Kyrie Irving’s Stats Aren’t Worth The Drama

Throughout Kyrie Irving’s many basketball hiatuses over time — whether or not on account of accidents, refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine or, most just lately, suspension for selling an anti-Semitic documentary — the mercurial star’s on-court brilliance has hardly ever been questioned. Contemporaries have usually referred to as him essentially the most expert participant within the historical past of the NBA, with some going so far as to say he ranks among the many league’s 75 finest gamers ever. And watching Irving definitely leaves you dazzled: You’d be hard-pressed to discover a extra maddening cowl on protection, outfitted with an arsenal of how-did-he-think-of-that strikes and the slipperiness to evade even the rangiest and most dedicated of stoppers.

But Irving’s standing because the darling of basketball aesthetes in all places has obscured his general contributions to successful basketball — even within the uncommon circumstances when he is on the ground. On a per-possession foundation, Irving has cracked the highest 25 of FiveThirtyEight’s regular-season Total RAPTOR metric simply as soon as since arriving in Brooklyn for the 2019-20 season, and in his profession he is reached that benchmark fewer instances (4) than he is fallen outdoors of it (5). For a participant whose observable ability set has lengthy confounded the superior metrics, it is becoming that RAPTOR sees Irving’s impression otherwise than the standard knowledge does:

Kyrie Irving has been a defensive sieve

Regular-season RAPTOR metrics for Kyrie Irving by NBA season, 2013-14 to 2021-22, with rankings amongst certified gamers

Year RAPTOR O O rank RAPTOR D D rank Total RAPTOR Total rank
2021-22* +5.0 6 -0.9 166 +4.1 18
2020-21 +5.7 9 -2.7 232 +3.0 36
2019-20* +6.0 7 -3.2 242 +2.8 48
2018-19 +5.5 5 +1.1 68 +6.6 8
2017-18 +6.0 6 -1.2 196 +4.8 15
2016-17 +6.3 9 -4.0 246 +2.3 43
2015-16 +2.6 24 -2.2 223 +0.5 103
2014-15 +5.5 5 -0.9 170 +4.6 14
2013-14 +2.3 28 -1.2 187 +1.2 84

*Irving didn’t attain the minutes threshold to qualify for the RAPTOR leaderboard, so these rankings are based mostly off of his numbers within the minutes he did play.

Source: NBA superior stats

The most blatant wrongdoer for Irving’s less-impressive-than-expected numbers right here is his protection. Listed at 6-foot-2, 195 kilos, Irving has at all times been a simple goal for opposing offenses to hunt, and he is been a net-negative on that finish for all however one 12 months of his profession throughout the player-tracking period. Although his defensive impression has trended upward with every successive season in Brooklyn, his numbers stay woefully below-average for a participant of his caliber and place: Last season, Irving’s negative-0.9 defensive RAPTOR ranked forty first out of 72 level guards who performed at the very least 1,000 regular-season minutes, and he is been an above-average defender at his place in only one season of his 12-year profession.

It’s a credit score to Irving’s enchancment on that finish that he not ranks among the many very worst defenders within the league — his 2016-17 defensive efficiency ranks Thirteenth-worst among the many 652 qualifying guard-seasons since 2013-14 — however he nonetheless lags behind his friends in that regard. Compare that to the oft-maligned protection of Warriors guard Stephen Curry, whom RAPTOR has seen as a net-positive defender in all however three years since 2013-14.

But whereas Irving’s protection has normally left one thing to be desired, it is hardly the only motive for this obvious disconnect between his popularity and observable impression on the sport of basketball. (After all, no one has ever accused Kyrie of being a lockdown defender.) Even on offense, as you may discover from the desk above, Irving has by no means persistently ascended to the league’s higher echelon throughout his skilled profession.

While he is completed among the many high 5 a few instances (2014-15 and 2018-19), Irving’s finest season by offensive RAPTOR — 2016-17, during which he recorded a plus-6.3 and sniffed a spot within the coveted 50-40 -90 membership — ranks as simply the Twenty ninth-best per-possession offensive efficiency by some extent guard since 2013-14 and the Thirty seventh-best general, whereas his 2020-21 marketing campaign (which noticed him truly report that 50-40-90) ranks thirty eighth and 54th, respectively. Curry (seven instances), Chris Paul (5), James Harden (5), Damian Lillard (4), Russell Westbrook (twice), Trae Young (twice), Kyle Lowry (as soon as) and even Isaiah Thomas (as soon as) all posted extra impactful offensive seasons than Irving throughout this time interval.

So why would not Irving’s offensive effectiveness line up with what our eyes inform us? An enormous motive could lie within the divergence between Irving’s conventional numbers and his on-court impression. Take Player Efficiency Rating, for instance, a per-minute metric that measures a participant’s field rating manufacturing, versus on-off plus/minus, which measures how a participant’s group does when he is within the recreation versus not. Irving tends to carry out higher in PER than in on-off statistics, as proven within the chart beneath:

As a corollary, Irving’s help fee is not in the identical ballpark of distributors like Harden and Paul, who does he transfer off the ball like Curry. The very attributes which have drawn Kyrie comparisons to dribbling maestros like Rod Strickland and Allen Iverson may additionally be those that maintain him from getting into the realm of all-time offensive greats. As my colleague Jared Dubin wrote final spring, Irving’s ball-stopping tendencies on offense got here to a head towards the Boston Celtics throughout the 2022 playoffs, the place his method of searching for out contested pictures towards the rangy Boston protection helped stymie any rhythm Brooklyn hoped to construct.

Yes, Brooklyn’s offensive ranking of 115.0 with Irving on the ground would have ranked No. 3 as a seasonlong metric in 2021-22, however therein lies the Kyrie conundrum. As a detrimental defender, it’s important to hope for an otherworldly offensive explosion from Irving and firm to offset the seemingly defensive drop-off that comes together with his presence — and even a fee of 115.0 was not ok. As it stands, Irving will not be the scorer or distributor who can supercharge a group previous its obtrusive defensive deficiencies — and a Brooklyn roster building that’s, let’s assume, not precisely defensively inclined. And this 12 months, it is in all probability not a coincidence that the Nets are defending significantly better whereas Irving has been off the ground. (Even counting the 153-point avalanche the Nets surrendered to the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night time, with Irving nonetheless suspended.)

Finally, Irving’s numbers have tended to tail off when it counts essentially the most — within the playoffs. Since leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers (the place he admittedly drained probably the most well-known buckets in NBA historical past), Irving has managed 21.9 factors per recreation on 43/35/93 capturing splits in 22 postseason contests, a big decline from each his playoff stats as a Cav and from his regular-season numbers as a Net. At the identical time, his group has been outscored with him on the ground in two of his previous three postseasons.

And once more, these numbers solely present Irving when he is been on the ground, an all-too-unfamiliar sight courting again to his time at Duke (when a busted-up toe was the one supply of missed video games). Out of the eight postseasons his groups have performed in throughout his profession, Irving has missed substantial elements of 4, along with taking part in fewer than 50 p.c of regular-season video games since 2019-20. If you have a look at Irving’s RAPTOR wins above substitute, a cumulative statistic, it turns into clear that his (un)availability is his best (in)means: In that class, Irving has ranked among the many high 20 most useful NBA gamers in a given season simply twice since 2013-14.

None of that is to say that Irving is not preternaturally gifted — neither is it to counsel that he would not belong in discussions of the all-time NBA greats. (That 3-pointer he hit to defeat the 73-9 Golden State Warriors is the final word trump card in that respect.) Rather, it is a comment on how arguably essentially the most aesthetically pleasing, mesmerizing and expert participant within the historical past of arguably essentially the most skill-driven sport has left meat on the bone. (Sound acquainted?)

Of course, a strong first step to correcting that discrepancy can be to indicate up on the basketball court docket, and Irving will quickly have that chance once more, as he nears a return from suspension on Sunday towards the Memphis Grizzlies. But we’ll see how lengthy it lasts: Time and time once more, even being out there to play has usually proved unattainable for basketball’s most irritating star.

Neil Paine contributed analysis.

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