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.