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Kyrie Irving Wants To Be A No. 1, But He’s Better As A Sidekick

Just when you thought the Cavaliers’ offseason couldn’t get any worse — between the front-office issues and the disappointment of missing out on big fish on the trade market — Friday happened. That was when the most seismic news got out: Four-time All-Star Kyrie Irving, apparently no longer content to be a star sidekick to LeBron James, requested a trade elsewhere.

It’s too soon to know precisely what this means for James and Cleveland, short- or long-term. Yet gauging Irving’s fit with any other team is fascinating; this is largely in part because of the 25-year-old’s unique skill set, his shortcomings and the challenge that accompanies building around those two things.

At a base level, every team would love to have a young, efficient scorer of Irving’s caliber, the likes of which we haven’t seen at his position very often, if at all. To put his offensive talent into context, consider that just six point guards in history — Irving, Derrick Rose, Gilbert Arenas, Tiny Archibald, Dave Bing and Jerry West — have scored 25 points a game or more in a season before their age-25 campaign, according to Irving is arguably the best perimeter shooter of that group and was the only one to accomplish the feat while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range.

But while we’ll take a crack at explaining what Irving does through numbers, statistics alone couldn’t possibly capture what makes him different. He’s developed an entire persona and brand off the court with his AND1-mixtape style. And on the actual hardwood, he pulls off the sort of moves that video-game developers haven’t accounted for yet — the kind that could make a Globetrotter blush.

A handful of metrics point to how gifted Irving is at making circus shots. One stat, defender distance, suggests that he doesn’t care how much defenders are hounding him. Irving shot a league-best 40.7 percent from 3-point range when tightly guarded — a ridiculous statistic, given that the league shoots 36 percent from the 3 on average. Step-back jumpers are old hat to him; he hit 53 percent of those tries in 2016-17 — third best in the NBA among players who took 50 or more attempts. And he shot 79 percent and logged better than 1.6 points per possession — best in the NBA among guards2 — when splitting the pick and roll last season, according to Synergy Sports.

Simply put: Much of what Irving does offensively simply can’t be taught. And that fact — along with the two guaranteed years that Irving has left on his contract — explains why the Cavaliers’ phones will be ringing off the hook from now until when this situation is resolved.

Still, there are a slew of holes in Irving’s game that should give teams pause, including some that have been sidestepped in recent years as he’s had less responsibility on his plate with James as a teammate. Aside from durability — Irving’s had his fair share of injuries, including a fractured kneecap in the NBA Finals two years ago — defense is chief among them. Opposing teams had no issue targeting Irving, who’s often flat-footed or a step slow in pick and rolls and in 1-on-1 scenarios, this past season.

He was one of 10 guards this past season to surrender 50 percent shooting or better from the floor in 1-on-1 situations.3 And while most point guards throughout the league are thought to be pretty weak defensively, Irving’s offense-defense balance is particularly lopsided. In NBA history, there have only been six player seasons in which a guard had a usage rate of 30 percent or more (meaning the percentage of a team’s plays that end with that player shooting or turning the ball over) while logging 1.5 defensive win shares or fewer.4 Two of those six campaigns belong to Irving, including this past season, according to

That was the case despite Tristan Thompson manning the painted area well, holding foes about nine percentage points beneath their average. In other words: You need to have a decent rim protector, if not a great one, in order to stop teams from taking advantage of Irving’s porous defense. Having good wing stoppers, which the defensively challenged Cavs lacked against Golden State, would obviously help, too.

It’s also worth noting that Irving’s sometimes-stagnant style of offense that works so well with James’s wouldn’t mesh with every team, either. A strong defensive team like the Utah Jazz makes sense — they’ve expressed interest in Irving before and could use a scorer with Gordon Hayward having departed for Boston. But they’d have to undergo a shift in their share-the-ball philosophy to incorporate someone who’s most efficient when he’s possessing the ball for seven dribbles or more. (In fairness, Irving is also fantastic when he lines up catch-and-shoot opportunities. But his off-the-dribble ability increases the longer he’s had the ball.) The same is likely true of the Spurs, who might have to work even harder to facilitate a fit since Kawhi Leonard has developed into a possession-eating superstar in his own right.

Kyrie does more damage the more he dribbles

For the 2016-17 NBA regular season

1 35.9% 40.2%
2 42.3 44.2
3-6 45.7 49.3
7 or more 49.0 53.5

Effective field goal percentage is used to account for the fact that 3-pointers are worth more than 2-pointers.

Sources:, STATS SportVu

Averaging 5.5 assists per game over his career, Irving can create offense for others. But he often gets tunnel vision on his way to the basket. His 27.6 percent pass rate out of drives was fourth-lowest among starting point guards.5 And his assist-to-turnover ratio varied considerably this past season — from a lofty 2.59 (think John Wall) to a mediocre 1.78 (think Austin Rivers) — depending on whether James was on the court with him.

Most concerning: Irving and the Cavs were outscored by 8 points per 100 possessions this season without James on the court, a night-and-day difference from the 9 points per 100 plays they outscored opponents by when Irving played with James. Over the past three seasons, Irving and his teammates have been outscored by 94 points over almost 2,000 minutes when James is resting,6 according to The challenge may be rooted in the fact that Irving’s preferred 1-on-1 style of offense fits with James’s — who can take occasional breathers while his teammate goes to work — but throws his teammates out of rhythm when James is off the floor

In any case, Irving has eye-popping skill, and it’s a safe bet that some team will offer a king’s ransom for him. But it may take another near-perfect scenario for him to thrive the way he has next to James.


  1. This only includes players who were designated as point guards during those seasons in the Basketball-Reference database. The site goes off the age a player is by Feb. 1 of each season; Irving turned 25 in March.

  2. With at least 10 such plays

  3. Among players who defended at least 50 such plays

  4. And logging 2,000 minutes or more

  5. Among starting guards who drove to the basket at least five times per game and played in 50 games. He trailed only Reggie Jackson, Damian Lillard and Derrick Rose.

  6. This comes out to just over one point per 100 possessions.

Chris Herring was a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.