Throughout Kyrie Irving’s many basketball hiatuses over the years — whether due to injuries, refusal to take the COVID-19 vaccine or, most recently, suspension for promoting an anti-Semitic documentary — the mercurial star’s on-court brilliance has rarely been questioned. Contemporaries have often called him the most skilled player in the history of the NBA, with some going as far to say he ranks among the league’s 75 best players ever. And watching Irving certainly leaves you dazzled: You’d be hard-pressed to find a more maddening cover on defense, equipped with an arsenal of how-did-he-think-of-that moves and the slipperiness to evade even the rangiest and most committed of stoppers.
But Irving’s status as the darling of basketball aesthetes everywhere has obscured his overall contributions to winning basketball — even in the rare cases when he’s on the floor. On a per-possession basis, Irving has cracked the top 25 of FiveThirtyEight’s regular-season Total RAPTOR metric just once since arriving in Brooklyn for the 2019-20 season, and in his career he’s reached that benchmark fewer times (four) than he’s fallen outside of it (five). For a player whose observable skill set has long confounded the advanced metrics, it’s fitting that RAPTOR sees Irving’s impact differently than the conventional wisdom does:
|Year||RAPTOR O||O rank||RAPTOR D||D rank||Total RAPTOR||Total rank|
The most obvious culprit for Irving’s less-impressive-than-expected numbers here is his defense. Listed at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds, Irving has always been an easy target for opposing offenses to hunt, and he’s been a net-negative on that end for all but one year of his career during the player-tracking era. Though his defensive impact has trended upward with each successive season in Brooklyn, his numbers remain woefully below-average for a player of his caliber and position: Last season, Irving’s negative-0.9 defensive RAPTOR ranked 41st out of 72 point guards who played at least 1,000 regular-season minutes, and he’s been an above-average defender at his position in just one season of his 12-year career.
It’s a credit to Irving’s improvement on that end that he no longer ranks among the very worst defenders in the league — his 2016-17 defensive performance ranks 13th-worst among the 652 qualifying guard-seasons since 2013-14 — but he still lags behind his peers in that regard. Compare that to the oft-maligned defense of Warriors guard Stephen Curry, whom RAPTOR has seen as a net-positive defender in all but three years since 2013-14.
But while Irving’s defense has usually left something to be desired, it’s hardly the sole reason for this apparent disconnect between his reputation and observable impact on the game of basketball. (After all, nobody has ever accused Kyrie of being a lockdown defender.) Even on offense, as you’ll notice from the table above, Irving has never consistently ascended to the league’s upper echelon during his professional career.
While he’s finished among the top five a couple of times (2014-15 and 2018-19), Irving’s best season by offensive RAPTOR — 2016-17, in which he recorded a plus-6.3 and sniffed a spot in the coveted 50-40-90 club — ranks as just the 29th-best per-possession offensive performance by a point guard since 2013-14 and the 37th-best overall, while his 2020-21 campaign (which saw him actually record that 50-40-90) ranks 38th and 54th, respectively. Curry (seven times), Chris Paul (five), James Harden (five), Damian Lillard (four), Russell Westbrook (twice), Trae Young (twice), Kyle Lowry (once) and even Isaiah Thomas (once) all posted more impactful offensive seasons than Irving during this time period.
So why doesn’t Irving’s offensive effectiveness line up with what our eyes tell us? A big reason may lie in the divergence between Irving’s traditional numbers and his on-court impact. Take Player Efficiency Rating, for example, a per-minute metric that measures a player’s box score production, as opposed to on-off plus/minus, which measures how a player’s team does when he’s in the game versus not. Irving tends to perform better in PER than in on-off statistics, as shown in the chart below:
As a corollary, Irving’s assist rate isn’t in the same ballpark of distributors like Harden and Paul, nor does he move off the ball like Curry. The very attributes that have drawn Kyrie comparisons to dribbling maestros like Rod Strickland and Allen Iverson may also be the ones that keep him from entering the realm of all-time offensive greats. As my colleague Jared Dubin wrote last spring, Irving’s ball-stopping tendencies on offense came to a head against the Boston Celtics during the 2022 playoffs, where his approach of seeking out contested shots against the rangy Boston defense helped stymie any rhythm Brooklyn was hoping to build.
Yes, Brooklyn’s offensive rating of 115.0 with Irving on the floor would have ranked No. 3 as a seasonlong metric in 2021-22, but therein lies the Kyrie conundrum. As a negative defender, you have to hope for an otherworldly offensive explosion from Irving and company to offset the likely defensive drop-off that comes with his presence — and even a rate of 115.0 was not good enough. As it stands, Irving is not the scorer or distributor who can supercharge a team past its glaring defensive deficiencies — and a Brooklyn roster construction that is, shall we say, not exactly defensively inclined. And this year, it’s probably not a coincidence that the Nets are defending much better while Irving has been off the floor. (Even counting the 153-point avalanche the Nets surrendered to the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night, with Irving still suspended.)
Finally, Irving’s numbers have tended to tail off when it counts the most — in the playoffs. Since leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers (where he admittedly drained one of the most famous buckets in NBA history), Irving has managed 21.9 points per game on 43/35/93 shooting splits in 22 postseason contests, a significant decline from both his playoff stats as a Cav and from his regular-season numbers as a Net. At the same time, his team has been outscored with him on the floor in two of his past three postseasons.
And again, these numbers only show Irving when he’s been on the floor, an all-too-unfamiliar sight dating back to his time at Duke (when a busted-up toe was the only source of missed games). Out of the eight postseasons his teams have played in during his career, Irving has missed substantial parts of four, in addition to playing fewer than 50 percent of regular-season games since 2019-20. If you look at Irving’s RAPTOR wins above replacement, a cumulative statistic, it becomes clear that his (un)availability is his greatest (in)ability: In that category, Irving has ranked among the top 20 most valuable NBA players in a given season just twice since 2013-14.
None of this is to say that Irving isn’t preternaturally gifted — nor is it to suggest that he doesn’t belong in discussions of the all-time NBA greats. (That 3-pointer he hit to defeat the 73-9 Golden State Warriors is the ultimate trump card in that respect.) Rather, it’s a remark on how arguably the most aesthetically pleasing, mesmerizing and skilled player in the history of arguably the most skill-driven sport has left meat on the bone. (Sound familiar?)
Of course, a powerful first step to correcting that discrepancy would be to show up on the basketball court, and Irving will soon have that opportunity again, as he nears a return from suspension on Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies. But we’ll see how long it lasts: Time and time again, even being available to play has often proved unattainable for basketball’s most frustrating star.
Neil Paine contributed research.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.
Author: Santul Nerkar