Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
Fresh off his first NBA title and Olympic gold medal, Kyrie Irving would like to establish he’s one of the top players in the NBA. There is a danger, though, of letting team success and an outstanding NBA Finals (27.1 points per game with a 56.4 true shooting percentage) obscure all else about him.
Taking a step back and looking at Irving’s full season, he averaged 19.6 points, 4.7 assists and 2.1 rebounds. His Player Efficiency Rating was a career-low 19.9, as was his 54.0 true shooting percentage, although it must be noted that he was returning from a fractured kneecap suffered in the 2015 NBA Finals.
So who is the real Kyrie Irving, and is he on the precipice of breaking out and being an elite player, or did he just get taken for a magic carpet ride by the illustrious LeBron James? Maybe a bit of both.
Irving can be an All-NBA player, almost based exclusively on his ability to score the ball. His handles are magnificent. The only one even in competition for his handles is Stephen Curry. Before his defender can finish blinking, Irving can be behind him, finishing at the rim.
His penetration is a beautiful thing, and if he’d played during the window of time between the removal of the hand checks but before the Tom Thibodeau defenses took effect, he could have posted 30 points a night. Even with the kind of help the modern zoneish defenses poise, he would be dropping 25+ a night were he not teamed with LeBron James.
Yet he is in the era where penetration gets sealed off by Thibodeau-style defenses, and he is teammates with LeBron. Therefore he’s subject to how much help he gets from his teammates’ shooting from deep and how much LeBron lets him handle the rock. If he gets enough of both of those things, he’ll be All-NBA because of his highlight reels.
While he doesn’t get the criticism for his defense that James Harden does, Irving is arguably an even worse defender (and we’ll have more on that later). At some point, someone is going to put together a montage similar to what brought down Harden. Right now, Irving gets a pass for horrible defense because he’s wearing a ring, but when it comes to choosing All-NBA teams, it’s going to be hard to choose him over someone like Harden if he’s inferior on both ends of the ball.
Irving has a ring, but it’s the “King” who brought one back to The Land, and let’s not conflate the two. Irving helped LeBron, but LeBron is the reason for the season. When you start making arguments for cracking the All-NBA team, and you’re the clear No. 2 on your team and a liability on one end of the court, it weakens your case.
Irving is very good in isolation, although perhaps not quite as brilliant as you might expect from the highlights. He scored .91 points per possession in isos, according to Synergy stats at NBA.com. Six players scored more and were efficient. As the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, he scored .89 PPP and 7.8 points per game. In both of those categories, he ranked in the 80th percentile in the league.
He’s not a great passer for a point guard, but he gets a pass for that (pun intended) because he’s effectively more of a shooting guard to James’ point forward. In that context, his 4.7 assists per game was pretty solid. And when he was on the court without James, his assists went up from 4.9 to 6.5 per 36 minutes — a more point-guard-like number. And he did that with his scoring going up to 30.1.
In sum, he’s a better player than his numbers suggest, but not as elite as his highlights do.
Irving’s defense is where there are real issues. According to ESPN.com, his Defensive Real Plus-Minus was atrocious at -2.68, placing him 74th out of 79 point guards. By comparison, Harden’s -0.98 was 48th out of 80 shooting guards. And while Irving’s opponents shot 0.6 percentage points worse when he was the closest defender, per SportVU tracking data, the more alarming thing is how seldom he was the closest defender. He (in theory) contested 8.7 shots per game, which was 216th in league (even though he was 71st in minutes per game). Again, to compare, Harden challenged 13.4. Sure, his opponents shot 2.2 percent better here, but we’re looking at activity, not just effectiveness.
It’s easy to not technically give up points if you’re just not challenging shots or even in the defensive play. Irving is not just a bad defender; he’s a lazy one. And if he wants to be considered among the league’s most elite players, he has to improve.