There are few spots in the NBA as lucrative or as coveted as playing alongside LeBron James in a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform, but Kyrie Irving appears ready to shed the label of sidekick and become “the guy” for one of the league’s other teams.
Irving reportedly asked Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to trade him so he can install himself as the face of a franchise, proving once and for all he is a bona fide superstar — a surprising twist for a player who has been named to the league’s all-NBA team, appeared in three straight NBA Finals and won a championship since James returned to his home town team in 2014.
Irving won’t come cheap, and before any team turns over the reins to the four-time all-star it should be aware he has yet to prove he is up to the task of elevating the players around him.
Before James’s return in 2014, the Cavaliers were outscored by at least 5.1 net points per 100 possessions with Irving on the court, roughly the same production we expect from a team that wins 25 to 27 games a season. In 2014-15 Cleveland had a net rating of plus-0.9 with Irving on the court and James on the bench. The next season that declined to minus-0.5 and then again to minus-8 in 2016-17, a mark lower than the 26-win Los Angeles Lakers (minus-7.2 net rating) last season. When Irving was without the services of James and Kevin Love, the team’s net rating dropped even further to minus-12.8.
Just gonna leave this here … Cavs with Kyrie Irving ON, LeBron James OFF last season: -120 in 635 minutes.
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) July 21, 2017
Plus, Irving’s overall production falls short of some of the other focal-point guards in the league. He was ranked as the 12th best point guard per ESPN’s Real Plus Minus in 2016-17, which estimates a player’s on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions, after adjusting for teammates and opponents. He ranked 34th in 2013-14, the season before James decided to come back home.
His overall value above a replacement player (2.9 VORP) ranked 14th among all guards qualifying for the scoring title last season, with the top three players, Chris Paul, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook, all proving they can be the star of the show. He ranked 9th in VORP at the position (minimum of 5,000 minutes played) during his first three seasons in the NBA.
But Irving’s ranking doesn’t quite encapsulate just how good a player he was in 2016-17.
The point guard set career highs in points per 100 possessions (35.9) and effective field goal percentage (53.5 percent). He also was one of the league’s most efficient scorers, producing more than a point per possession, placing him in the top 15 percent of the league. That offensive production helps compensate for Irving’s lackluster defense, which ranked in the bottom 20 percent last season for overall points allowed per possession (0.99).
You’d be forgiven if you thought much of that sterling offensive performance was tied to sharing the court with James, a four-time NBA MVP, but Irving’s production improved with James on the bench.
With the four-time league MVP on the court, Irving produced 31.8 points and 7.7 assists per 100 possessions during the 2016-17 campaign, lower than the 49.3 points and 8.9 assists per 100 possessions with James on the bench. His effective field goal percentage was also a near match at 53.9 and 52.1 percent, respectively. It’s also worth noting that Irving’s increased production came with a higher workload, using 41.8 percent of the team’s possessions with James on the bench compared with using 26.8 percent of possessions with James on the court.
|Split||MIN||PTS per 100||AST per 100||eFG%|
|Kyrie Irving with LeBron in 2016-17||2577||31.8||7.7||53.9|
|Kyrie Irving without LeBron in 2016-17||632||49.3||8.9||52.1|
Sustaining a usage rate of more than 40 percent is virtually unheard of — only Westbrook topped that mark in a single season — but his point and assist rates per 100 possessions away from James puts him in elite company: Since 1979-80, only Michael Jordan, James, Curry and Isaiah Thomas have averaged more than 40 points and eight assists per 100 possessions with a 52 percent eFG% for an entire season.
And Irving’s versatility cannot be ignored. Most frequently used by Coach Tyronn Lue as the ballhandler during the pick-and-roll, Irving’s ability as a spot-up shooter who could also beat his man in isolation makes him difficult to contain. He also ranked in the top 20 percent for his efficiency coming off screens and cuts to the basket last season, making him a threat to score any time he was on the court, with or without the ball.
According to data provided by Brittni Donaldson, a data analyst from the NBA’s camera-based tracking system, SportVU, Irving had a lower distraction score (50.3) among the league’s top 50 scorers last season than James (53.9), indicating Irving’s defender was less likely to abandon him. Irving also had a slightly higher gravity score (77.4 compared to 76.7 for James), suggesting he received as much defensive attention as James without the ball.
That makes sense: Irving was the more efficient scorer and better three-point shooter, giving defenders more to think about during a game. Plus, you’d expect a defender, given the choice, will choose to stop James, leaving Irving a slightly easier path to a scoring play.
|PTS per 100||3PA per 100||3P%|
And this is at the heart of Irving’s value to a team: Unless he has a strong supporting cast, perhaps including one (or two) players who are feared at least as much as he is, the spotlight may prove to be too much for him.
Irving’s stats with and without James via nbawowy.com.
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