Being a lockdown defender in the NBA is difficult, and even more so for guards. Kyrie Irving, the newest Boston Celtic, is one of the many players who struggle on that end.
When you think of Kyrie Irving, what’s the first thing that comes up? Is it the go-ahead triple he buried over Stephen Curry in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals? What about the turnaround fadeaway he hit over Klay Thompson on Christmas Day back in 2016? Maybe it’s the feature-film length highlights of ankle-shattering crossovers and layups that make you question if he secretly got a degree geometry. Whatever it is, you certainly aren’t thinking of his defense.
Analysts and fans alike spend just as much time appreciating Irving’s offense as we spend critiquing his defense. In most cases, it’s a huge factor in how high or low he lands on someone’s player rankings. Despite being one of the NBA’s most tantalizing scorers, basketball is a two-way sport. Statistically, Kyrie Irving is one of the league’s worst defenders. It’s cut-and-dry. There is, however, a weird reason why his defense is so bad, and part of it is his fault while another part of it falls on his former team.
Before we get into anything, I want to be clear on something. It’s challenging being a dominant defensive point guard in the modern NBA. In Irving’s case, he’s matching up with the likes of Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook among others on any given night, and there’s no way he’s going to stop them. On the other hand, none of those guys will put the clamps on Irving for an entire game. It’s a double-edged sword.
Teams like the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder can mask their floor general’s deficiencies with an elite collective defense. Curry and Westbrook aren’t outstanding defenders, but they can play with maximum effort because of who they have behind them. That aggression creates more turnovers and is overall more disruptive to the opposing offense, which means they are in fact having an impact on that end. If you were to put them on Cleveland’s defense, that impact isn’t anywhere near the same because they’re playing more conservatively.
For most, their effort is directly related to their defense. Players need the physical and athletic attributes as well, but most guys have those and just need to put forth a concerted effort. There is, however, a small group of guys who will always be a detriment no matter how much effort they give, and that’s for those similar to Isaiah Thomas. At 5-9, Thomas’ size limits how impactful he can be because the majority of his opponents can get clean looks at the basket no matter what. Boston had success with him as their star because they surrounded him with guys like Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart and Al Horford, guys who are solid defenders both on-the-ball and away from it.
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Kyrie Irving isn’t Isaiah Thomas. At about 6-3, 193, Irving is more than capable of holding his own against opposing guards. He’s also got quick hands and is a decent athlete. Despite that, the Cavaliers had a brutal team defense, and Irving looked worse than normal.
Cleveland was 3.2 points per 100 possessions worse during the regular season when Irving was on the floor, and he posted a career-low defensive box plus/minus of minus-2.3; DBPM is a stat used to gauge how above- or below-average a player is on defense. It’s also a metric that those who live and die by the “eye test” hate. It may not be perfect, but it manages to provide an estimate of where someone stands. Among players with 2,000 minutes played last year, Kyrie Irving stood in front of just nine people. Is it a coincidence that almost all of these guys played on bad defensive teams? No, it’s not.
Since defensive stats are few and far between, NBA.com’s defense dashboard helps by showing highlighting how effective — or ineffective — a player is at stopping their matchups from making shots. On average, Irving defended 10.0 attempts a night, and his opponents made 49.9 percent of them, which is 5.2 percentage points above their average. Among guards defending nine shots a game, Irving’s last in the percentage category.
I don’t want to put all the blame on Kyrie. Unlike Thomas, he doesn’t have his physical attributes to use as a scapegoat. He just doesn’t look as engaged on defense, thus meaning he puts in less effort. There are, however, some interesting anecdotes that show Irving can be an improved defender when he wants to be.
During the regular season, the Cavaliers had a defensive rating of 110.3 points per 100 which put them 21st overall in the league. For the second-half of the year, there was endless talk about them “flipping the switch” and returning to a respectable level. It seemed far-fetched. There were countless times a Cavalier got beat backdoor or just lost sight of their man, and that lack of attention to detail is what helped cost them a championship.
Once the postseason rolled around, Cleveland became slightly more efficient and posted a defensive rating of 108.3, eighth among playoff teams.
The Cavaliers technically flipped a switch, even though it was more like striking a match. Regardless, they improved. It wasn’t drastic, but enough to showcase the players’ willingness to make an effort. Kyrie Irving was one of the guys who showed a lot more effort.
His DBPM through 18 postseason games was just minus-1.0. His defensive win shares were 0.4. If you multiply the games by four to equal the regular season total, the DWS turn into 1.6, a hair above the 1.5 Irving compiled during the regular season. Irving also became better at forcing missed shots, and his defended field goal percentage was 43.7, 2.7 points lower than the average. What I’m assessing is that Kyrie can be an average defender and even a great defender at times. He just has to want to be it.
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The postseason was just 18 games long. It’s easy to see why some players turn it up around that time. With a team like the Cavaliers, a playoff spot was guaranteed and a trip to the Finals was expected. They coasted through the regular season on talent, and it’s not a shock that some guys elevated themselves during the playoffs.
With Irving on the Celtics, I see much of the same happening. Irving is going to spend most of the regular season putting points on the board and hopefully bringing Boston back to the first overall seed. His defense, though, isn’t going to be much improved. The Celtics lost Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder this offseason, both of whom are incredible defenders; Bradley is the guy who guards Irving the best. They’ll likely be better defensively than the Cavaliers were last year, but not by much. However, I expect them to give valiant efforts and be engaged more consistently. That bodes well for Irving. The offense is also going to be a bit more balanced.
If Kyrie Irving’s usage is lower, his defense will be impacted positively. If it’s not, it’ll be another year talking about him as one of the league’s worst defending guards.
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