There’s an old fable in baseball circles that Ty Cobb, a man who believed in the merits of ‘small ball’ over swinging for the fences, told a reporter before a May 5 game in 1925, “I’ll show you something today. I’m going for home runs for the first time in my career.” He would hit three homers that day.
Kyrie Irving has always believed in his scoring. He loves to dribble, to probe, to find an angle, and exploit it. He does this with incredible efficiency (third most points-per-possession in isolations among players who average more than two isolation plays per game) and also with incredible scorn (he was recently referred to as a role player on an ESPN TrueHoop podcast for his inability to do anything but score.) The idea that Kyrie Irving is not a “true” point guard or playmaker is one that has followed him throughout his career. He’s been labeled nothing more than a scorer, a one-dimensional player who doesn’t do much else.
Suddenly, however, Irving has amassed 70 assists in his last seven games.
Before returning from injury on December 17, Irving’s AST rate (the percentage of teammates’ field goals he assisted while on floor) was only 23.7 percent. Since his return, he is assisting on 42.7 percent of said field goals. The change is incredible, and the eye test seems to indicate this is more than just a random anomaly.
Irving is initiating the offense and getting guys open looks:
He’s passing up difficult scoring opportunities for himself for easier buckets by his teammates:
He’s even distributing within the flow of the offense when he doesn’t initiate the play:
As a rookie, Irving showed flashes of being an elite passer, with a 36.5 percent AST rate. That number plummeted the following years, as the team around him featured fewer shooters and more ball-dominant backcourt partners (i.e. Dion Waiters). When LeBron James joined the Cavaliers, Irving’s AST reate dropped even further as LeBron assumed the majority of the point guard duties.
But James’ arrival has also muted some of the great passing work Irving has done. Irving’s 31 percent AST rate is the highest he’s posted in the three years since 2014’s homecoming, but when James sits and Kyrie is given the keys of the offense, his AST rate jumps to 39.4 percent, a figure that would rank seventh in the entire NBA (tied with James.) This figure is consistent with last season when Kyrie assisted on 40.2 percent of his teammates’ field goals when James was not on the floor. So this recent burst is certainly a new wrinkle, but the idea of Kyrie being a distributor is hardly a new phenomenon.
The idea of Kyrie being a distributor is hardly a new phenomenon.
This uptick in passing has been especially prevalent over the last seven games. Irving has increased his average number of passes from 49.7 prior to December 17 to 64.1 after. This leads the team and is significantly higher than even LeBron’s season average of 57.8. In the same timeframe, Irving is also averaging 16.7 potential assists, which would rank fifth in the NBA this season. His 24.7 assist points created over the last seven games would rank second.
The knock on Irving in recent weeks has been that he has a singular skill: Scoring. But when you dive a bit deeper, you see that Kyrie’s role shifts with what the team needs at any given moment. When LeBron is running the offense Kyrie can space the floor and look for his spots to score. When LeBron sits Kyrie has proven he can get his teammates involved. And when the game gets into crunch time, he can still function as one of the best scorers in the game. This recent passing surge will likely regress, but Irving is exploring and showcasing an element of his game that many have dismissed, one that goes beyond just the role of an incredible 1-on-1 scorer.
As Kyrie told cleveland.com’s Joe Vardon, “Being effective scoring wise is something I’m already fairly good at, but now it is just controlling the game in its totality.”
The results thus far have been a home run.