It’s another edition of “Who You Got?,” this time with the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kyrie Irving and the Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard.
Both are dynamic offensive point guards who, at times, lack effort on the other end. They can score from all over the court and create for others, but often allow their counterparts to do the same.
So which one has the better overall impact on his team? And which one is the answer to the question at the heart of every “Who You Got?” article?
If you were running a team for one season, with which of these two players do you start the roster?
As always, we set the stage with a baseline comparison. Unsurprisingly, the cases for Irving and Lillard are tough to distinguish using only those terms.
Both are 6’3″ point guards. Lillard is 25, while Irving is 23. And their basic numbers from the 2014-15 campaign are very similar.
As are a few of the advanced metrics.
A deeper look into some critical factors for a point guard will help make the final decision.
As a pure scorer, Irving has the edge in virtually every category, though all are very close.
Starting with one of the only categories where Lillard gets the best of Irving, the former’s explosiveness appears to make him a slightly better finisher on drives.
NBA.com defines a drive as, “Any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks.”
Lillard drove 9.5 times per game and shot 51.7 percent on those possessions. His drives led to 12 points per game for the Blazers. Irving, meanwhile, drove 9.4 times per game, shot 48.6 percent and generated 11.7 points per game for his team on those possessions.
The edge there is minuscule, maybe even negligible. And with Irving being better at almost every other play type (in terms of points per possession), the debate over scoring may be clearing up.
However, most of the differences above are razor thin. We’re talking about a difference of a 10th of a point, sometimes less, per possession.
So we defer to shooting to make a final determination.
Irving trumps Lillard in True Shooting Percentage (TS%, which factors for three-pointers and free throws), Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%, which factors for three-pointers), field goal percentage and three-point percentage (by over seven percent).
Furthermore, Irving had an eFG% of 64.5 on catch-and-shoot opportunities. That was the sixth-best mark in the league among players who attempted at least two such shots per game and appeared in at least 20 games. On pull-up shots, Irving had an eFG% of 48.8, good for 1oth under the same qualifications.
For Lillard, his eFG% of 52.3 on catch-and-shoots ranked outside the top 100. His eFG% of 45.2 on pull-ups ranked 26th.
The evidence for this section is clear. Kyrie Irving is the better scorer.
This could reasonably be subtitled the “Lesser of Two Evils” portion of the debate. Both Irving and Lillard have struggles defensively, though, one has been slightly worse.
Among a point guard’s primary defensive responsibilities are defending isolations, defending the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll and defending spot-up shot attempts. Lillard was better in two of the three responsibilities (in terms of points allowed per possession).
And, according to both ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM) and Basketball-Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM), his impact on team defense was more positive than Irving’s.
Lillard was 30th among point guards with a DRPM of minus-0.37. Irving was 39th at minus-0.89. As shown above, DBPM actually classified Lillard as a net neutral last season, while Irving was a minus-1.4.
While neither is great on this end, Lillard’s slightly less damaging defense draws this debate to a 1-1 tie.
If playmaking were only about the total number of assists and player accumulated, Lillard would get the nod in this last battle.
|Per Game||Per 36 Minutes||Per 100 Possessions||Advanced|
But that would obviously ignore some important context.
Irving played with the best point forward in the league in LeBron James, causing his assist numbers to level off. Lillard experienced a bit of the same with another point forward in Nicolas Batum, but the difference there is clear. James had an Assist Percentage (AST%) of 38.6, compared to Batum’s 20.5.
According to NBAWowy.com, Irving had an AST% of 33.3 when he played without LeBron. Lillard had an AST% of 32.4 without Lillard. Irving also had a lower Turnover Percentage (TOV%) than Lillard when both played without their point forwards.
Again, the difference here is tiny, so another tiebreaker has to be called into play.
Ball-handling is a huge part of creating for others, and Irving might be the absolute best player in the league there.
NBA.com’s Joe Boozell listed the top 10 handlers in the NBA in April, naming Irving No. 1 and leaving Lillard off the list altogether.
Trying to decide who’s the better ball-handler is an exercise in subjectivity, but the judgment her is for Irving. And with his passing being equal or slightly better when both he and Lillard are the unquestioned primary distributors, Irving gets the edge here.
It’s now 2-1 in favor of Irving.
This is the first time health has been listed as a category in a “Who You Got?” article. The contrast between the two here is the reason it has to be discussed.
Lillard’s played all 82 games in each of the three seasons he entered the in the NBA for the 2012-13 season. DeAndre Jordan and Tristan Thompson are the only other players to appear in all 246 games from that three-year span.
Irving, on the other hand, has struggled to stay healthy for most of his career. He was drafted the year before Lillard but has only appeared in 10 more games. In each of his first two seasons, he played in fewer than 60 games.
Over the last two campaigns, it looked like Irving may have been finding his way out of the injury-plagued woods. He appeared in over 70 games in each of those seasons but suffered a playoff-ending knee injury in the 2015 Finals.
That injury could have an impact on this season, as Irving’s been declared unlikely to play in Cleveland’s regular-season opener by the Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd.
Love has been cleared for 3 on 3. Blatt concedes plan is for Love to be ready for opener, but Kyrie realistically won't be
— Jason Lloyd (@JasonLloydABJ) October 6, 2015
Rotoworld describes Irving’s timeline as “…anywhere from opening night to January,” meaning there’s no way to know when he’ll be back.
His health is a question mark, and generally always has been. The opposite is true of Lillard, giving him the point here, and evening this debate, 2-2.
Without the addition of that last section, this one would have gone to Irving. He’s a more efficient scorer, a slightly better playmaker and only marginally worse on defense.
But the call of the “Who You Got?” question limits the decision to just one season. Not knowing when Irving will be back breaks the tie and gives the edge to Lillard.
It may seem like a cop-out, but durability is absolutely a factor for front offices in decision-making. Sure, if this was for a team you were running for years to come, you probably take the younger Irving—health concerns and all.
But this is “Who You Got?,” and for just one season, Lillard is the winner.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.