After finding new homes this summer, Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo are separating themselves from the rest of the Eastern Conference guards.
Both Cleveland and Oklahoma City parted ways with their guards this past summer. Kyrie Irving wound up in Boston after going to management and requesting a trade. Victor Oladipo got sent to Indiana for Paul George because Sam Presti was hoping to construct a Big Three that could contend with the others. Since then, a few things have happened.
The Cavaliers are doing just fine on the shoulders of LeBron James and will continue to play well once Isaiah Thomas returns. The Thunder, well, they’re stuck in the mud. Their deals haven’t yet panned out, and the thought that Presti fleeced Indiana is no more.
Irving and Oladipo aren’t concerning themselves with the past, and both are playing at exceptionally high levels. With each passing game, the gap between them and the rest of the guards in the East gets bigger and bigger, and they’re putting themselves in the position to be the starters in this year’s All-Star game.
Just a couple of days ago, we got to see these two go head-to-head. The Pacers collapsed at the end of the game, allowing Boston to steal the victory. As demoralizing as the defeat was, the game wouldn’t have been close without Oladipo’s dazzling performance. He poured in 38 points on 13-of-23 shooting to lead all scorers, which included 14 in the final period. His counterpart, Kyrie, had 30 of his own. The two traded clutch buckets and created an unlikely duel.
Irving has been one of the league’s most dynamic scorers for the last couple of years. We know that he’s going to go out every night and make things happen. During his final three years with the Cavaliers, LeBron James frequently looked his way when they needed a bucket no matter how big the stage was. He averaged 22.4 points a night in the regular season over that stretch, peaking at 25.2 last year. Kyrie Irving’s immaculate ball handling ability leaves defenders flabbergasted, and he’s remarkably adept at finishing shots from the quirkiest of angles. There’s no part of the backboard that Irving won’t use, and there’s no defender he’s reluctant to embarrass. During his lone season with the Thunder, Victor Oladipo failed to capture the same notoriety.
Oklahoma City traded Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic, and Oladipo was the headliner of the package. In theory, he was a great fit: a young scorer who doubled as a secondary ball handler that could alleviate some of the playmaking pressures from Russell Westbrook. It did not turn out that way — at all. Oladipo, like the rest of the Thunder, was stuck. Westbrook went on a stat-hunting binge that netted him an MVP but also got the Thunder to the postseason. His campaign was impressive and puzzling at the same time; he played defiantly, pleading to the world that Kevin Durant wasn’t necessary for the team’s success. That style of play, however, didn’t help anyone. For a season, Oladipo got regulated to a three-point shooter whose majority of attempts weren’t in rhythm. The confidence in him withered away.
Victor Oladipo has since claimed the state of Indiana. He’s having the best season of his career and is on track to be the Most Improved Player, let alone an All-Star. The 24.9 points he’s throwing up on a nightly basis is nine more than last year. The tremendous improvement is the result of a total transformation that the 25-year-old underwent this past summer. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote a fabulous story with painstaking detail about what happened. In short, Oladipo overhauled his diet and started going through rigorous training routines. He got into the best shape of his life, and now he’s got the skill to complement that explosiveness.
Dating back to his early days with the Magic, Oladipo showed flashes of being a high-volume scorer, but things never aligned. With Indiana, he’s got the keys to drive the offense. And he hasn’t looked back.
Kyrie Irving doesn’t have the same story. He has slipped into Celtics green, and everything has looked the same. Following Gordon Hayward’s opening night injury, it became clear that Irving would have even more responsibility to carry the team offensively. Judging from his comments over the summer, that’s what he wanted. His time in Cleveland partnered with LeBron was magical and peaked in 2016 when Irving and James had the most dominant run in Finals history. Cleveland, however, didn’t have a shot at beating the Golden State Warriors this past June because of the tremendous talent gap. Boston doesn’t have the kinds of issues.
Danny Ainge has collected players who fill their roles flawlessly. Kyrie is one of them. They’re not a juggernaut offense, but everything changes when Irving is on the floor. His prowess is undeniable. He’s logging fewer minutes this season (32.0), thus attempting fewer shots per game. One thing that’s changed, though, is how frequently Irving gets his buckets. He’s nailing 49.3 percent of his attempts overall, up two points from last year. Additionally, his marksmanship has joined him in the Northeast at 40.5 percent from three. Thanks to their depth, Boston doesn’t have to play Kyrie so much. If he were to average more minutes, he’d be well on his way to setting a new career-high in points; per 36, he’s averaging 27.4.
There wasn’t an in-depth workout routine that sent Kyrie into another stratosphere. As I touched on early, he’s always been this exciting. One thing that happened, though, was Kyrie Irving became “awake,” as he calls it. All he did was go vegan. That’s the only part of his wokeness that’s impacted his game. Irving is noticeably slimmer since cutting the animals out of his diet, and that, in turn, allows him to be lighter on his feet.
Me saying that Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo are the best guards in the conference is an opinion. It’s a way to foster debate. The fact of the matter, though, is that both guys are objectively playing the best ball out of every other guard in the East. Say what you want about analytics (yes, they’re not perfect), but they provide a way of measuring a player’s impact relative to his contemporaries.
DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal, John Wall and Kemba Walker are other guards who will be competing for an All-Star nod. All four of them trail in PER and Box Plus Minus; wins produced, a metric courtesy of Boxscore Geeks, also has Oladipo and Irving as the top two. Win Shares is the only method that sees any disruption. DeRozan wriggles himself in between Irving and Oladipo. If those numbers don’t tickle your fancy, I get it. They’re nauseating when used too often. However, everything else points to Irving and Oladipo eclipsing the rest of the field.
One of the things we have to take into account is fit. Wall, for example, has different responsibilities with the Wizards. Unlike Kyrie Irving and Victor Oladipo, he needs to play the traditional point guard role, one that he’s dominated in recent years. This season has been different. Early on, Wall was showcasing his best Russell Westbrook impression by chucking up ill-advised jumpers and forcing things on offense. He’s improved, but has the lowest scoring total of the bunch (19.3) and isn’t a feared shooter from anywhere. His skills as a passer, though, are still top-tier.
The Wall-Irving debate peaked last season when the former was one of the top dime droppers in the NBA and a legit threat to put the ball in the basket. Outside of being an assist man, I can’t see a reason to take this version of Wall over Oladipo or Kyrie. Both are more impactful players on offense and have also made a mark on defense, which is somewhat shocking. (Should Wall turn things around, I’ll gladly take the L for that previous sentence.)
Walker and Beal, as reliable as they’ve been, don’t have much of an argument going for them. DeMar DeRozan has played better than both of them, and he gets extra points because he’s entirely reinvented himself this season. Beal is an exceptional scorer who played well sans Wall, but he’s still learning how to affect the game in other ways. Walker and the Charlotte Hornets have had a rough go thus far, and it’s never a good look when you’re in your prime, and your production drops after a career year. His lowered usage (26.6 percent) may be a culprit, but Walker’s assist percentage of 29.5 is only 0.4 points higher than last year, and his efficiency has taken a hit.
(Important note: it’s vital to remember that Walker and Beal and Wall — despite not being the best guards in the conference — will be in the All-Star conversation.)
At the beginning of the season, it was clear the Toronto Raptors worked hard all summer to implement a new system. In it, DeMar DeRozan has to do more than just score. Now, we’re seeing the three-time All-Star be a playmaker. The 5.0 assists he’s averaging is a career-high, and he’s still capable of going for 25-plus on any given night. That added dimension makes him just a bit tougher to guard. Defenders now have to worry about DeRozan actually making the proper play.
There Western Conference has more backcourt star power, but the East isn’t lacking. At least five guys are knocking on the door of All-Stardom, which is an impressive feat given how deep both positions are nowadays. At this juncture, however, no one is a threat to unseat Victor Oladipo or Kyrie Irving. They’re the two best guards in the conference.
All stats are courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted and are current as of Dec. 20.
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