Without question, Kyrie Irving is one the NBA’s brightest stars. He went to a heralded university (Duke) whose coach is among the greatest coaches of all time (Mike Kryzewski). Coming out of college, Irving was the number one overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who drafted one year removed from former star LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach. In his rookie campaign, Irving not only won rookie of the year, but he was also the only unanimous selection the NBA’s all rookie team. In his injury shortened rookie year, Kyrie averaged 18.5 points per game, 5.4 assists, and 3.7 rebounds per game in 30.5 minutes per game. This season that has continued, and the hype surrounding the 20-year old is only increasing. In fact, Irving is on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s annual “NEXT” issue, which highlights the athletes ESPN thinks are they next great stars. Past winners include the Thunder’s Kevin Durant, the Spurs Tim Duncan , and the Lakers Kobe Bryant.
But with the deserved hype surrounding Irving (alongside the high expectations), Irving has one glaring weakness in his game that has to be addressed: His defense. To be honest, Irving average – at best – on defense. He fundamentals are solid (low stance, forces opposing players to go to their weak hand, etc), but the overall results aren’t there. And moving forward, this is the biggest issue facing Irving in his quest to go from “pretty good” to “great”.
Now, one might say “point guard defense is not that big of a deal. Steve Nash and Jason Kidd got by for years playing poor-to-average defense”. That statement is true (especially considering Nash’s days running the Suns), but those days are over. The current crop of elite NBA point guards that Irving will be competing against for years to come (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and most importantly, Derrick Rose of Chicago) are players that he is going to have to be able to defend effectively. The Days of relying on Alonzo Gee to shut down an opposing point guard are days that cannot be around forever.
There are two aspects of Kyrie’s defense that really concern me. First off, his ability to defend the pick and roll is down right atrocious. There are several games from this season that illustrate that point (the Celtics game on December 19th and the Oklahoma City game on November 11th, to name two), but let’s take a look at the Cavs 113-99 loss to the Toronto Raptors on December 11th. The Raptors, on paper, are just as bad as the Cavaliers and have even less long-term talent. But on that night at Quicken Loans Arena, the Raptors were victorious because of one Jose Calderon and his ability to work Irving in the pick and roll (and pop) game. On that night, Calderon lead all scorers with 23 points and six assists in thirty-three minutes of action.
Not to knock Calderon, but Irving is far superior player now than he ever was. That’s part of the reason of why Kyrie’s defense is so frustrating. He has the athletic ability to be a good, if not great defender – he just doesn’t seem to put his full effort into his defense. Seemingly ever possession down the floor, the Raptors ran the pick and roll right at Irving with a high success rate. Irving would not fight through the picks, and that allowed Calderon to get in the paint for high percentage shot attempts and easy pass attempts to teammates around the hoop who themselves could get easy shots. No matter how Anderson Varejao or any other Cavalier big man played the pick and roll, Irving’s mistakes were often too detrimental to overcome.
Secondly, having to use Gee on point guards in order to shut them down the stretch is a nice strategy now, but it should not be the Cavaliers game plan moving forward. It’s a move I like against larger point guards that can body Irving (Brooklyn’s Deron Williams , for example) but it is not a solution for every situation. Gee is the best wing defender on the Cavaliers roster, and he’ll be needed to defend solid wing players like Indiana’s Danny Granger and Chicago’s Loul Deng when the Cavaliers match up against their Central Division foes. Irving will be needed to defend those teams point guards in crunch time. And to make matters worse, Chicago, with a healthy Rose and even Kirk Hinrich, is team that has a deadly pick and roll game.
I do think Irving can get better on defense now, and he’s too good not to become a stud defender. But the sooner he gets better, the better it is for the Cavaliers. Matchups are looming against Williams, Houston’s Jeremy Lin, and the Lakers’ Nash. And there are reports that Rose will be back by the All-Star break, meaning the Cavaliers will get one the first cracks at Rose if he returns on that timetable. And for the Cavaliers sake, they better install the belief in Irving that a game-winning stop is just as sweet as a game-winning shot.