goal for opposing offenses to hunt, and he’s been a net-negative on that finish for all however one yr of his profession in the course of the player-tracking period. Although his defensive impression has trended upward with every successive season in Brooklyn, his numbers stay woefully below-average for a participant of his caliber and place: Final season, Irving’s negative-0.9 defensive RAPTOR ranked forty first out of 72 level guards who performed not less than 1,000 regular-season minutes, and he’s been an above-average defender at his place in only one season of his 12-year profession.
It’s a credit score to Irving’s enchancment on that finish that he not ranks among the many very worst defenders within the league — his 2016-17 defensive efficiency ranks Thirteenth-worst among the many 652 qualifying guard-seasons since 2013-14 — however he nonetheless lags behind his friends in that regard. Examine that to the oft-maligned protection of Warriors guard Stephen Curry, whom RAPTOR has seen as a net-positive defender in all however three years since 2013-14.
However whereas Irving’s protection has normally left one thing to be desired, it’s hardly the only cause for this obvious disconnect between his fame and observable impression on the sport of basketball. (In any case, no person has ever accused Kyrie of being a lockdown defender.) Even on offense, as you’ll discover from the desk above, Irving has by no means persistently ascended to the league’s higher echelon throughout his skilled profession.
Whereas he’s completed among the many prime 5 a few instances (2014-15 and 2018-19), Irving’s finest season by offensive RAPTOR — 2016-17, during which he recorded a plus-6.3 and sniffed a spot within the coveted 50-40-90 membership — ranks as simply the Twenty ninth-best per-possession offensive efficiency by a degree guard since 2013-14 and the Thirty seventh-best general, whereas his 2020-21 marketing campaign (which noticed him truly file that 50-40-90) ranks thirty eighth and 54th, respectively. Curry (seven instances), Chris Paul (5), James Harden (5), Damian Lillard (4), Russell Westbrook (twice), Trae Younger (twice), Kyle Lowry (as soon as) and even Isaiah Thomas (as soon as) all posted extra impactful offensive seasons than Irving throughout this time interval.
So why doesn’t Irving’s offensive effectiveness line up with what our eyes inform us? A giant cause might lie within the divergence between Irving’s conventional numbers and his on-court impression. Take Participant Effectivity Ranking, for instance, a per-minute metric that measures a participant’s field rating manufacturing, versus on-off plus/minus, which measures how a participant’s workforce does when he’s within the recreation versus not. Irving tends to carry out higher in PER than in on-off statistics, as proven within the chart beneath:
As a corollary, Irving’s help price is not in the identical ballpark of distributors like Harden and Paul, nor does he transfer off the ball like Curry. The very attributes which have drawn Kyrie comparisons to dribbling maestros like Rod Strickland and Allen Iverson can also be those that preserve him from getting into the realm of all-time offensive greats. As my colleague Jared Dubin wrote final spring, Irving’s ball-stopping tendencies on offense got here to a head towards the Boston Celtics in the course of the 2022 playoffs, the place his method of searching for out contested pictures towards the rangy Boston protection helped stymie any rhythm Brooklyn hoped to construct.
Sure, Brooklyn’s offensive score of 115.0 with Irving on the ground would have ranked No. 3 as a seasonlong metric in 2021-22, however therein lies the Kyrie conundrum. As a unfavorable defender, it’s important to hope for an otherworldly offensive explosion from Irving and firm to offset the probably defensive drop-off that comes along with his presence — and even a price of 115.0 was not adequate. Because it stands, Irving is just not the scorer or distributor who can supercharge a workforce previous its obtrusive defensive deficiencies — and a Brooklyn roster building that’s, let’s assume, not precisely defensively inclined. And this yr, it’s most likely not a coincidence that the Nets are defending a lot better whereas Irving has been off the ground. (Even counting the 153-point avalanche the Nets surrendered to the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night time, with Irving nonetheless suspended.)
Lastly, Irving’s numbers have tended to tail off when it counts probably the most — within the playoffs. Since leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers (the place he admittedly drained probably the most well-known buckets in NBA historical past), Irving has managed 21.9 factors per recreation on 43/35/93 capturing splits in 22 postseason contests, a major decline from each his playoff stats as a Cav and from his regular-season numbers as a Internet. On the similar time, his workforce has been outscored with him on the ground in two of his previous three postseasons.
And once more, these numbers solely present Irving when he’s been on the ground, an all-too-unfamiliar sight courting again to his time at Duke (when a busted-up toe was the one supply of missed video games). Out of the eight postseasons his groups have performed in throughout his profession, Irving has missed substantial elements of 4, along with enjoying fewer than 50 p.c of regular-season video games since 2019-20. For those who have a look at Irving’s RAPTOR wins above substitute, a cumulative statistic, it turns into clear that his (un)availability is his greatest (in)ability: In that class, Irving has ranked among the many prime 20 most beneficial NBA gamers in a given season simply twice since 2013-14.
None of that is to say that Irving isn’t preternaturally gifted — neither is it to counsel that he doesn’t belong in discussions of the all-time NBA greats. (That 3-pointer he hit to defeat the 73-9 Golden State Warriors is the last word trump card in that respect.) Relatively, it’s a comment on how arguably probably the most aesthetically pleasing, mesmerizing and expert participant within the historical past of arguably probably the most skill-driven sport has left meat on the bone. (Sound acquainted?)
After all, a strong first step to correcting that discrepancy can be to point out up on the basketball courtroom, and Irving will quickly have that chance once more, as he nears a return from suspension on Sunday towards the Memphis Grizzlies. However we’ll see how lengthy it lasts: Time and time once more, even being accessible to play has usually proved unattainable for basketball’s most irritating star.
Neil Paine contributed analysis.
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