In the wake of all the Kyrie Irving drama, there has been a lot of discussion about Kyrie’s place in the league. “Why wouldn’t he want to play with Lebron?” “Can he be a number one option?” “His defense sucks!” “Is he crazy?” It has sparked a lot of discussion about how good of a player Kyrie really is. We know about his spectacular dribbling moves, his amazing finishes at the hoop, and “The Shot” from the 2016 NBA Finals. But just how valuable of a player is he? How good can he be without playing next to one of the greatest players of all time?
A common criticism of Kyrie (and rightly so) is his lackluster defense. However, we have seen that point guard defense is overrated when evaluating team defense as a whole. When it comes to having a good team defensive scheme, it is more important to have versatile wing stoppers and big men that can move their feet and protect the paint. Big man defense is vital for help defense and can cover up the mistakes of your guards. An example of how the relative unimportance of guard defense is applied statistically is widely used ESPN’s Real Plus Minus (abbreviated RPM). RPM attempts to measure how many points per 100 possessions a player adds to (or takes from) his team while on the floor. RPM has an offensive and defensive component, abbreviated ORPM and DRPM respectively. DRPM adjusts defensive impact based on position; “An average center has a DRPM of 1.78, while small forwards have an average rating of 0.04.” 1 The average defensive rating for a wing is preset to be less than that of a center and for a point guard it’s even lower! For example, this year the point guard with the highest DRPM, Chris Paul, was the 22nd most impactful defender according to RPM. 2 Paul was far behind a litany of mostly big men and some wings.
If we look at the top point guards in the game, they are all elite because of their offensive contributions. Obviously if you can bring defense at that position like a Chris Paul, it is certainly helpful. But there are a bevy of top point guards in the league who aren’t great defensively or even average: Lillard, Westbrook, and Harden just to name a few. Point guards derive their value from creating efficient offense for themselves and others. So the primary question to answer when evaluating the potential of a point guard is this, how good can they make your offense? Putting aside Kyrie’s defensive woes, do we think he could lead a successful offense as a number one option?
As far as creating efficient offense for himself, despite sustaining on a diet of difficult shot attempts, Kyrie remains very efficient on high volume. For his career Kyrie shoots a very good percentage, 38.3% from three on five attempts per game. 3 He has a career true shooting percentage of 56.1% 3 which puts him between the 80th and 90th percentiles for point guards. 4 His career usage percentage is at almost 29% 3 which is between the 90th and 100th percentiles for a point guard. 4 We know Kyrie has never been shy about taking shots. Hilariously enough, he took more shot attempts than Lebron this year, which have led many to wonder why he is still upset about his share of touches on the team.
So while Kyrie shows no weakness in “getting his”, I’m much more skeptical of him creating efficient opportunities for his teammates. Even though some of his conventional numbers and even advanced stats look promising, with averages of 5.5 assists per game and an ast% of 30%, 3 his team struggles to pass the ball effectively while he is running the show.
To isolate Kyrie’s effect on his team while he is the number one option, we can use NBA Wowy to look at how the Cavs do while Kyrie is on the floor while Lebron is off and vice versa. With Kyrie on the floor and Lebron off the Cavaliers assisted on an abysmal 48.3% of their made field goals.5 This rate would have been next to dead last in the league this year, in front of only the isolation heavy Toronto Raptors. An interesting note is that the Toronto Raptors have famously now sported incredible regular season offenses while severely under performing in the playoffs. This shows how a ball stagnant, heavy isolation offense is very hard to run in the playoffs against modern NBA defenses. Unless of course you have Lebron James or are the old Thunder teams with Durant and Westbrook (RIP Thunder buddies). This is a poor sign for Kyrie if he were to lead a team. With Lebron on the court and Kyrie off, the team assist percentage skyrockets to 60.6%.6 While we wouldn’t expect Kyrie to pass at the levels of one of the greatest passers of all time in Lebron James, his flashy dribbling displays leads his teammates to stand off ball watching him go one on one. This tends to create a team ecosystem for the Cavs that lacks ball movement.
In an attempt to quantify Kyrie’s offensive style where he will frequently go one on one and look for his own shot I decided to look at the relationship between average dribbles per touch and passes made per minute (to quantify a players willingness to pass the ball). Because point guards dominate the ball so much I only wanted to compare Kyrie to other point guards. Click here to see my interactive graph on Tableau where you can dig into the stats behind the data points and see all the players (Click on Point Guard under Position to isolate only the Point Guards in the graph). See results below.
We can see Kyrie is towards the upper left most area of the point guards signifying his high average dribbles per touch and relatively low passes per minute among his peers. This shows Kyrie’s fatal flaw: his reluctance to make quick decisions accompanied by his unwillingness to set up teammates. If Kyrie wants to hold the ball that long and have an efficient offense he must learn to utilize his teammates more effectively.
This graph is also effective in clustering different point guard types. The guys in the top right part of the graph, Ricky Rubio and Chris Paul, are ball dominant floor generals who create offense for others. The point guards in the bottom left part of the graph are off-ball, spot up shooter types guys like Patrick Beverly, Ian Clark, and Jamal Murray. There isn’t one specific type of point guard that works in all cases, but Kyrie’s willingness to shoot and lack of vision might better serve him if he moved off-ball more like Steph Curry. Despite all of Curry’s off the dribble shooting magic, he’s surprisingly smack dab in the middle of this group, because of his effectiveness as a catch and shoot threat (something Kyrie is also quite good at).
If we take a step back we can also see how Kyrie’s offensive style leads to an overall inefficient offense. The offensive rating for the Cavaliers with Kyrie on the floor and Lebron off was an unimpressive 106.7 points per 100 possessions, which would have them tied for 23rd in the league this year. 5 Not to mention their defensive rating being a horrendous 114.7 points per 100 possessions, 5 which would have made them dead last in the league. Obviously these are small samples sizes, 632 minutes in the regular season out of a possible 3936 minutes (not including overtime), but it does drive home the point that if Kyrie is not going to propel a team to have an above average defense or offense, a team led by him is not going to win too many games. This is exactly what we saw in his earlier days before the King returned home. Kyrie was very young then and is only 25 years old now. He still has the time and the ability to improve different parts of his game. But if you are asking me whether I’d want Kyrie to be the best player on my team, consider me skeptical. Can he be the number 2 option on a very good team? Sure, we’ve already seen that. But let us not forget who he was playing next to. The grass might not be greener on the other side. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.