Dreading all the Kyrie Irving Praise
Kyrie Irving can’t legally purchase an alcoholic beverage in the United States until March 23rd of this year. Check.
He won the ROY award last season in near-unanimous fashion. Check.
Irving’s ball-handling puts And 1 Mix Tape wunderkind, The Professor, to shame. Check.
Kyrie Irving has one of the prettiest jumpers in the league and just won the NBA’s 3-point shooting contest (the only Saturday competition that people still seem to care about) during this past All-Star weekend. Check.
He was also in the actual All-Star game in just his second year. Check.
He dazzled in the Rookie-Sophomore game, abusing Brendan Knight enough, particularly on one cross-over you’ve already seen, that Brendon Knight might be forever scarred from participating in anything over an All-Star weekend ever again. Check.
Add all those check marks up and you’ve got the most fantastic, stupefying, physically gifted young basketball player in the world; someone who leaves professional basketball writers groveling to assign him the most favorable adjectives they can find as they tweet in a perpetual state of delirium at what they’re witnessing. You know, like Derrick Rose used to be, and hopefully will be again.
Part of my apprehension stems from how aggressively Irving attacks the bucket. He appears to be fearless any time it’s a tight game and the clock is dwindling down in the fourth quarter, and so he throws his body into the mix near the basket where the giants lie waiting. This makes for some fantastic segments of basketball, where Kyrie is essentially going 1-on-5, but it’s also scary, especially when you consider his history of freak injuries. They’ve been, in order: a toe injury he suffered eight games into his freshman year at Duke, a concussion in his rookie year in Cleveland that knocked him out of three games, a shoulder injury the same rookie season that saw him miss 10 games (and he admitted he’d had a similar injury in high school), a broken hand he injured in Las Vegas this past summer after slapping the wall after a turnover, an injured index finger in November of this year that saw him miss three weeks, and of course the broken jaw that led to a bevy of kids dropping to wear black face masks on the basketball court. That’s a bizarre list, and even more so when you consider his age.
But, on the bright side, he hasn’t had one of those Shaun Livingston falls that makes everyone gasp, wince, curse fate and leads to a Jonathan Abrams retrospective a year later; he also hasn’t languished on the bench through almost a full season after any of the less horrific knee injuries that have plagued young NBA studs in years past (think, Amar’e Stoudemire or Chris Webber). Still, the not-at-all superstitious possibility that Kyrie Irving is simply too good at basketball to be allowed to continue on his present course of world domination without the fickle finger of chance reaching out to touch him with another absurd ailment, remains to be seen. This is just part of my angst every time people wax poetic about his game in 140 characters or less. The enthusiastic praise about his game in a market that allows people like me (without a television or cable subscription) to watch him on a semi-nightly basis on League Pass, is definitely warranted, but still I pound my wooden desk and ask the God(s) to allow his Promethean talents to go undeterred.
Cleveland hasn’t been this sexy since You Know Who was in town, and because Irving isn’t a physical freak like You Know Who, he’s more palatable to the young, Caucasian upstarts that now blog professionally all over your Interwebs. The average Internet writer (not Trey Kerby) stands closer to Kyrie Irving than they’ll ever stand to You Know Who. Plus, Kyrie seems chill, and his Uncle Drew persona is like GrandMama for the millennial’s.* He’s even appeared on Kickin’ It, which, if you’re not hip to the tweens like I am, is a karate-inspired Disney sitcom. Read that again and pretend like you’re not DVRing the thing later in the day.
The point is that Kyrie Irving is the FUBU player of bloggers, stat geeks, and anyone else that worships the NBA’s growing ubiquity via social media. This is a younger crowd, and Irving doesn’t have any glaring missteps on his resume either. He’s not talking in gang code on Twitter, he’s a Duke boy (perhaps the greatest Duke boy every produced, in fact**), and his haircut hasn’t become synonymous with white sports columnists misusing the word “thug.” He does have tattoos, but he shares Kevin Durant’s demureness with their placement on his body, and he gets tattoos to commemorate his mom (who passed when he was four) and an alliterative aphorism to stay “hungry and humble.” Not exactly Allen Iverson levels of intrigue, so easily digestible by the risk averse media.
This has all just been preamble because these aren’t the main reasons Kyrie Irving is so revered these days. His game isn’t just flashy forays into the paint. He’s got a lot of substance behind the hype: he brings it almost every night, and he’s not just jacking longer 2-pointers to the exclusion of his more mortal teammates. Right now, at this very moment, he only trails Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook in adjusted PER among the league’s point guards, per hoopdata. That’s a heady group of title-contending point guards in a league where you need a top point guard to be included among the title-contending teams. Yet the Cavaliers, minus their floppy-haired power forward, Anderson Varejao, are almost 10 games back of Milwaukee for the eighth seed in the lesser Eastern Conference.
Kyrie’s also shooting like he’s got professional basketball player in his genes (he does). Of the three point guards ahead of him on the list for adjusted PER, only Westbrook has a higher usage percentage than Irving. In fact, Westbrook and Irving are the only point guards in the league with a usage percentage over 30. Even though he’s got one of the highest usage percentages in the league and there’s no one else (sorry C.J. Miles and Dion Waiters) Cavaliers opponents need to worry about hurting them on the offensive end, he’s still shooting 47 percent from the field, including better than 42 percent from deep (all stats moving forward courtesy of NBA.com/stats). Irving’s True Shooting percentage of 57.6 dwarfs Westbrook’s 52.0. He’s still got a comparatively low assist rate against the three other point guards mentioned (thank the Cavaliers supporting cast for that one), but he’s still averaging a respectable 5.6 dimes per game. Then there’s his clutch play down the stretch, which has been phenomenal.
Among all NBA players, Kyrie is second to Kevin Durant in points scored per contest over the last 5 minutes of games where the difference between the teams is 5 or less. In fact, because Kyrie has been in more of these contests than Durant (since the Thunder have been mopping the floor with a lot of teams), he’s actually scored more points in that time frame overall: 115-114. Even while scoring at a rate that leads the NBA under those conditions, only Kyrie, and Tony Parker, are currently shooting over 50 percent from the floor in the same time frame (minimum 10 GP, and at least 2 shot attempts). That’s why words like “phenomenal” get bandied about by me and others. Kyrie Irving is playing incredibly efficient basketball even when the game is close and everyone on the opposing team knows he’s going to be carrying the heaviest offensive burden.
So Kyrie’s got game, and all the important numbers back it up, which is crucial for the crowd that currently serves as ambassadors for the stats zeitgeist of the contemporary NBA (why do you think even casual fans know Monta Ellis is horrible?).
Kyrie’s stats, his ability to ratchet his game up to another level when it gets close at the end, combined with the fact he’s so young, all equal why, when Kyrie did what he did against New Orleans on Monday night (dropping 20 points in the fourth quarter for a 105-100 Cavaliers win), people started to debate him among the all time greats. It’s the nature of the way we look at basketball these days. If a player shows they’re legit, and they do so for any sustainable period of time, then we’re going to be compared them to the all time greats. This isn’t necessarily wrong, it’s just a little unfair to guys like Kyrie, whose inchoate career is still far from its peak. That’s also the scary thing for NBA fans that aren’t based in Cleveland: he can get better. But it should also be scary for Cavaliers fans too, and that’s the crux of my displeasure at all the Twitter fawning after Kyrie goes off in yet another fourth quarter of scoring prowess. There is a history with some of these guys who burn like supernovas early in their career on bad teams, only to then fizzle out later by failing to meet those unfair expectations. I don’t need to remind Toronto fans about Damon Stoudemire, Houston fans about Steve Francis, or Minnesota, New Jersey, Phoenix or New York fans about Stephon Marbury. Even though a comparison between these four players shows that Irving is much more efficient shooter and scorer, they’re not too far off in the other categories and all of them share or shared the same type of delirious anticipation about their futures that Kyrie’s experiencing right now.
SB Nation contributor and all-around sportswriting OG, Bomani Jones, voiced some of these concerns on Twitter after the aforementioned New Orleans game. Needless to say, most of his followers disagreed with his assessment. First, Jones mentioned the wait-and-see approach I’m currently using as a reason not to put a thousand exclamation marks after everything I write about Kyrie; second, he was correct in asserting that Kyrie isn’t a superstar, at least, not just yet.
we’re not doing this. sorry, but i’m not crazy for saying wait-and-see on kyrie. talented as hell…but let’s see.
— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) February 21, 2013
the other part: we’re getting into the loose use of “superstar.” lebron? superstar. durant? superstar. kyrie? please.
— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) February 21, 2013
this is why i say “wait-and-see.” he MIGHT. far from guaranteed. RT @datrain329: not yet a superstar, but will be eventually
— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) February 21, 2013
And that’s my primary concern. Kyrie Irving is really, really young–I can barely remember what it was like to be 20, and I’m only 10 years older–and he’s got so many years and so much development (we hope) ahead of him. Instead of proclaiming him the all-seeing prophet of scoring point guards and deciding he’s the next evolution of the point guard superstar, lets just enjoy him without those undue burdens. It remains to be seen what Kyrie Irving will accomplish in the NBA, but it’ll be even harder for him to reach his full potential if we’re constantly jinxing him be placing him on the Mount Rushmore of NBA point guards before he’s ready. That being written, lets all just sit back and watch that fourth quarter again because it was pretty dope. Just don’t let it get to your head because then it might get to Kyrie’s head, and that’s not the Kyrie we want.