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Why Kyrie Irving Will Struggle On His Own

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How Kyrie Irving will struggle to lead a new team after his trade request.

Just as we thought we might get a respite from the perpetual madness that has been the 2017 NBA offseason, Kyrie Irving went and dropped a bombshell on the league.

On Jul. 7, Irving let it be known to owner Dan Gilbert and the Cavaliers’ organization that he was no longer happy as LeBron James’ second-in-command and wished to be traded. In the moment, this felt like a sharp departure from the apparent joy the Cavs were feeling 12 months ago. But, according to much of the reporting, this has been something that Irving has been thinking about for a long time.

Irving signed his current deal way back in 2014, just 24 hours before LeBron announced his return to Cleveland. When Irving signed his extension, he signed as the team’s leader and best player; but once LeBron came back, he was relegated to the second-tier. He may view himself as a top talent in the league and a player fully capable of leading a team to title contention, but he knows he will never be put on that mantle with LeBron as his teammate.

The bad news for Irving is that Cleveland is under no obligation to trade the 25-year-old who is under contract for two more seasons. While it certainly seems his days in Cleveland are numbered, he has no real control over this outcome.

Irving has reportedly presented Gilbert and new GM Koby Altman with a list of preferred destinations, but this list has no real bearing over where he ends up. While we wait for a trade that may not happen for a while, it is much more interesting to examine how Irving might perform when his desired weight is placed firmly upon his back. Unfortunately for him, all evidence thus far points towards a not-so-promising outcome.

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Let me start this off by saying two very different but important things. First, Kyrie Irving is a phenomenal offensive talent that has been invaluable to Cleveland’s incredible success over the past three seasons. And second, he would have had no realistic chance to reach those heights and flourish in the way he has without LeBron James helping him grow into the player he is today.

Last season, Irving was just one of seven players to average 25 points and 5.5 assists per game. Of those seven players, he joined Stephen Curry as the only two to also shoot 40% from three. When attacking the rim, he is as dangerous an offensive force as we have in this league. The way he finishes seemingly every layup attempt no matter how difficult is so great to watch that I’m just going to include a video of him finishing for fun.

If going one-on-one was all he needed to do, Irving would be in the conversation for the best players in the league, but we all know there is far more to being a successful NBA player. When he has played alongside LeBron, he has been allowed to focus on his offensive strengths while allowing LeBron to do just about everything else. For those periods when LeBron has gone to the bench, however, Irving has been far less successful.

In the 2016-17 regular season, nearly 80% of Irving’s minutes came with LeBron. When on the court together, the Cavs were +9 per 100 possessions; but without LeBron, the Cavs were -8 per 100 possessions. The fall from a great team to a lottery-bound one when LeBron sits is a trend that has followed him almost his entire career, but it is worrying that Irving cannot even keep the Cavs above water on his own.

In fairness, many of those regular season LeBron-less minutes came when Irving was playing alongside three or four bench players which typically bring bad results no matter who else is on the court. But, more importantly, that trend continued through the playoffs when rotations shrink to sometimes as few as eight or nine players. In the approximately four minutes a game Irving was on the court without LeBron in the playoffs, the Cavs were an even worse -19 per 100 possessions.

Again, to be fair, the majority of those minutes came at the hands of the Warriors; but, the Irving-led Cavs were still -3 per 100 possessions through the first three rounds in which Cleveland breezed by with a record of 12-1. If you think back to how dominant the Cavs were in the East, it is telling to see the Cavs were still a negative when primarily led by Irving.

The logical question is why does an Irving-led team struggle so much, but unfortunately, there is no simple, all-encompassing answer. Some clarity, however, can be gleaned from Irving’s greatest triumph. Long after his career is over, no matter his future accomplishments, Irving’s Finals-winning shot over Steph Curry will be the indelible image of his career.

As great a shot as that was, it was simply Irving taking his man and making an incredibly difficult shot. Cleveland brought a screen over for him, but the ball was in his hands almost that entire possession. He took and made one of the biggest shots in NBA history, but a year later in a similar spot, Irving came up short.

If you go back and watch the play right after Kevin Durant’s go-ahead three, Irving gets the ball, dribbles up the court for 17 seconds, forgoes the chance for a two-for-one, and misses a tough but similar fadeaway jumper and the Cavs lose. It would never be fair to say that because Irving made the shot in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals he is now expected to make them all, but ignoring his failures because of his single greatest triumph is equally as foolish.

While LeBron was on the court for both of those plays, they illustrate a larger trend of the Cavs’ offense when Irving is the primary offensive option. Without LeBron, Kyrie’s usage rate jumped from 26.8% to 41.7% which would have tied him for the league lead. His assist percentage jumps similarly from 24.6 to 45.3%, but assist/turnover ratio falls from 2.6 to 1.8. Essentially, for better or worse, without LeBron, Kyrie is going to have the ball and decide where it goes from there.

Last season, Irving took 18.2 shots per 36 minutes with LeBron on the court, but he took 27.3 per 36 with LeBron on the bench. That trend makes sense as you would want your best players taking the most shots, but 81.8% of his shot attempts when LeBron was on the bench came unassisted. Kyrie is actually a pretty decent off-the-dribble shooter, but he, like almost every other player, shoots worse off unassisted attempts than he does off assisted ones and you can see that by his field goal percentages.

Kyrie Irving’s FG% 2016-17 Regular Season

DistanceLeBron on CourtLeBron off Court
Restricted Area56.3%60.7%
Paint (non-RA)46.8%27.3%
Left Corner Three39.5%20%
Right Corner Three41.0%36.4%
Above the Break41.0%40.5%

While his 2% overall drop-off in field goal percentage without LeBron isn’t huge, it is enough to make an impact. When you lose everything LeBron does for you on the court and add in your second-best player struggling in the areas he normally dominates, that explains why the team goes from +9 to -8 without LeBron.

Ultimately, this is what Irving wants. He made the decision that he wants to be the leader of a team rather than play alongside a better player that makes him and everyone else better. It’s understandable that Irving would want to challenge himself in this way after all of the success he’s had in Cleveland, but all indications point to that being a poor decision for his future.

Irving’s shortcomings will not go away once he leaves Cleveland. If anything, they will only get more pronounced. His game is built for the big moments and game-winning opportunities, but without LeBron alongside him, he hasn’t shown he is capable of getting his team in a position where it matters if he makes the shot with a second left or not.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

How many assists per game did Kyrie Irving average during the 2017 NBA Finals?
Created 7/26/17
  1. 3.5
  2. 4.4
  3. 5.3
  4. 7.8

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