Kyrie Irving is not a great defender. Despite his long arms, stout frame, and incredible quickness, defense is just not something the Cleveland Cavaliers guard is very good at—at least not on a consistent, night after night basis. This is reflected in the tape, and it's also reflected in the numbers.
Only once in the four-year existence of NBA.com's SportVU have opponents shot a worse percentage with Irving guarding them than they have overall. In each of the last two years, he has been in the 40th percentile or worse in both isolation and pick-and-roll, per the Synergy Sports data on NBA.com. Irving is not always in perfect position; he's not always paying perfect attention; he can be too soft at the point of attack; and he dies on screens more often than you'd ideally like your point guard to do.
Irving is also not a great distributor—or, at least, not a natural one. He's primarily looking for his own offense most of the time, especially when he's driving. Of the 61 players averaging at least five drives per game this season, only seven pass the ball less often as a percentage of those drives than Irving. Only five register an assist off the drive less often, and none of them are point guards. Irving's assist percentage—the percentage of teammate baskets he assists while on the court—is down in the Derrick Rose/Lou Williams range, and not really anywhere near the John Wall/Russell Westbrook/Chris Paul/James Harden tier.
Given the traditional job description of a point guard—defend at the point of attack and initiate the offense—you might conclude that Irving doesn't exactly fit the mold. You wouldn't be wrong. Yet as the defending champion Cavaliers run roughshod over the rest of the Eastern Conference, here's the thing: It. Does. Not. Matter.
Not to Irving's teammates. Not to Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue. And not to Irving, either—though he freely admits that it once did.
"People just were really focused on the things I couldn't do rather than the things I was already good at," Irving said on Wednesday. "Me being a young player, I think I got caught up in that—listening to what they thought my game was.
"But I knew best all along. I have confidence in myself. My ability to affect the game is second to none and I believe that when I'm out there on the floor. I can affect the game on both ends of the floor and be a point guard or whatever my coach needs me to be."
What Lue needs Irving to be, above all else, is a deadly scorer. The point guard on a team with LeBron James on the wing doesn't have the same responsibilities as any other player at the position. "He's really, really good," Lue said. "That should be the main focus. You've got to do what your coach asks you to do. We need him, for this team, to be a scorer, and to be aggressive attacking the basket. He's shown that he can make the right pass and the right plays when guys are open, but for us to be successful we need him to attack and score the basketball."
There are very few NBA players who can score better, or in more varied ways, than Irving. Let's check the numbers:
- Irving is one of just seven players this season making at least 40 percent of his threes on at least five attempts a night, while also getting to the free-throw line at least four times per game.
- Of that group of seven, he's one of just three that is also shooting at least 50 percent on at least five drives to the basket per game.
- Of the 151 players taking at least 2.5 catch-and-shoot jumpers a game, only seven are shooting a better percentage on those shots than Irving.
- Of the 120 players taking a similar number of pull-up jumpers per game, Irving ranks No. 18 in field goal percentage.
- Of the 41 players averaging at least 20 minutes a night and using at least a quarter of their team's possessions, he ranks No. 12 in true shooting percentage.
While all of those numbers are pretty incredible, none of them do justice to the experience of actually watching Irving score. The handle he has on the ball is so tight that at times it's almost mesmerizing. There are few players outside of the Harlem Globetrotters who have ever had the ball on so much of a string, and are able to yo-yo it back and forth, between the legs, around the back, always with a purpose. (My pet theory is that each of Irving's fancy dribbles works as a test of how a defender will react, and that he stores that information to use against said defender later in the possession, game, or season.)
The trigger on Irving's jumper is so quick that the moment he decides to shoot is almost indistinguishable from the moment the ball goes through the basket. You think he's dribbling, and in a flash, the Cavs are already getting back on defense.
The array of interior finishes in Irving's bag of tricks borders on ridiculous, and at times seems almost impossible.
"I just have an imagination," Irving said. "I'm willing to try them in practice. I'm willing to try them in a game. You've just got to be willing to mess up and just be OK with it."
Irving doesn't actually mess up very often, so he doesn't have to be all that OK with doing so. He's only 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, and yet this year, he has made 65 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim, per Basketball-Reference. That shit is not normal. "There's been a few moves where I'm just surprised," Irving said. "And I'm just like, 'OK. Well, that worked.' You've just got to be willing to try it."
Now well over a full year removed from the knee injury he suffered during the 2015 NBA Finals, Irving has rediscovered his jump shot. In fact, it's better than ever. He has ticked back up over 40 percent from beyond the arc—and crucially for someone who takes so many in-between shots off the dribble, he has become single best high-volume (at least five attempts per game) mid-range shooter in the league, knocking those looks down at a 49.1 percent clip.
The space Irving creates with his deep shooting is crucial for everyone on the Cavs, but especially for James, who shoots nearly five percent better with Irving on the floor and who takes a far greater percentage of his shots in the restricted area, 41 percent versus 29 percent, when Irving is out there.
There are a lot of small things you can nitpick about Irving's game and of play. That's true of everyone, but it's especially true when a player doesn't conform to the expectations of what a player at his position looks like—we see this all the time with other attacking point guards, like Westbrook. There are times when the differences are incredibly glaring, like the infamous game in which Irving took 28 shots and only had one assist, and everybody freaked out. Focus too much on the imperfections, though, you're missing the forest for the trees. And they're some pretty dope trees. Once you accept that Irving is not actually asked to do some of the things we expect from a player at his position, it becomes much easier to appreciate the things he does. More than that, it becomes incredibly thrilling.
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