Has Kyrie Irving hit his ceiling?

Kyrie Irving Golden State Warriors NBA Finals
USA Today Sports

It’s way too early in the NBA season to make any conclusions about players, teams, and coaches. It’s also too early to even have some strong-minded opinions. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to do it anyway. Kyrie Irving has hit his ceiling. There, I said it. Nine games into the 2016-2017 season I am giving up on Irving’s development into a superstar. That may be ridiculous, but I just cannot find reason to believe.

It’s important to note that if not for Kyrie Irving, there is a very good chance the city of Cleveland would still be searching for its first title since 1964. It’s also important to note that Kyrie Irving is a really good NBA basketball player. I can’t imagine there would be too many teams if any at all, that would say “no, we don’t want that guy.”

I am happy to have Kyrie on the Cavs, and I love watching him every night. As much as I love Kyrie Irving, he sometimes just frustrates me because I feel that he is capable of more than he does.

The Cavs selected Irving with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, and he immediately proved to be worth it. At just 19 years old in his rookie season, Irving scored 18.5 points per game on 46.9% shooting and 5.4 assists. Those are very good numbers for any point guard in the NBA, let alone a 19 year old playing on the worst team in the NBA.

Irving followed his stellar rookie season with a sophomore year that saw him score 22.5 per game and 5.9 assists, while his shooting percentage did fall to 45.2%. That drop off in shooting percentage has now become normal for Irving. Irvings 46.9% shooting his rookie year was the best of his career.

Irving has seen his shooting percentage dip for most of his career:

  • 2011-2012: 46.9%/51.7% (effective field goal percentage)
  • 2012-2013: 45.2%/50.3%
  • 2013-2014: 43.0%/48.0%
  • 2014-2015: 46.8%/53.2%
  • 2015-2016: 44.8%/49.6%
  • 2016-2017: 44.0%/50.5% (through nine games)

Irving has increased his field goal percentage just once in his career. He has never had two consecutive seasons where he improved upon his shooting. Granted, Irving is only in his sixth NBA season, but improvement is still expected in an area like shooting. It is rare for rookies to shoot a high percentage from the field, so it’s typical to see a young players biggest improvement be his field goal percentage. If you told me that during Irving’s sixth season his career shooting percentage would be worse than his rookie season, I probably would not have believed you because it just never happens.

Earlier this summer Sports Illustrated ranked the top 100 NBA players. There was a lot of uproar from Cavs fans about Irving’s rank behind John Wall and Kyle Lowry as Irving was the seventh ranked point guard in the league. I wrote about those rankings and how I agreed with them, and as expected, a lot of Cavs fans disagreed with me.

For comparison, let’s look at the shooting percentages for all six point guards ranked in front of Irving from their rookie year compared to their career average. The numbers on the left are the players’ rookie year field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage, and the numbers on the right are their career average for each.

  • Steph Curry: 46.2%/53.5% – 47.8%/57.6%
  • Russell Westbrook: 39.8%/41.4% – 43.5%/46.0%
  • Chris Paul: 43.0%/45.6% – 47.3%/51.3%
  • Kyle Lowry: 43.2%/46.3% – 41.8%/48.7%1
  • Damian Lillard: 42.9%/50.1% – 42.8%-50.4%
  • John Wall: 40.9%/42.7% – 43.0%/45.6%
  • Kyrie Irving: 46.9%/51.7% – 45.2%/50.5%

Irving is the only player of the group who hasn’t seen their effective field goal percentage go up although Damian Lillard has done his best to try and join. Lowry saw his overall field goal percentage drop, but his career 35.5% from three, compared to his first full season where he shot 25.7%, has been huge in increasing his effective field goal percentage. And, that’s huge. Lowry lacked ability in something, and he significantly improved upon it. That is where my concern with Irving is: what has he done to get better?

I am not at Cavs practices, I do not know how Irving works. I don’t know anything about his work ethic, is workout regime, his motivation. I would assume that Irving puts a lot of work into his game, as it is his job, but unfortunately I cannot see it on paper.

On top of shooting percentage, another thing you expect to see improvement in in young players is shot selection. In today’s NBA, it is no secret that the three-ball is the key to success. Using basic math, the world has pretty much figured out that you should either take a lay-up/dunk, or shoot a three. The mid-range game is becoming more and more irrelevant, just not in Kyrie’s world.

Irving attempted 36.4% of his shots from the rim in his rookie year, and converted on 61.4% of those shots, which is a pretty good number, especially for a 19 year old rookie. Since his rookie year, though, Irving has never attempted anywhere near that amount of shots from around the rim. For his career, only 26.2% of Irving’s shots have come from the rim, a 10% decrease from his rookie season. Since that 36.4% mark, the most he has shot from the rim is 27.3% two seasons ago.

Not only is Irving shooting less from close, he’s making less. His 61.4% his rookie season is the highest of his career, and his career percentage from that range is now 59.3%. After a promising 61.1% two seasons ago, Irving saw his percentage drop off to 58.4% last season. Irving was coming back from a serious knee injury last year, however, so it is fair to cut him some slack on that. I would imagine that a serious injury would play a part in preventing someone from getting to and finishing at the rim.

With Irving shooting a less amount of his shots from around the rim, that means those shots have to go somewhere. A lot of those shots are going to the three point line, which is good. Irving has increased his attempts from behind the arc every year in his career, with the exception of last season. And so far this season, one-third of Irving’s shots have been three point attempts. Even with all those three’s, Irving still shoots a good amount of long two-point shots, which is not good. 19.6% of Irving’s shots this year have been long two’s. Again, we are only nine games in, but for his career, more than 18% of Irving’s shots have been long two’s, and 14% of his shots have been mid-range (10ft-15ft) two’s.

Since his second season, the amount of mid-range shots Irving has attempted has decreased each year, but it has never been lower than the 9.2% he attempted his rookie season. As for his long two-pointer attempts, they have fluxuated for his career. The amount of attempts went up each of Irving’s first three years all the way to 23.3%. Following that season, Irving decreased his amount of long two’s to 13.6%, but then increased his amount to over 16% last year. So, it doesn’t seem Irving has really made an attempt to really implement that shot into his game, or to get rid of it.

Irving shot 50.4% from mid-range last year, and 47.3% on long two’s. Those are very good numbers for those shots. However, Irving is a 37.8% shooter from three for his career. In order for him to make mid-range shots a significant apart of his game, he would have to shoot 56.7% from there, just to equal the amount of points he would get from three.

This isn’t to say that it would be better for Irving to be bad at shooting mid-range, but it would be better if one-third of his shots didn’t come from either mid-range or long two’s. With as good as Irving is from long-range, you would like to see him work for those shots even more than he already is. Again, it is good that Irving has developed such a strong game which includes just about every shot, but you would rather Irving use that skill when it’s needed, not fight for a mid-range shot.

If Irving is wide open from 15 feet, or the shot clock is winding down and he finds himself in that range, then you should be totally okay with Irving taking a mid-range jumper. What you don’t want to see is Irving bring the ball down the court and shoot a pull-up 15-footer with double digit time left on the shot clock. A first option shot should be at the rim or behind the arc, the rest you keep in the back pocket for when the clock is running out.

Maybe Irving goes to the rim less because it’s easier on his body. He has proven to be injury prone, so if staying away from the rim keeps him on the floor, that is totally understandable that he doesn’t attack as much. Irving has done a good job of turning those shots he used to take at the rim to behind the arc, you just have to wonder why Irving stopped going to the rim. Is it because he is looking to prevent injury? Is it because defenses slowed him down? Is it because of LeBron?

We all know that Irving is never going to be a “true point guard” which is totally okay. Expecting players to do something because they play a certain position is silly. People only want Irving to have assists because he’s labeled a point guard, mostly because he’s short. But passing just isn’t Irving’s strong suit. Irving averages 5.5 assists for his career, which is about equal with his 5.4 mark as a rookie. Again, I’m not excpecting Irving to average 10 assists per game, but you would like to see improvement in his facilitating. Irving’s usage rates the last two years have been higher than his career average, so even with LeBron, he still dominates the ball, which makes it hard to figure out why his assists have not risen.

Irving’s defense has also been considered a problem since he entered the league. The story every year is that he is weak on defense, and for some reason the story doesn’t seem to be improving. I am not a fan of the eye test, I think it leads to confirmation bias all too often, but watching Irving play pick and roll defense with Kevin Love can be exhausting. There are times Irivng gets screened and he looks baffled, as if he had no idea an offensive player was allowed to do that. Irving has hung around two defensive win shares for the past three seasons, which is pretty “eh.” Again, not bad, but where is the improvement?

I could pick apart and nitpick Irving’s stat sheet forever. But no matter what stat I look at, it’s pretty much going to be the same: good numbers, no significant improvement. Irving has had an interesting career. He came to a terrible team and was expected to produce early, and just as he was starting to peak, LeBron comes back and Irving was all of a sudden the number two guy.

Two years ago when LeBron came back, I would have guessed that James’ return would have been beneficial for Irving. You would expect Irving to have better looks, be able to create more opportunities, and have the chance to learn from one of the best to ever play the game. But that hasn’t happened. Irving has pretty much flatlined across the stat sheet.

Kyrie Irving is a fantastic player, I don’t think there is any denying that. But I’m not sure if he is going to get any better. If he stays at this same talent level for the next five or six years, that’s great, because he’s an all-star caliber player. At just 24 years old, though, you would hope that Irving would still have plenty of room for improvement. And while he does have room to improve, after six years of playing at basically the same level, you have to wonder if he is going to do it.

  1. Kyle Lowry’s numbers are from his second season, as he only played 10 games his rookie year. In those 10 games, Lowry shot 36.8%/40.8%. []