The NBA is teeming with talent from the backcourt to the frontcourt, but even as space and versatility have changed the way we evaluate player roles, there still is no position that captures the fan imagination quite like the point guard. This week, we’re celebrating the masters of tempo, the architects of system, and the athletes who have altered our understanding of game management. There is no consensus on who—or what—constitutes as the “best,” but it’s always a conversation worth having. Welcome to the Great Point Guard Debate.
Here’s a list of the top 15 point guards entering this season, according to an aggregate of recent top-100 player rankings done by five different sites.
Aggregate Point Guard Rankings
|Mike Conley Jr.||8.4||7||8||10||7||10|
No surprises here. Stephen Curry is the unanimous no. 1, and there’s a consensus top five. Then there’s a steady decline down to George Hill at no. 15. Kyrie Irving, meanwhile, lands at no. 8. Which seems fair, no?
But the Kyrie conversation is rarely so cut and dry. If you’ve ever been online, you know the internet has some opinions about Irving. You’ll find countless articles, threads, videos, and graphics arguing whether Kyrie is overrated or underrated, or even both. Some think he’s nothing more than a gunner. Others think his true talents weren’t fully realized under LeBron’s colossal shadow. No topic divides basketball fans more than Kyrie.
But his time could come. Irving, who didn’t turn 25 until March, is by far the youngest player on the above list. The average age of all 15 point guards is 28.9. The next-youngest point guards are John Wall, who turned 27 in September, and Damian Lillard, who turned 27 in July.
Three years from now, when Irving is 28, no other point guard on this list will be in their 20s. Paul will be 35. Lowry, 34. Curry and Westbrook will turn 32. Harden will be 31. A 2014 study by NBA Miner found a point guard’s prime years to be between 28 and 32. Various NBA executives I contacted felt the prime is on the lower end of the scale (more like 27 to 30). Two execs said Steve Nash probably skews the data. Either way, in a few seasons, today’s gold-standard point guards could be on the brink of a decline. Irving could be smack in the middle of his prime and the recent draftees will have yet to reach their peak.
The first five point guards drafted in the lottery this June—including Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, and De’Aaron Fox—won’t even be 23 on opening night in 2020. The average age a point guard drafted this century was named to his first All-NBA team is 24.4. It’s unfair to expect any of them to be an All-NBA-caliber talent in just three seasons, just as it’s maddening when Irving’s three pre-LeBron years in Cleveland are cited as a knock. Point guards need time to mature more than any other position in the NBA. So while we debate whether Irving is overrated or underrated today, there’s a chance that we may be discussing whether he’s the best point guard in the NBA in the not-too-distant future.
When Irving’s trade request first broke in July, I made the case that Irving has unrealized potential; then, as rumors continued to swirl into August, someone tweeted me that Irving “is who he is.” His point was that Irving has already played six seasons. He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
I gotta admit that I’m a little confused. It almost feels like we’re taking what Irving has already accomplished in his young career for granted. He was the second-ranked high school player in 2010. He was the first overall pick in 2011. He’s a four-time All-Star. He was named All-NBA in his age-22 season. He won MVP at the FIBA World Cup in 2014. He was Team USA’s starting point guard and won a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics. He’s been to three straight Finals. He’s won playoff games and shined on the same stage alongside some of the best players in the world. He already has a career-defining moment from Game 7 in the 2016 NBA Finals.
It’s as if Irving’s accomplishments work against him. Have we been overexposed? Playing alongside the potential GOAT in Cleveland helped put him in position to achieve what he has, but Irving has a career’s worth of accomplishments, all before entering his age-25 season. Few players, at any position, have ever had such a long résumé at this age. You may not love his style of play, but you can’t ignore the results.
Westbrook, Harden, Paul, and Lillard are the four other point guards from the top-15 list that were named to an All-NBA team for the first time before turning 24. All four of them kept getting better. Harden and Westbrook have become better passers. Paul continued mastering his craft. Lillard has maintained his scoring efficiency while increasing his volume. Why can’t Irving follow the same path?
Irving is best known as a one-on-one scorer. Since 2014-15, in the regular season and playoffs, Irving scored 30.5 points per 36 minutes with a 51.7 effective field goal percentage when LeBron was off the floor, according to data derived by NBA Wowy. This sample came over 2,232 total minutes, about the equivalent of 62 games. But a Celtics staffer told me before Monday’s preseason game that in the team’s first team scrimmage of training camp, Irving assisted on five of six made baskets. If anything, they want him passing less and scoring more, but Irving’s passing progress has translated to preseason: He had 16 assists and three turnovers.
The Celtics are still jelling. Their offense isn’t running as crisply as it did last season. The timing isn’t as precise as it needs to be. But from a technical standpoint, Irving is making quick reads and delivering on-target passes with zip on the ball. He doesn’t look like a guy without vision, or a guard reluctant to pass. The Celtics, meanwhile, can still look sharp at times, despite the fact that they return only four players from last season. Irving has played a central role in that, which shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Irving is entering the same Brad Stevens system that helped transform Isaiah Thomas, one of the key pieces in the trade that brought him to Boston, from a tiny sixth man into a two-time All-Star and an All-NBA player. Thomas also once had the reputation of a gunner, but that changed quickly with the Celtics. He became more of a savvy player, one who knew how to pick his spots.
Irving’s role in Boston will also be different than the one he had in Cleveland. There will be fewer isolations and more handoffs and off-ball screens—two critical components of Thomas’s success. The Celtics used Thomas like a mini-me version of Kyle Korver, racing him through mazes of screens to spring him for open 3s, or getting him an angle to attack downhill off the catch. Irving will need to prove he can make this adjustment off the ball, rather than spotting up simply to space the floor like he generally did in Cleveland. Irving, of course, excelled at that, shooting 46.9 percent on 548 catch-and-shoot 3s the past three seasons (playoffs included).
For the sake of comparison, Curry's numbers over the same time frame are 46.4 percent on 1,266 attempts—i.e., more than double Kyrie’s total. It remains to be seen if Kyrie sustains his elite percentage with a higher frequency of attempts and without LeBron dishing him the rock. But Curry was still the shooter with the shaky ankles entering his age-25 season, despite signs indicating an imminent explosion. The numbers are there to support Irving can catch fire as a shooter, too.
When the ball is in Irving’s hands, the floor will be spaced like never before. Thomas got all the glory for getting buckets in Boston, but Al Horford was the unsung hero. Horford’s screening, spacing, and passing ability enabled Thomas to have one of the all-time-great volume-efficiency scoring seasons. Though Irving had LeBron on his team, Tristan Thompson suffocated the floor; Cleveland has good reason for starting Kevin Love at the 5 this season. With more room to operate, Irving will also simply get more chances to be a superstar. Irving brought the ball up the floor and initiated the offense in 43 percent of possessions he was on the court last season, according to tracking data provided to The Ringer. This preseason, Irving’s number was at 61 percent. By comparison, Thomas was at 54 percent this past season.
Irving is now in a ball-movement-based system and has the best coach of his career. He’s only 25, which means he’s not even in the prime of his career. The evidence suggests he’s still getting better. Though Irving isn’t the NBA’s best point guard today, he could be in the future—and sooner than you think.