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Kyrie Irving is still fine, despite the math: While We’re Waiting

Kyrie Irving Cleveland Cavaliers
Scott Sargent/WFNY

Last Thursday, ESPN’s Director of Sports Analytics Ben Alamar wrote an article about Kyrie Irving that set off the Basketball Twitter world. Since the article, there have been numerous podcasts, response articles, tweets and takes about the value of Irving and where he ranks in the upper-echelons of NBA stars.

Alamar’s thesis was this: Irving had a historic 19-year-old rookie season in the NBA. But since that time, his rate statistics, efficiency and overall measurable contributions on the basketball court have stagnated (at best). And thus, Irving does not belong in the same elite category as the Chris Pauls, James Hardens and Russell Westbrooks of the league.

I have a handful of counter-arguments I want to make about Alamar’s article. However, I should first point out this fact to all of the quick-to-judge Twitter responders: Alamar is one of the brightest minds in sports analytics. He literally wrote the book on the topic. And, from a two-season consulting gig with the Cavs – which I wrote about in detail here – he does indeed have intimate knowledge of Irving’s NBA contributions.

Alamar’s article wasn’t a hack-job from a so-called guru in sports analytics. You should know that Alamar is extremely knowledgeable about the game of basketball and a top mind in sports analytics. But I still do think there is a reasonable place for commentary in response to his piece.

For starters, I’d point people to my Andrew Wiggins article from three weeks ago. That article showcased some skepticism on how NBA analytical measures value scoring-focused players. Irving is in a different stratosphere than the young Wiggins, but many of the same points do carry forward.

On Irving specifically, his post-rookie season drop-off shouldn’t necessarily be news to anyone who followed him consistently from early 2013 until LeBron’s arrival. I shared exactly such a breakdown in a response to a condescending Nate Silver article on Irving in May 2014.

Here’s an update on Irving’s career splits, looking at True Shooting Percentage (which accounts for three-pointers and free throws) and assist-to-turnover ratio:

  • First 93 career games until the 2013 All-Star Game: 56.7% TS% and 1.70 AST/TOV
  • Next 88 career games through the 2013-14 season: 53.0% TS% and 2.26 AST/TOV
  • Most recent 156 career games since LeBron’s arrival: 56.8% TS% and 2.11 AST/TOV

Yes, these are only two statistics which I’m using as proxies for Irving’s overall basketball value. That’s an exaggeration in its own right. And these are fairly arbitrary endpoints. But it was a known, established fact that Kyrie Irving struggled shooting-wise during that particular stretch of his career. And his shooting efficiency looks pretty similar before and after that period of time (mostly due to three-point shooting). He’s also cut back on his early-career turnover bug.

Another fact to consider is this: Kyrie Irving has suffered several serious injuries that potentially have impeded upon his career development. He had the toe issues at Duke, various hand injuries in 2012-13, the fractured kneecap in the 2015 NBA Finals, plus a concussion, shoulder problems and other ailments that may or may not be fluky. We still don’t necessarily have enough data to say he’s injury-prone, per se, because of the varied origins of these issues.

Irving missed 15 games in his rookie season, 27 games his sophomore season and the first 24 games in the 2015-16 season as he recovered from his fractured kneecap. He maybe only fully recovered from that knee issue by a year later deep in the 2016 playoffs. He doesn’t turn 25 years old until March 23, 2017. So it would seem conceivable, that with all of this missed time – 87 missed regular season games in his five-and-a-half-year career – that there could be some development hiccups.

I also don’t necessarily think any Cavs fan or NBA fan in general is arguing for Irving to be an MVP candidate, alongside Paul, Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James or Kevin Durant. Irving doesn’t do as much on the basketball court as those players. No statistics would back that up. In fact, many fans or numbers might reasonably argue that Kevin Love is having the second-most valuable 2016-17 season on the Cleveland Cavaliers roster.

What I think is fair to ponder in conclusion is this: What is Kyrie Irving’s ceiling in the NBA? Do you think he might ever have a top-three MVP finish? What type of production – quantifiable or not – would you like to see during Irving’s career peak?

As of right now, I think most would agree that Irving is a deserving All-Star who serves as a gigantic weapon for one of the top-two teams in the league. He’s more accurately somewhere between a top-15 and top-20 player in the league. When he’s been healthy, he’s never lost a playoff series. Obviously, it certainly helps to have a still-active LeBron James and a hungry Kevin Love for that statistic to be true, but Irving’s skills are clearly not easily replaceable around the league.

Saying Irving’s contributions have stagnated (a fair point, but somewhat old news) and that he’s not a top-five MVP candidate (so?) doesn’t necessarily provide a lot of context on where Irving really does rank among the NBA’s best stars. But then again, ranking NBA players is a somewhat meaningless task to a certain point, anyway. Just like when Irving was slotted as No. 8 in #NBARank before the 2013-14 season, what’s the whole reason for this when basketball is a team game?

Back in January 2013, I debated at length with my brother about Irving’s potential and whether he ranked then as a top-10 player in the league. As a skeptical naysayer, I’d still lean toward the fact that top-10 is a bit aggressive right now and that maybe Irving won’t ever have a top-three MVP finish. But that’s subjective and just pure conjecture about the future.

In the present time, Kyrie Irving still remains quite good and quite valuable to a dominant Cleveland Cavaliers team that’s mostly just biding time until the playoffs. So maybe that’s just the whole point of this back-and-forth debate: Giving us something of substantial entertainment value, since most of the Cavs story lines are fairly boring for the next three-plus months anyway.

  • RGB
  • BenRM

    A good read!

  • JNeids

    While there are time I wish I understood more of the analytics, this is one time I am glad I don’t. Like most people do with Lebron, I am just enjoying watching Irving play on a nightly basis. At least once a game he puts his handles on display and his defender on skates. But my favorite part is his insane layups – the ability to put the perfect English on it when the shot looks impossible – I truly believe these are underrated by most. He is just a magician, and a pure joy to watch, numbers be damned (no offense Jacob).

    And I’m also enjoying watching the real Kevin Love. One who isn’t worrying about fitting in, one who appears to be fully healthy, one who I have come to expect first quarter double-doubles from and one who has regained my confidence in his 3-ball.

    Throw in our version of the Worm in TT and a dash of crazy-but-I-like it in JR and, man, do I just love this team. I mentioned in another thread earlier this week about their title changed me profoundly. One thing it has allowed me to do is just sit back and enjoy them without the worry about how June will play out.

    P.S. I hope I’m not jinxing it, but the fact that the Kardashian stench hasn’t permeated my nostrils if it has even leaked into the locker room is a miracle in itself.

  • NankirPhelge

    Yeah, parsing esoteric statistics such as this is like rating Cate Blanchett’s shoe size.

    What difference does it make if Kyrie’s AST/TOV is 2.11 or 2.65 or 1.84? Or if he ranks 12th or 38th or 1st?

    But it’s a harmless enough hobby I guess, just as long as no starts taking it seriously.

    – Cro Magnon Cavs Fan

  • JNeids
  • Harv

    I’m not anti-analytics in the slightest, but I wonder both whether this is an apples-to-apples comparison and whether it should be important to this particular team.

    Apples to apples: when it comes to assist ratios Kyrie, unlike Paul/Harden/Westbrook, isn’t this team’s primary offense trigger. When LeBron’s not actually bringing the ball up he touches it early and makes the decisions, while Kyrie plays the part of … attack guard? Scorer? Kyrie certainly doesn’t keep his eyes up always; he’s a scorer first. And he’s not a top tier passer, which is why we go crazy when makes a no-look.

    LeBron demands that he handle the ball. Kyrie is the running mate/scoring threat that Mo Williams could not be. Without LeBron he would put up gawdy scoring and win less. But LeBron takes his teams to close, tense games against elite teams and deep into the playoffs where the game grinds in half court and dudes who can create and score reign supreme. Would you clearly rather have Paul or Harden taking that shot over Klay?

    Kyrie remains a mostly awful, disinterested defender, but that can still improve and, in the end, trophies don’t lie.

  • NankirPhelge

    Complimented, for sure! I agree that stats can’t quantify stuff like spinning the ball off the backboard or that step-back fade-away jumper Kyrie hit on Christmas.

  • JNeids

    Did you just call Kyrie “Klay?”

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/C0jf2q3WQAE4akQ.jpg

  • NankirPhelge

    He’s getting ever closer to crashing in a homeless shelter.

  • Harv

    down boy. I meant over Klay’s outstretched hand, last Sunday.

  • Harv

    but now I can’t edit for clarity, without making your question look silly. #wfnyethics

  • JNeids
  • JM85

    I’ll take Kyrie over the other point guards who just stuff the stat sheet yet never win in the playoffs.

  • NankirPhelge

    And speaking of loose cannon, Richard Sherman has made the leap from egomaniac to megalomaniac.

    http://sports.yahoo.com/news/richard-sherman-privilege-podium-231334978.html

  • Alexandre RAFFALLI

    People assume that playing alongside LeBron is easy yet it seems every star who played with him has seen their impact reduced. All but…? Kyrie. Took him a while to figure out how to play alongside him but I think it’s interesting that he has maintained excellence all the while LeBron has been the focal point of everything with Cavs (for good reason).

    So yeah, his stats are not any better than when he was a rookie if you look at some of the metrics but it turns out he’s learned to play next to LeBron and hasn’t had to take a step back. Sounds like growth to me.

    That, plus his ability to straight up win games, makes him one of the top PGs in the league at 24. Not too shabby for a “replacement level player”…

    Do we think Kemba, Lowry or Wall would perform as well as they do not next to LeBron?

  • John Johnson

    Kyrie’s clutch-ness is what makes him special. He isn’t as consistent as I’d like. And he can’t carry the team sans Lebron (though most of that has to do with Lou and the structure of this roster minus Lebron). He still has some real growing. But based on this roster and fitting next to Lebron there’s no other PG I’d take.

  • Pat Leonard

    Completely agree. Offensively, I don’t know if there is a guard in the league who fits better next to LeBron. You’d love for Kyrie to be better defensively, but whatever. He’s the type of player who obviously tries harder in big games and big moments, and that seems to work okay for the Cavs.

  • Pat Leonard

    I’ve heard some fairly biased and ridiculous thoughts about Kyrie that have stemmed from others who had read Alamar’s article. In particular, I was listening the the TrueHoop podcast and one of the hosts was talking about how Kyrie hadn’t been able to win early in his career in spite of putting up some of his best shooting stats, and this was clearly an indication of how he would perform without LeBron. To that I would say, “How many wins is Karl Anthony Towns putting up? Or Joel Embiid? And those teams have multiple young guys who are likely future All-Stars.” Young players lose. They just do. So obviously there must be more to leading a team to the playoffs other than just putting up eye-popping rookie stats. Is a 28-year-old Kyrie Irving good enough to be the best player on a playoff team to contend for a championship? I don’t know, I’ve never seen it. It’s certainly possible given his impressive skill set.

  • RGB

    Dweebometrics disciples do not believe in “clutch”.

  • Pat Leonard

    They actually do track a “clutch” stat, and supposedly Kyrie Irving is actually not very clutch at all. Which seems impossible, so I’m straight up ignoring that stat until they fix it.

  • woofersus

    I’m pro-analytics in general, but I think this highlights some of the challenges we have in applying it to basketball. Baseball has more identifiable, measurable events than basketball. It’s more compartmentalized, while basketball is fluid. I don’t have time to dig way in, but at first glance I have a couple of problems with the use of statistics in the article. First, I’m extremely skeptical of the use of Box Plus/Minus as a comparative tool. I understand why people do it, and these are all starters playing a lot of minutes, but still, it doesn’t do a good job at all of singling out the actual performance of the player. Second, those three statistics hardly present an in-depth look at the players. Third, the “averages” he presents actually have a pretty wide spread among all the players and a large variance from year to year – drawing a simple line chart belies the development process. Comparing him independently to each other player over a wider variety of measures would have been a much better way to go.

  • Harv

    It helped that I listened to that pod while working out. Some of the bias was making me nuts. A few years ago a similar argument erupted when Bill Simmons, then rabidly anti-Kyrie but now recovering, had Jalen Rose on his podcast. Jalen just kept telling him: comparing Kyrie to point guards is for fans, not players. Kyrie is a lethal scorer, so forget about what his position should be called when he shares the court with LeBron.

    It was the first time I heard that so forcefully enunciated. At first I didn’t buy it because I thought LeBron ultimately wanted to play off the ball if he trusted someone else. Now I’m all in. LeBron will demand being the court conductor until he no longer can. His combo of physical skills, court vision and unselfishness is sui generis. Kyrie is just the paid assassin.

  • Eric G

    Yes! I don’t watch a lot of non-Cavs ball, so I don’t have a good barometer of other “elite” players, so I only have the team against which they’re currently matched (and prior playoff teams) to compare, but I love Kyrie. He’s hands-down my favorite player on the team and has been since he was drafted (I know, that’s easy b/c LBJ was gone, but still). He’s smart, and fun to watch, and really, isn’t that all you want from your sports team – to be fun?
    Working in Finance, I wouldn’t often say this, but f the numbers.

  • jonathan thomas

    Here you go, guys…. Nick Smith did the research that I wanted to do, but I have other things going on right now.
    I watched all of Kyrie games including Team USA tryouts etc. Irving is the greatest offensive player in the NBA…. there is no one in NBA has the skills set that Kyrie has. Irving has the post up moves, 3 pointers, spin moves going left and right with both hands, left and right hand hook shot, floaters, with both hands, the mid-range bank shots, and the reverse with both hands going left or right, jumper /set shot, and a spin shot going counterclockwise with both hands.

    He is the best I ever saw. That’s including Jordan, Kobe, Iverson and LeBron using his left hand and in clutch moments.

    https://youtu.be/0X10cu9R1hI

  • jonathan thomas

    Here you go, guys…. Nick Smith did the research that I wanted to do, but I have other things going on right now.
    I watched all of Kyrie games including Team USA tryouts etc. Irving is the greatest offensive player in the NBA…. there is no one in NBA that has the skills set that Kyrie has. Irving has the post up moves, 3 pointers, spin moves going left and right with both hands, left and right hand hook shot, floaters, with both hands, the mid-range bank shots, and the reverse with both hands going left or right, jumper /still shot, and a spin shot going counterclockwise with both hands.

    He is the best I ever saw. That’s including Jordan, Kobe, Iverson and LeBron using his left hand and in clutch moments.

    https://youtu.be/0X10cu9R1hI

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