When Kyrie Irving reached the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2011, he was quickly and legitimately heralded as one of the best young point guards in the game, with the expectation that he would become one of the best players in the league. As a 19- and 20-year old, he was scoring more efficiently and passing better than young point guards typically have the right to score and pass. By the age of 20, his numbers were crushing those of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, and James Harden at the same stage.
A funny thing happened on the way to Irving's superstardom, however -- he did not really get much better. All of the aforementioned names got significantly better after their age-20 seasons. With the exception of Wall, all have been legitimate MVP candidates. Irving, meanwhile, remains a really good but not truly elite player.
To be fair to Irving, this is a really high standard to hold him to. The argument here isn't about whether Irving is really good -- he clearly is. Instead, the argument is that he has not lived up to the potential that he displayed during his first two years in the league. He is not one of the top five players in the league, and is honestly not close.
No 19-year-old guard has ever posted a higher PER than Irving did his rookie year (21.4), and the only player to do better at age 20 was Chris Paul (22.1). Ditto with assist rate, box plus-minus, and win shares per 48 minutes played (Tony Parker did sneak ahead of 20-year-old Kyrie in this metric). Irving also owns the highest true shooting percentage for a 19-year-old. Basically, on total measures of production (like BPM), efficiency measures (PER), and skill measures (like AST% and TS%), the league had simply not seen a young player able to perform at Irving's level. Each of these measures has strengths and weaknesses, but taken together they paint a picture of a very good player who, given his age, was on track to become one of the truly elite players in the league.
Comparing Irving to the above-mentioned guards makes the relative stagnation clear. There are four guards in the league who were top five picks like Irving, played significant minutes at age 19 or 20, and who we now consider to be MVP or near MVP-level players -- Paul, Westbrook, Wall and Harden. Wall is a questionable inclusion since no one is confusing him with the other three right now, but he has been to as many All-Star Games as Irving and is playing the best basketball of his career right now. (Stephen Curry is not included is this group because he was 21 in his rookie season, so his career path is not as comparable as the rest.)
Irving started off at a very high level and remains at a high level, but the reality is that at age of 24, he has simply has not improved very much, if at all. This is the consistent story across all of the metrics considered.
If Irving is not blossoming into the elite player the numbers suggested he could be, the natural question is why. The first, most obvious place to look is to LeBron James, who arrived in Cleveland when Irving was 22. Clearly James took over the spotlight, and in so doing gave Irving and the rest of the Cavs a chance to win rings. Did James also stunt Irving's growth? It is impossible to know for sure, but there are certainly some clues to indicate that the answer is no.
The first clue here is that Irving's usage rate has remained constant throughout his career at approximately 28 percent -- dipping only slightly to 26 percent during his first season with James. James' presence has not changed the volume of Irving's impact on the Cavs offense. It has, however, altered what that impact looks like. Irving is taking more 3-point shots (31 percent of his attempts now, versus 26 percent pre-James), but has not become a better 3-point shooter with James as a teammate. Irving shot a career-low 32 percent from 3 last season, but has become a marginally more efficient scorer in large part due to better shot selection.
James' presence has also coincided with an improvement in Irving's finishing at the rim. In his first three seasons, in which opposing defenses knew Irving was the only legitimate scorer on the team, his field goal percentage inside 3 feet was approximately 58 percent. With James (and J.R. Smith and Kevin Love) helping to spread out the defense, Irving is seeing a more open lane and his field goal percentage has moved up to 61 percent inside 3 feet.
The takeaway, then, is that while Irving's opportunities have grown, his skills have not -- at least not fast enough to keep pace with the Hardens and Westbrooks of the league.
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