Kyrie Irving’s place in today’s NBA: While We’re Waiting

Kyrie Irving is a tremendous basketball player. It’s an endless argument to evaluate exactly how valuable he is, precisely, on the basketball court and for any given team in the NBA. But it’s certainly a bummer that the Cleveland Cavaliers are in their current position with Irving’s future on the roster.

To put everything in context, I figured it’d be appropriate to list out Irving’s value to this current team and his worthiness on the NBA marketplace. He’s been a complicated player throughout his career, despite the many outstanding accomplishments. It’s amusing to look back on the many pieces I’ve written about Kyrie – defending him from Nate Silver, wondering why ESPN hyped him so much, admiring his first All-Star nod, looking at how he explains the Real Plus-Minus statistic, and many more.

Now, here we are in the late summer of 2017. The Cavaliers – after several moribund campaigns – have made three straight NBA Finals appearances. But all is not well in the kingdom. So where does that leave them from here?

Why Kyrie Irving is so hard to replace:

– He’s one of the most prolific young scorers in NBA history. He turned 25 on March 23, but Basketball-Reference treats seasons by age for players as of February 1 of the given season. So, the 2016-17 season was his age-24 season. His 8,232 points through his age-24 season ranked No. 15 in NBA history. The only fellow guards with more points through their age-24 NBA season are Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Michael Jordan, and Stephon Marbury. That’s it.

– Very few players feature his combination of offensive involvement and shooting efficiency. His career Usage Percentage is 28.8 (the NBA average is 20, representing one-fifth of offensive activity). His True Shooting Percentage is 56.1 percent (the NBA average since 2011-12 is 53.9 percent, as it factors in drawing free throws as well). The only fellow guards with at least 27.5 percent Usage and 55 percent True Shooting since 2011-12 are James Harden, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. That’s it.

– He’s an excellent floor-spacer, a must-have for building an ideal lineup alongside LeBron James’ passing abilities. Irving’s career three-point shooting percentage is 38.3. Considering his poor numbers in 2013-14 (when the Cavs were a moderate train wreck) and 2015-16 (returning from his leg injury in the NBA 2015 Finals), his 40.1 percent number last year may be a more accurate representation of his skill set. And that’s also considering that he creates a large proportion of his own three-pointers and doesn’t just catch-and-shoot like the most efficient shooting specialists in the game.

– Luckily for the Cavs, and unlucky for Irving himself, he happened to be the No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. That meant his new maximum contract extension kicked in for the 2015-16 season – for his fifth season in the league – just before the massive salary cap hike in the summer of 2016. Thus, Irving now has two guaranteed years remaining at only $39 million total, followed by a player option left at $21.3 million for 2019-20. Compared to some of the massive deals tossed out in the last 13 months, that’s quite the attractive deal for a team’s salary cap outlook.

Where Kyrie Irving can best thrive on the basketball floor:

– When he has some anchor defensive teammates who can make up for his glaring weakness. Give J.R. Smith a ton of credit for his wing defense over the last few years. Tristan Thompson’s defensive versatility is also a huge component for how the Cavs operate so well in the playoffs. Kyrie Irving is an elite offensive talent; he still gets lost on defense and it’s clearly still a negative in his game. Clearly, an ideal team will  have at least one great defensive player who can cover the sufficient ground necessary alongside Irving to compose an above-average defensive unit overall.

– When he has fellow teammates that can also distribute the basketball. The role of an old-school traditional point guard, a la John Stockton, doesn’t really exist in today’s modern NBA. A team must have multiple scorers, creators and distributors who can take turns running the offense. It’s not a giant knock on Irving to say he can’t be the team’s lone offensive creator and distributor. Even Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the game’s greatest offensive talents ever, thrive when playing off each other. But another above average distributor can help alleviate the pressure on Irving to do too much on the floor, like he did in his first three seasons before LeBron’s return to Cleveland.

– When he discovers the right culture fit for his future. It’s clear things aren’t working well chemistry-wise between LeBron James, at age 32 and craving basketball immortality, and Kyrie Irving, only 25, and still figuring out his standing among the league’s best players. Maybe LeBron James truly is eyeing greener pastures in the summer of 2018. Maybe Irving is right to try and make a name for himself away from LeBron’s ever-present shadow. Maybe the damage is irreparable. But for Kyrie to thrive long term, it’ll hopefully be in a situation that’s more positive and less drama-intensive than things are right now.

It’s been a slow roll of news and rumors ever since the initial plunge of stories came out about Kyrie’s trade request. That could lead to a prolonged depression as things settle in. There’s a ton of uncertainty about the Cavs roster for the next 11 months. No matter what happens, Kyrie Irving has been one of the great talents to ever play the game of basketball in Northeast Ohio. 

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