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It Is Impossible to Properly Rate Kyrie Irving

Maddeningly magical, the Cavs guard is a pure example of basketball being a make-or-miss sport

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In Rio this weekend, Team USA eked out a victory over Boris Diaw’s France to move to 5–0 in the Summer Olympics. The U.S.’s performance has been at once entertaining and unconvincing. Defensively, the Americans struggle to cover actions involving the simplest of movements. Offensively, they’re whatever — some nice dunks, some not-great 3-point shooting, and a generally unenthralling product.

But honestly, who am I to judge? The days of Dream Team hegemony have passed. That’s good. Going to Rio, maybe hitting up a spa, messing around on Snapchat, scoring some baskets, and not really trying that hard on defense while strolling to the medal round sounds pretty good to me. Like, sign me up for that anytime. The team, in other words, appears to have taken on the personality of Kyrie Irving.

Anyway, check out this falling-down alley-oop pass.

Players with offense-only reputations are always divisive, and the score-first point guard is a particularly distrusted basketball archetype, because of how their on-floor inclinations seem to run counter to the nature of the position. In real life, people who hoard things for themselves just seem off. In basketball, the point guard’s primary role is to share.

This is why Irving drives people insane.

In the 1972–73 season, Kansas City–Omaha Kings guard Nate “Tiny” Archibald led the league in per-game scoring (34 points) and assists (11.4). But his coach, Bob Cousy, made sure to qualify his effusive praise for Archibald with warnings that Tiny would, “have to make some changes,” because “he’ll become less productive in scoring next year, and the year after, but I believe he’ll become a better basketball player.” The Kings would finish that season 10 games under .500.

Upon becoming head coach of the staggeringly inept New Orleans Jazz in 1974, Butch Van Breda Kolff said of his star guard “Pistol” Pete Maravich: “I’d love to give him the basketball, but the purpose is to win games. While one man can win a game, one man can’t win games.” Van Breda Kolff was more right than he knew. The Jazz finished out the season 23–59.

Some variation of those critiques — point guards should dish; no man is an island; etc. — have always dogged scoring point guards to one degree or another. Allen Iverson (“Iverson Can’t Do It Alone”), Steve Francis (“Rockets Rookie Needs to Learn to Pass”), Russell Westbrook (“More Passing, Less Shooting the Key for Westbrook, Thunder”), and, of course, Kyrie (“A Modest Proposal: Bench Kyrie Irving”) all had to weather unkind critiques of their games, no matter how much fans loved them. Even championship-winning, Hall of Fame point guards risked criticism when they subverted their role as selfless floor coach. Isiah Thomas’s suspiciously petty lack of passes to Michael Jordan during the 1985 All-Star game stains his legacy to this day.

You watch a pure point guard, and think, “That person would be fun to play with.” Alternatively, if you knew nothing at all about basketball — if you were an alien, or had just come out of an 80-year coma, or your name were Ted Cruz — you could still watch a ball-hogging point guard and recognize that playing with that person would be a lot of tedious running and pointless hand-waving, devoid of anything cool, like scoring. (There is only one uncool way to score: the stoop-backed, bow-legged granny free throw, which hasn’t been used since the days of Rick Barry. Possibly related: Rick Barry was widely reviled.)

The score-first point guard presents the possibility for risk and reward to both his team and himself. He could alienate teammates, get ripped on social media (with a decent amount of likes and RTs, to be fair), get the coach fired, get the GM fired, and produce a lot of all-around Crying Jordan japery.

The reward (and it’s a pretty good one): a scoring point guard’s best games often become stone classics.

More than any other player, Kyrie Irving is the embodiment of Pat Riley’s aphorism that the NBA is a “make-or-miss league.” The difference between Irving playing poorly and playing great is often decided by whether his shots are dropping at a significant enough rate to make up for his defensive liabilities.

This makes him impossible to rate, which, in turn, makes him perfect fodder for arguing. How you rate Irving says a lot about what you value in basketball. Is he an underrated shot-maker with elite handles and guile who just needs to improve his defense to “not abysmal” to become an every-game headache for opponents? Or is he an overrated ball hog and defensive nonentity of such renown that rivals actually want him on the floor?

He’s both. The wide use of advanced stats, the proliferation of scholarly papers on basketball, and SportVU-backed data sets create an environment of faux-certainty about a player’s contribution to his team. But what happens when the numbers aren’t clear? The Cavaliers were slightly better last season with Irving off the court. In this way, the quantitative discourse surrounding Irving mirrors the #Ringz narrative. Would we be talking about Irving as a top-10 player if the Cavaliers wouldn’t have won the title? Is Irving a top-10 player? The answer: for at least two games of a seven-game series, yes.

The Finals saw all the phases of Kyrie. In Game 1, the Warriors strangled the Cavs’ offensive motion by giving him space to entertain his best and worst instincts. Which he did, with alacrity, to the tune of 26 points on a baleful 7-of-22 from the floor, with just four assists. On defense, when Irving was the closest defender, opposing players enjoyed a 66.7 eFG%, which is super bad. In Game 2, Irving scored 10 points and was a minus-26; the Cavaliers’ second-best player was the ancient Richard Jefferson. Afterward, LeBron James reportedly called for unnamed teammates to “follow my lead and do your jobs” or be benched.

Over large samples like an 82-game season, especially in the pre-LeBron days, Kyrie’s ball-on-a-string routine has struck me as impressive, but a bit like fireworks in search of a celebration. Over small samples, like a couple of games in the NBA Finals, though, a player like Irving becomes transcendent. Recently, Kevin Pelton showed that “the most important factor that determines winning and losing” a single game is not the quality of a team’s shot attempts, but whether those attempts, no matter how shitty, go in. In short: Pat Riley (who also coined “no rebounds, no rings,”) has bars.

By Game 5, the make-miss flux state had swung firmly to buckets. The time-stuttering hesitations; the crossovers; the games of hide-and-seek with his defenders around screens; the easy yo-yo-ing of the ball; the loping, ambidextrous layups (per Synergy, Irving split his isolation drives evenly between right and left in 2015–16), often off the wrong foot; the scurrying stepbacks; the dipsy-doodle scoops and flips that find their way to the hoop through hairline cracks between defenders; the pull-up 3-pointers which … usually not the best idea, but whatever; the bullshitty-type (for lack of a better description) attempts that really have no reason to go in. Well, except that it’s a make-or-miss league.

Kyrie’s title-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 is the definition of the make-miss flux state, and it came in the biggest game in recent memory. It was the kind of shot that he has often been roasted for, and the kind of shot for which he will surely be roasted in the future. Miss it, and Irving is the fall guy. Make it and … well, LeBron is the hero, no matter what, but still — you’ll be hero-adjacent.

Irving got the ball and used a J.R. Smith screen to get Stephen Curry on a switch. Kyrie’s Cavs teammates looked on as he isolated and then dribbled no fewer than nine times before firing a step-back 3 with Curry all over him. Irving hijacked the offense, refusing to drive into the teeth of the Warriors defense and instead doing it all himself at a high degree of difficulty. It was foolish.

It didn’t matter. The shot was good.