The Curious Case of Kyrie Irving: What's Next for the Cleveland Cavaliers' Star?
I still remember my first basket on a 10-foot hoop.
That first bucket, an underhanded heave toward a rim dangling from a splintery plywood backboard which was nailed to a tree in my backyard and inexplicably spray painted some sort of mauve, felt like true love. It took all my five-year-old might to get that Power Rangers rubber ball up and over the rim and down through the red, white, and blue net. I ran from my backyard to my house, hands in the air and yelling more nonsense than Kevin Garnett after he won the NBA Finals.
Ever since, basketball has been a part of who I am.
Unfortunately, growing up stuck in the center of the Cleveland-Washington D.C.-Philadelphia triangle, I never had an NBA team to declare my own, no hometown favorite. Instead, my rooting fate was decided for me. LeBron James started taking the basketball world by storm during my middle school days, and by high school, the Cleveland Cavaliers were nationally televised. I latched on, got myself a 1970s-style Cavaliers wallpaper for my family's desktop computer, and never looked back.
It wasn't until this year, roughly 10 years later, that I actually attended my first NBA game. My girlfriend got me tickets to a 76ers game in Cleveland, which was directly in the middle of the polar vortex that hit America this winter. Fortunately, I was able to swap them to another blockbuster game: a late-January affair between the 8-33 Milwaukee Bucks and the 15-27 Cavs.
But I didn't care that I anticipated a 75-65 snoozefest because I was going to be gripping my seat from the excitement of my first actual NBA game, an event a decade in the making.
Most important, I was going to get to see my new favorite player: Kyrie Irving. I figured at the very least he could score a mere 20 points or go back-and-forth with Brandon Knight at least for two possessions.
Ultimately, Kyrie was quiet - from his warm-up routine until the final buzzer - and finished with the softest double-double (10 points and 10 assists) possible. Never once, to me, did it feel like Kyrie was in control of the Cavs. Irving's leadership shortcomings are well-documented, but I always thought perhaps his leadership just didn't translate well during telecasts.
I was wrong.
I suppose it's how most 21-year-olds would handle a meaningless late-January tilt after losing game after game in the dregs of the Association. But Kyrie isn't supposed to be most 21-year-olds, and he's not even supposed to be most 21-year-olds in the NBA. He's already a two-time All-Star in his first three seasons, started this year's All-Star game, and was named All-Star Game MVP. He has a viral Pepsi campaign as Uncle Drew. He's on the cover of NBA Live '14. He's supposed to be one of the league's next elite players.
I just don't see it right now.
Kyrie: Year 1
Irving played his first season with the Cavs at age 19. He tallied 18.5 points on a true shooting percentage of 56.6% and 5.6 assists, very promising marks for a rookie point guard. He compares well to his historical peer group of 19-year-olds, too.
Since 2000, twenty 19 year olds recorded at least 1550 minutes in an NBA season. Irving played 1558 in his rookie year at age 19. Unsurprisingly, this group of players is comprised largely of early draft picks destined for heavy minutes in the league.
|19 Year Olds||nERD||Rank (of 20)||nF Efficiency||Rank (of 20)|
(nERD is a metric we use at numberFire that's comparable to win shares. It identifies how many games over or under .500 a team would be with a given player on its roster. You can read about it more fully here.)
It might be surprising to see Kyrie so high on the list, particularly when compared to James and Kevin Durant, but it's a great reminder that elite players can get off to a slow start. This isn't the case for Irving, whose nERD of 1.5 is the fifth-best in the NBA since 2000 among 19-year-olds who played at least 1550 minutes. The average nERD of the 20 players who qualified was actually negative: -1.66. Not only was Irving not detrimental to his team's success like 16 of the 20 teenagers were, he was moderately beneficial.
This level of play set the bar high for Irving, who planted his flag as a clutch player with this game-winning drive against the Celtics in Boston, during his Rookie of the Year campaign. Thought to be the next big thing in the NBA and the hero Cleveland needed after LeBron left, Kyrie needed to sustain his level of play into his second year and avoid the vaunted sophomore slump.
Kyrie: Year 2
Kyrie did sustain his success, but the key word in that clause is "sustain."
Historical comparisons are more plentiful for Irving's second season because he started at such a young age. Kyrie played 2,048 minutes in his second season. While this is roughly a 25% increase in minutes, nearly twice as many 20-year-olds saw at least 2040 minutes (39) than 19-year-olds saw 1,550 minutes (20):
|20 Year Olds||nERD||Rank (of 39)||nF Efficiency||Rank (of 39)|
The average nERD from this 39-player group is also negative: -0.86. Again, this indicates that, on average, playing a 20-year-old 2,040 or more minutes is detrimental to an NBA team. Not with Irving, who posted a positive nERD of 1.1. However, like I said before, Irving basically sustained his nERD (it dropped by 0.4). He didn't make a leap forward by a long shot.
For comparison's sake, Anthony Davis was 20 years old this season and played 2,358 minutes, which would have qualified him for the chart if I included numbers from this season. He finished with a nERD of 12.0, which would have placed him just behind James in second place. Davis' nF efficiency of 4.0 is the best from a 20-year-old since 2000. Davis took an immense leap forward from 19 to 20, as did James, Durant, and Parker. Kyrie's impact, on the other hand, was more average than stellar like it was when he was 19.
Kyrie: Year 3
Kyrie secured a second-straight All-Star appearance, placing him among the elite players in the league. His star power continued to grow whether his production grew or not. (It didn't.)
His on-court play was a letdown statistically considering where he was in his first two seasons. But before breaking down his three-year progression, I want, again, to contextualize Kyrie's season at age 21. He played 2,496 minutes, and 36 other 21-year-olds have hit the 2,490-minute mark since 2000. Here's where Kyrie lands:
|21 Year Olds||nERD||Rank (of 36)||nF Efficiency||Rank (of 36)|
Irving remains in the top half of his historical peer group at age 21, and his 3.0 nERD is over a half game better than the average of this 36-player subset (2.48). Factoring out Durant and LeBron drops the average nERD to just 1.47, meaning Kyrie is performing even better than the typical (i.e. not LeBron or Durant) 21 year old who plays nearly 2,500 minutes. So, Irving continues to be above average for his age, but this becomes disillusioned when more names appear on the list.
Stephen Curry was a rookie when he was 21 and improved his nERD from -2.5 to a positive 2.5 in his second season. Russell Westbrook improved his nERD from -8.5 at age 20 to 0.3 at age 21. Derrick Rose is firmly planted behind Kyrie on these charts, but Rose improved his nERD from -0.6 in his second season to 14.0 in his third season (during which he won MVP). Irving improved from 1.1 to 3.0.
Evidenced by his nERD scores referenced above, Kyrie has consistently been above average for his age but by no means elite. Instead of improving his production, Irving has experienced a hit to his shooting percentages, and his other numbers are far from promising.
Looking specifically at Irving's progression, several downward trends are emerging.
|True Shooting%||eFG%||3-Pt Rate||AST %||REB %||TO %||Usage %|
Both his TS% and eFG% have declined each year, and his three-point attempt rate has gone up. Shooting more three-pointers is detrimental to shooting percentages, but these measurements help adjust for the extra point awarded from a made attempt from beyond the arc. This suggests his three-point field goal percentage is declining. It is. Kyrie's percentage from downtown has dropped from 39.9% in his rookie year to 39.1% and then to 35.8% this season.
Kyrie has yet to make a substantive leap forward in his assist numbers as well, though his mark has increased steadily from 5.4 per game to 5.9 and then to 6.1 this season. His 6.1 assists this season tied for 14th in the NBA, and he was tied with or trailed players not necessarily known for distributing like James Harden and Brandon Jennings and point guards who few would think to compare to Irving like Jameer Nelson and Jeff Teague. Granted, neither Nelson nor Teague shoulder the scoring burden like Irving does, but then again, neither are voted to be All-Star starter caliber players.
Of course it's up to fans to vote for All-Stars, but this might be contributing to the problem for the franchise guard who turned 22 in March. Irving received 860,221 votes to represent the Eastern Conference backcourt. John Wall received 393,129 votes. Of Irving's stats before All-Star weekend (21.5 points, 6.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 42.9% FG%), only his PPG and FG% were better than Wall's (19.8 points, 8.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 42.0% FG%), yet Irving received 467,092 more votes than Wall.
Kyle Lowry (16.7 points, 7.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 43.1% FG%) trailed Irving only in points, yet couldn't finish inside the top 10 in Eastern Conference backcourt voting. Furthermore, Lowry finished the season with an Assist-to-Turnover ratio of 3.02, which was tied for eighth in the league with rookie point guard Trey Burke. Irving's 2.28 Assist-to-Turnover ratio was tied for 34th.
There's something about Kyrie that suggests he's doing more than he is on the court. Perhaps it's his flair or his Tracy McGrady nonchalance or that he's doing it all with a poor team around him, but looking past the NBA Live 14 covers and All-Star appearances, Irving hasn't developed quite as well as many expected he would. In his defense, though, he was surprisingly developed to start his career, as evidenced by his nERD and efficiency metrics at age 19. Unfortunately, he's been at a standstill ever since - albeit near the top of the point guard class in the league.
What's Next for Irving?
The Cavaliers can talk about contract extensions with Irving, who is saying the right things about the possibility of being a Cavalier through 2020 (i.e. that he's "excited" about it). But Irving wasn't consulted about firing head coach Mike Brown, and it's uncertain what role he'll play in deciding the new coach for the Cavs. Even still, it's unlikely the Cavaliers won't throw out the maximum five-year deal to keep Kyrie in the wine and gold; it's less likely that Irving will turn down a contract that huge.
The Cavaliers, still, are in desperate need of restructuring the roster and finding a head coach who can help Irving reach his full potential and make a leap like Curry or Rose did. Then again, it's possible Irving can't quite make that leap and nobody knows it yet. After all, there are plenty of names I left off the charts. No Cavs fan wants to include Kyrie's potential in the same sentence with Rudy Gay's, Monta Ellis', or Josh Smith's, right?
Right now, he's on the decline while other stars pass him by, even if the All-Star votes and YouTube views don't show it. His decline could be because of coaching, his teammates, or Cleveland itself, but he needs to figure it out before locking himself into another six seasons as a Cavalier.
As a Cavaliers fan, I want to see him stay and succeed and reach his full potential in Quicken Loans Arena and maybe turn that All-Star Game MVP into a Finals MVP.
As a Kyrie fan and an analytics fan, it bemoans me to think his best course of action is to take his talents to another franchise where he might be able to make that D-Rose or Curry leap into elite production.