Making sense of SI’s Top 100 ranking of Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving Cavs Suns
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Yes, LeBron James was ranked as the top player in the league, hooray. But, how was point guard Kyrie Irving ranked number 25? He is behind lesser players such as Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and DeAndre Jordan. Those are players are at different positions, so the real surprise was that Irving – the same player that hit The Dagger to win Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – was the seventh rated point guard behind Damian Lillard, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Stephen Curry. But, SI might be closer to the truth than a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers would want to admit.

As fun as it is to be a homer and talk up Irving and bash guys like Steph Curry, any sane fan would say that it is fair Curry, Paul, and Westbrook are in front of Irving. Maybe even Lillard. But, how are Lowry and Wall in front of the point guard who just hit the game-clinching shot to bring Cleveland its first major sports title since 1964?

For those of you who don’t know, the Golden State Warriors, who set an NBA record this year going 73-9, blew a 3-1 lead in the NBA Finals to the Cavaliers.

There was a tweet floating around the Twittersphere of the rankings followed by the popular meme of NBA superstar Nick Young looking absolutely dumbfounded. Nick Young took one look at the rankings and stared off into the distance very confused, the look on his face saying, “what in the name of Bob Sura…” How could Sports Illustrated think that Kyle Lowry and John Wall are better than Kyrie Irving?

It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and remember only what you just saw. What weighs heavy on most fans’ minds is Irving’s dominant NBA Finals, Lowry walking off the court early in the conference finals against Cleveland, and Wall’s Wizards not being anywhere near the post-season. Not to mention Wall feuding publicly with teammate Bradley Beal.

It makes sense. Cleveland fans are still coming off an incredible high from their championship, and they want to back up their guy at any cost. But did Sports Illustrated really get it wrong?

When I first saw the rankings, I myself was as perplexed as Nick Young. I immediately sent my group chat the tweet of the rankings and said, “Lowry and Wall above Kyrie? Really?” After taking a few days to think about it, I realized that it really may not be that crazy at all. After all, I hadn’t even read Sport’s Illustrated’s reasoning yet.

“Rankings were assigned based on a fluid combination of subjective assessment and objective data, including: per-game and per-minute statistics, splits, advanced metrics, play-type data and more” the article read. It then continued:

Injuries and injury risks are an inevitable component of that judgment. Past performance (postseason included) weighed heavily in our assessment, with a skew toward the recent. First-year players were not included for that reason, among others. A predictive element also came into play with the anticipated improvement of certain younger players, as well as the possible decline of aging veterans. Salary was not taken into consideration. Otherwise, players were ordered based on their complete games—offense and defense both, along with everything in between.

Alright, so, basically they’re using stats, injury history, recent history, and projections. That’s fair enough to me. You have the stats to back up the old man’s eye test, the durability to be on the court for your team, and a little “what have you done for me lately” mixed in there. Irving definitely has an edge in the “what have you done for me lately” category, and is definitely at a disadvantage with his injury history.

Let’s check the numbers first. After all, numbers are a reflection of what you did on the court, no matter how many times your dad tells you that not everything shows up in the box score. Since SI’s rankings are leaned more towards recent history, I’m just going to mostly compare the player’s stats from this year. Lowry was a late bloomer, so he wouldn’t really have a strong case here if we compared careers.

Looking at win shares, Lowry has Irving and Wall beat by a good amount. Lowry put up 11.6 win shares this year, compared to Wall’s 5.7 and Irving’s 5. Let us remember that Irving did miss the first two and a half months rehabbing a knee injury, though. So if we use win shares per 48 minutes, Lowry still leads with .196 over Irving’s .143 and Wall’s .098. Considering league average is .1, it is already tough to put Wall above Irving.

It would be easy to go and look at points per game, but that’s such a misleading stat. Looking at just points is how you end up with people thinking that Kobe Bryant is better than LeBron James. If you ever want me to go on a rant about how overrated Bryant is, and how I don’t even consider him a top 15 player of all time, just let me know, I can go for days.

I’m not really interested in how many times a guy can get the ball in the hoop. I care more about how efficiently you put the ball in the hoop. Ricky Davis has averaged over 20 points per game before, so how amazing is it really? While Irving led the way amongst this trio with 22.5 points per game, and he also led the way with a 44.8% field goal percentage. Lowry scored 21.2 ppg on 42.7% shooting, and Wall was just behind him scoring 19.8 points on 42.4% shooting.

However, if we look at effective field goal percentage, which adjusts for the fact that a three pointer is more valuable than a two pointer, Lowry once again leads the way with a 51.6% eFG, in front of Irving’s 49.6%, and Wall’s 46.7%. Lowry set career highs in both three point percentage, 38.8%, and three point attempts, 7.1. He took more than ever, and he made more than ever, that goes a pretty long way in improving your efficiency. Irving does lead the three in eFG% for the career, however, as he is the only one above 50% for their careers at 50.5%.

In a league that is filled with scoring point guards, one may forget that there used to be a time when a point guards main job was to facilitate to the team. With the evolution of the point-forward, that isn’t always the case. You have guys like LeBron James and Draymond Green who often dominate the ball in the half-court.

When looking at assists, it’s obvious John Wall is far and away the best passer of the bunch. Wall put up 10.2 assists this season, which makes Lowry’s 6.4 and Irving’s 4.7 look like back-up numbers. My initial thought was “well, Wall is the Wizards best player, he probably dominates the ball way more than the other two.” Here I was wrong. Irving actually had the highest usage rate of the three. Irving was used in 29.5% of the Cavaliers possessions when he was on the floor, while Wall was used 28.6% of the time and Lowry just 26.1%.

If you have ever watched a Cavs game, you know that Kyrie Irving’s strength does not come from the defensive end of the floor. Every time Irving gets caught up in a pick and roll situation, he runs into the screener as if it’s his first time playing basketball and he didn’t know the other team was allowed to do that. It can look really pathetic at times, honestly. Irving was worth -1.4 points per game on the defensive end for the Cavs this season. That means if he was replaced with a league average defender, and the numbers were adjusted to a league average team, they would give up 1.4 less points per game. Lowry was slightly above average with +.6, while Wall led the way with one entire point per 100 possessions.

At this point, you have to look at the numbers and say, “okay, Kyle Lowry is pretty damn good.” Lowry isn’t flashy, he doesn’t play in a big market, and he played some poor games against the Cavs when it mattered, which may have altered some Cavaliers fans’ minds (even though he did dominate the Cavs in the regular season). I think a lot of times people get caught up in what Irving is capable of doing on the court. We have seen the cross overs, the contested shots that he makes look effortless, the incredible finishes at the rim. Irving probably has the coolest high light tape of the three, but that doesn’t always mean he’s the best player. It’s one thing to be capable of something, it’s a completely different thing to actually do it. I would definitely say that Irving has the highest ceiling of the three, but if you asked me to do a blind test and just look at the numbers, I have to take Lowry.

This still leaves us with John Wall, though. Did Wall’s defensive ability and his passing really make him eight spots higher than Irving? As bad as Irving was defensively, Wall wasn’t that much better offensively (scoring, at least). Sports Illustrated did say they took injury history into account, and Irving has missed parts of every season due to injury, as well as his lone season at Duke. Wall did miss 13 games his rookie season, as well as almost half of the 2012-2013 season, but other than that, he’s only missed eight games in his other four seasons.

Sports Illustrated penalized Irving for the idea that if he were the go to player on his team, his team would not be very good. They brought up the pre-LeBron Irving who failed to initiate much offense for the Cavaliers. They also brought up Irving’s struggles in the Rio Olympics while being surrounded by the best players in the world. I think both of those are kind of BS excuses. Irving was 21 playing alongside Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington. How much offense was he really going to create? Yes, a good player will make his teammates better, but I mean, come on, that Cavs roster was absolute garbage. Could you imagine being coached by Byron Scott and having to choose between passing the ball to Dion Waiters to miss a contested 18 foot jump shot, or giving it inside to Luke Harangody on the block? C’mon, SI. As for Rio, Irving just finished up an NBA title run, excuse him for possibly being out of gas. Also, are we really going to bring up a two week stretch of international basketball where you play with a bunch of guys that you normally play with as a fair assessment of what a guy could do on his own?

One thing that SI did not bring up, which I think is a very important aspect if criticizing Irving, is that the Cavaliers were actually -.2 worse with Irving on the court opposed to him being on the bench. For a guy who is unanimously considered the Cavaliers second best player, you have to expect more. Your second best player should not be making his team worse. A big reason is Irving’s ball dominating nature. The Cavaliers offense revolves around a lot of off ball screens and skipping the ball around the perimeter to guys like J.R. Smith and Kevin Love. Irving’s first instinct when he has the ball is to dribble to the hoop. Irving is very good at getting to the rim, he’s also pretty good at finishing, as he shot 58.4% at the rim. But Irving’s ability doesn’t always mesh with what the Cavaliers are doing as a team, which is why you see a negative result on the court in the case of them team being worse with him out there.

You then look at John Wall and see that the Wizards are 4.8 points better when he is on the court compared to when he is on the bench. John Wall is the Wizards. Can you imagine how bad they would be without him? I don’t really want to think about it, to be honest. I then look at John Wall’s shot selection and see a lot of room for improvement. The majority of Wall’s shots, 31% of them to be exact, are long two pointers. A long two is the worst shot in basketball. He shot 35.9% on long two’s this year, just barely higher than his 35.1% from three point range. For those of you who don’t math well, that means for each one hundred shots he is only getting about 72 points on the long two pointers, while he is getting 105 points from three. If Wall improved upon his shot selection, and split those long two pointers between more threes and more drives to the rim, his offensive efficiency would sky rocket. Wall is often regarded as one of the quickest players in the game, so it’s not like he can’t get to the rim, he’s just not doing it.

John Wall and Kyrie Irving are in completely different situations. Irving plays along side the greatest player in the world. His job is to score the basketball to take pressure off of James. Wall is the Wizards version of LeBron, he has to score, he has to facilitate, he has to rebound and get out in transition. If Irving was in Wall’s situation, he may not be as good. If Wall was in Irving’s situation, he may not be as good. Do we know how Wall would handle playing second fiddle, or how Irving would handle being the go-to guy? We don’t. It’s all speculation, and you are free to speculate how ever you’d like.

I am not saying that if Wall was on the Cavaliers that Cleveland would be better than they are with Irving. But I do think that Wall would be better off in Irving’s role than Irving would be in Wall’s. I don’t think that Wall is eight spots better than Irving, but I don’t think it’s crazy to pick Wall over Irving, which contradicts my initial feeling.

Irving has had the benefit of playing in big moments and making things happen during them. People already bring up Irving’s game winner in the finals when comparing him to others. We have seen Irving make that shot a million times. We’ve also seen him miss it a good amount too. If Irving missed that shot in game 7, would he really be worse as a player? No. So you can’t single out specific moments when comparing players. Wall has not had the luxury of playing along LeBron James, so he hasn’t been able to grab the spotlight like Irving has. The Wizards are not a team that plays on ESPN or TNT every week, so we don’t see a lot of him, but his ability is nothing short of amazing.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter the ranking each player is given. No matter how much data you put into it, it is always going to be opinion. Of course, most Cavalier fans think Irving should be higher than Wall, he’s our guy. But we will probably never actually get a chance to have Wall and Irving switch spots and see who does what. Irving and Wall are close comparisons in talent despite drastically differing games. If I had to start a team around one of them today, I’d probably have to take John Wall. Wall has room for improvement in his shot selection, plus Irving’s injury history is something you have to take into consideration.

Regardless of the rankings, what is a fact and cannot be taken away is that Kyrie Irving hit a game winning shot in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in which the Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in after going 73-9 in the regular season with the unanimous MVP.