The Diff: Did #NBARank actually overrate Kyrie Irving?

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I wrote about an estimate of Kirk Goldsberry’s new ShotScore statistic. This week, I’m writing about arbitrary player ranking systems, for some odd reason.

The Diff

#NBARank is a fabulous concept. It’s scientifically proven that people love lists … just ask BuzzFeed. And what else should do in the usually unexciting waning moments of the NBA preseason? Either way, the 215-person forecast panel has done a fairly good job over the last two years. There are always going to be head-scratchers, undoubtedly. Yet now, I’m left wondering this question: Is Kyrie Irving suddenly overrated after being ranked #8 in this year’s edition?

Two years ago as a rookie, Irving was only #140 in the inaugural ranking system. Fast forward another year, and I still vividly remember posting the article when Irving was announced as the new #22. It felt like validation; the NBA media had recognized his sensational Rookie of the Year season and rewarded him. Perhaps however, we weren’t even considering what #22 really meant.

Back in January, in my first-ever edition of The Diff, I wrote at length – with help from my brother Sam – about Kyrie Irving’s potential in the NBA. Here are two different segments from that article, which you should read as an introduction to some of my additional thoughts today.

Sam: We do have the hardest part of rebuilding out of the way: We have a superstar. If Kyrie isn’t a top 10 player in the NBA already, then I don’t know who is.

Jacob: That’s the argument I started on Twitter right now. In Rick’s recap from the Hawks game, he wrote that Kyrie clearly has the potential to be a top 5 NBA player. It’s an unwinnable argument, as Rick said, because we’re dealing with “potential,” but for some reason, I think I disagree with that. I also clearly don’t think he’s top 10 right now. That’s a huge reach.

So Mitchell’s point is valid about Kyrie being so awful defensively right now, that how could he possibly be a top 5 player (as in, top 2 or 3 guard) in the NBA ever? But then you wrestle back to this final point: Kyrie is 20. He only turns 21 in March. He’s younger than Dion Waiters. In fact, Irving is the fifth-youngest player in the NBA when you look at players with at least 750 minutes played this season.

Of course, that article was written only about 10 days before Irving was selected as an Eastern Conference All-Star. If you recall, I was covering the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards that night and wrote about Irving’s immediate thoughts. As an All-Star, that puts Irving squarely in the top 25-30 at least, just as the ESPN crew slotted last fall.

But now, with Irving at #8 and nine months after my earlier article in The Diff, I’m struggling again with regards to Irving’s potential and where he ranks in the NBA landscape. Here are four related thoughts after the recent #NBARank news.

Maybe Irving shouldn’t have jumped over so many players just yet.

Because I’m strange and love research projects, I made a spreadsheet yesterday of all the top-100ish guys in all three #NBARank preseason editions. From this information, I’m able to glean out the top risers and fallers, and all sorts of interesting trends.

From my varied thoughts, I’ll present six players for consideration of folks I view likely more favorably than Kyrie Irving. Of course, the caveat to that sentence is the projection consideration of this year’s ranking. Voters were asked to “predict the overall level of play for each player for the upcoming NBA season. This includes both the quality and the quantity of his expected contributions, combined in one overall rating.”

Looking at the last two seasons of concrete data, for players with a minimum of 2,000 minutes, Irving ranked 17th in the NBA with his 21.4 PER. Some possibly surprising players listed above Irving in the popular efficiency metric: Kobe Bryant (#25 in #NBARank), Brook Lopez (#28), Al Jefferson (#52) and new Cavalier Andrew Bynum (#100).

That kink in the #NBARank rating throws the whole statistical evaluation process for a loop. By asking raters to consider some abstract and unverified future, there’s no way to concretely analyze the rankings. In my mind though, I’d bank on better 2013-14 seasons from the subsequent six:

#10 Marc Gasol (2012: #24; 2011: #26)
Easily the most underrated big man in the NBA. The 28-year-old Spaniard is just now reaching his prime after his Defensive Player of the Year season. He averaged 14.1 points, 4.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds with a 19.5 PER. More importantly, he anchored the Memphis squad on both sides all year. Take Gasol away and this team is very mediocre.

#11 Kevin Love (2012: #7, 2011: #16)
Injuries decimated Love again last year, limiting him to just 18 below-average games. But alas, he’s still only 25 and is still viewed as the game’s best offensive rebounder, per NBA GMs. Again, he’s averaged 22.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and a 24.0 PER over the last three years. That’s insane production. Unless these injuries are suddenly career-threatening, he’ll be just fine.

#12 Tony Parker (2012: #16; 2011: #28)
NBA Twitter blew up when Parker was announced as #12 last week. At the time, I proclaimed him the league’s most underrated player. He’s only 31 and already has had a star-studded career. He showed absolutely no signs of regression in a career season last year. If he hadn’t missed 16 games, his 20.3 points, 7.6 assists and 23.0 PER would have been very MVP candidate-worthy.

#14 Blake Griffin (2012: #14; 2011: #10)
Crazy to think Griffin is now 24 years old and was drafted 4.5 years ago. He has averaged at least 20 points, 9 rebounds and a 21.9 PER in all three of his seasons, despite some downward-leaning stat trends (more on this shortly). He’s a far better all-around offensive player than usually considered. Not too many big men also average 4 assists and 2 steals/blocks per game.

#15 Carmelo Anthony (2012: #17; 2011: #12)
A 29-year-old Anthony is probably a more skilled offensive weapon than Irving right now. Both have all-around and defensive limitations, but Anthony is up there with the best NBA offensive players. He averaged a career-high 27.8 points and 24.8 PER last year, plus 6.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

#22 Roy Hibbert (2012: #35; 2011: #96)
Indiana’s outstanding defense – and entire ground-breaking scheme – is not possible without the 26-year-old Georgetown product. He had a poor offensive start to the season, averaging 11.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and a 17.3 PER overall. But he’s arguably the league’s most impactful defensive presence. And did you notice a trend with big men?

Maybe guards are a bit less valuable than big men.

It should be no surprise that I’m a fan of Dave Berri’s Wages of Wins work. Heck, I even had him help me preview the 2009-10 Cavs season here at WFNY. There is a bit of Twitter distaste for Berri’s analysis, which heavily favors rebounding and big men via a Wins Produced metric. But I think the conceptual argument is valid of further discussion: Does the scarcity of big men make guards inherently less valuable? Check out this 2006 post from Dave.

Just consider: How many All-Star low-post players are there anymore? Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Tim Duncan (ish), Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah are the only names I spot in #NBARank’s top 25. Yet, how many star guards are there? Tons, as highlighted by Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Irving and Derrick Rose all in the top 10.

I’ve shared before how guards are clearly less efficient in the NBA context. The ideal offensive shooting zones are in the paint or three-pointers. Guards tend to prefer those dreadful mid-range opportunities. Most guards don’t provide much in terms of rebounding (which creates extra possessions, the whole purpose of basketball). Many others, such as shooting guards, don’t provide too many assists either. Those are obviously just peripheral counting stats, yet those stats are our easiest form of analysis.

By the ever-controversial Wins Produced/48, Kyrie Irving was right around average last season. Only a handful of guards are viewed that favorably in general. But even in the context of those, Irving was sandwiched in between DJ Augustin and Jeff Teague, nowhere near the highest echelon.

So, ceteris paribus, would you rather have a star center or a star guard to build your team around? Maybe a guard means more in today’s NBA landscape, but there are still many more out there. The players listed above are an example of how I think Irving probably shouldn’t have passed so many talented forwards who can possibly impact the game in more ways.

Maybe Irving didn’t actually improve in his sophomore season.

This is perhaps the most damning concept in relation to Irving’s current standing and his long-term potential. I really enjoyed Andrew Lynch’s article last week at Hardwood Paroxysm titled “Blake Griffin, Kyrie Irving and Great Expectations”. I linked to it already in While We’re Waiting, but since it was so good, here’s another related excerpt:

Yes, he’d had a phenomenal rookie year, the thinking goes, but he’d not improved in any measurable way (at least, measurable by the box score) as Cleveland started to put a better team around him. The fact that he was able to maintain the lofty heights which he’d already attained, even as he combated several fluke injuries that limited his playing time and his abilities, without actually surpassing them opens Irving up to the same criticism. Yet once again, glances at the box score obscure the improvement in Irving’s game.

Lynch went on to share how Irving’s occasional understanding of defensive schemes and his highlight-reel ability to dominate offensively proved his improvement in his sophomore season. Yet, it will be tough to combat the ever-growing expectations of his career, a la Blake Griffin since his impressive rookie year.

Looking at those potentially deceiving stats, Irving had an exactly even 21.4 PER in his sophomore season. His efficiency field goal percentage dipped by a percent to 55.3%. His assists and rebounds both were down slightly on a per-minute basis. I’ve written before about young guards and high usage rates, with many talented players peaking at a younger age than many first expected. How will Irving statistically take the next leap?

There’s no question Irving needs to drastically improve on the defensive end. But his other needed areas of improvements continue to be an underrated Cavs storyline.

Maybe this was just a really pointless way to waste 1,800 words.

Eh. #NBARank is great. It makes us writers articulate what makes players “better” than one another. It pushes us to think critically about the merits of every statistical tool out there. And in the end, it makes us all as fans really appreciate the special talent that is Kyrie Irving. I don’t mean to be overly pessimistic; I’m just not certain he’s a top-10 player right now. He certainly could be sometime very soon. Or maybe we’re just getting a bit too excited, too early.