Is It Fair to Be Critical of Kyrie Irving?


June 4, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) during overtime in game one of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 108-100 in overtime for a 1-0 series lead. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Fans of the Cleveland Cavaliers can’t wait to see Kyrie Irving return from the broken knee-cap that sidelined the former No. 1 overall pick during the NBA Finals, but Factory of Sadness writer Joe Russo wonders if it’s fair to be critical of Irving after examining his career trajectory.

We’re now less than a week from the start of the start of another hopeful season of Cleveland Cavaliers basketball. After last season’s NBA Finals’ loss, the Cavs are poised for another shot at the title as the preseason favorites in the Eastern Conference.

But the Cavs will start the season minus one major piece in Kyrie Irving. After sustaining a knee injury in Game 1 of the Finals, Irving will most likely not return to the floor until the start of 2016. The Cavs will miss Irving, but how much? After yet another injury, is it fair to be critical of Kyrie?

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Let’s start with the injuries. Last season’s 75 games played was actually a career high for Irving. He played 71 in 2013-14, but only 59 games in 2012-2013 and 51 in his rookie campaign of 2011-2012. All of this came after playing only 11 games at Duke due to a foot injury. As a pro, injuries to his shoulder, hand, finger, and ankles have held him back from playing a full 82 game slate in any of his 4 seasons. At this point, it should be fair to call Irving injury prone. There is a saying out that the best skill as an athlete is availability.

But what about when Irving is on the court? He’s been an All-Star and an Olympian and an All-Star MVP. Irving is truly a great young talent in the NBA. Basketball-Reference even has his closest comparison at this point in his career to Ray Allen. But who follows on that list? In order, it’s Norm Nixon, Rolando Blackmon, Doc Rivers, and Andre Miller. It’s not a great list. Granted, some of the issue has been his health, but it’s not a comforting thought.

To counter, you can point to the fact that Irving was fourth last season in Player Efficiency Rating (21.57) among point guards or that he was third in scoring among point guards. But he was closer to George Hill in PER (21.52) than he was to Chris Paul (26.04) and didn’t even make the top 15 in assist per game and was 35th among qualifying point guards with a 2.09 Assist to Turnover Ratio. Irving is a very good player, one of the few “Max” players in the league. But he is not the transcendent talent that his accolades can lead you to believe.

You can perform a case study of this by looking at the 2006-2007 Cavs, the first team LeBron James took to the Finals. This may have been the least talented NBA Finals roster in history, despite their 50-32 record. Larry Hughes was second in minutes to LeBron James. Eric Snow was the starting point guard. The likes of Sasha Pavlovic, Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, and Daniel Gibson saw meaningful minutes for this team. Yet that team made the Finals, only to get swept by the Spurs.

Flash forward to 2013-2014, the last year before LeBron’s return, when Kyrie last had a chance to make the biggest individual impact. This team secured the first overall pick the following draft having have the top pick the draft prior. This roster included such greats at Earl Clark, Dion Waiters in peak Dion form, the shell of Andrew Bynum, Jarrett Jack and Spencer Hawes. Granted, Luol Deng was second on the team in minutes and points per game that year after being acquired from Chicago, but that didn’t prevent this team from finishing 33-49.

Just for fun, the constant on both teams? The head coach, none other than the great Mike Brown. Same system, same coach, same relative talent level. But a difference of 17 wins. Kyrie can play, when healthy. LeBron, though, is unquestionably a better player. But is he 17 wins better? That can be debated at length, but it adds fuel to the fire that yes, we can be critical of Kyrie Irving.

We love the 50 point games and the jaw dropping moments, but Kyrie is destined to never be more than a second tier player that his career thus far has proven him to be. I hope I’m wrong, I really do. But as it stand right now, it’s worth thinking about, as much as it hurts to do it.

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