Is Kyrie Irving an Elite Point Guard and NBA Player?


It’s been said that we’re living in the Golden Age for point guards, and whether or not your personal preference is for the 80s, 90s or now, there’s no denying that the current crop of NBA point guards is as talented a bunch as they come, including our own Kyrie Irving. They come in a variety of different molds: pass first, scoring, shooters, defenders, freak athlete, etc. The point guard really is home to the most diverse collection of talent the NBA has to offer.

After three seasons in the NBA, Kyrie Irving has his fair share of admirers and haters. He’s been a hit salesman for both his brand and his endorsements. His dribble moves make him a hit with fans, his Uncle Drew character is the only reason I know what Pepsi Max is and there’s rumblings Irving may have a shoe this season. Coming out of Duke in 2011 there were those who said he was too average an athlete, not durable enough for a full season, and now, since his time in Cleveland, he’s developed a reputation with some as nothing more than a flashy ball handler and an inefficient scorer. I’ve even seen some go so far as to call Isaiah Thomas a better player (similar 2014 statistics, but I’ll have Kyrie Irving over Thomas any day personally. It’s not an indictment against Thomas, but more so a belief in Irving for me).

I’ve seen Kyrie Irving touted as the soon-to-be top guard in the NBA in some pieces, and others go so far as to say he’s not even a superstar. Is he a superstar? Is he overrated? Is he even an elite guard? That might depend on what attributes you value in your prototype for a point guard. Long gone are the days where the point man spent the entire game setting up his teammates for buckets, and now we’re witnessing a new collection of guys capable of dishing and swishing (sorry, I had a Walt Frazier moment). But I’m particularly interested in seeing how Kyrie Irving stacks up against the other “premier” NBA point guards, both on the court and on paper. As Jay-Z once said, “I went from the favorite to the most hated.
But would you rather be underpaid or overrated?” (Quick disclaimer: Dan Gilbert did not bully me into using Rap Genius). Did I just want to sneak in a HOV reference, or was there a point to that? Well, the answer is both. The people that matter (the Cavaliers, and Kyrie Irving’s endorsements) clearly believe in him (either that or the Cavs are OK with throwing money at average players…wait, never mind), and every star has his own group of detractors. But where do you place Irving on the point guard scale, and does that make him elite?

About this listing:

1. I value a point guard as nothing more than a position, meaning I’m not more concerned with passing or scoring. Rajon Rondo is, in my mind, better than some higher scoring guards. I’m not an “old-head,” I recognize that the position is a blend of many different styles and strengths.

2. Stats matter, but only sometimes. I base my case on numbers more often than not, but there are conditions where a player is under or overvalued based on his team’s performance (i.e. Tony Parker may not average 20 PPG anymore, but he’s still ranked higher than some in my list). There’s no science to this, just go with it.

3. Your list will differ from mine, but please keep reading even if you’re upset that I rank Derrick Rose so highly. This is about Kyrie Irving, not us. Be unselfish.

4. When encountering a tough call, my go-to move was, “Who says no in a trade? (Money doesn’t matter)”

Let’s begin:

Tier 1: Cream of the Crop Superstar Players

1. Chris Paul

2. Russell Westbrook

3. Derrick Rose (if he returns to peak performance)

4. Tony Parker

5. Stephen Curry[1]

Tier 2: Elite, but need help/or still improving

6. Kyrie Irving

7. Damian Lillard [2]

8. John Wall

Tier 3: All-Star-ish (AKA maybe an All-Star, maybe not)

9. Rajon Rondo

10. Kyle Lowry

11. Eric Bledsoe

Tier 4: The “Really good but not as good as everyone above them” Group

12. Mike Conley (there’s just too many good point guards to have him higher)

13. Deron Williams (once premier, now playing on bum ankles with no motivation)

14. Goran Dragic

15. Ty Lawson

Tier 5: Starters

16. Isaiah Thomas[3]

17. Kemba Walker

18. Jeff Teague

19. Michael Carter-Williams

20. Ricky Rubio?

Is Kyrie Elite?

The short version: yes. Irving, while most know for his scoring, an elite player makes an imprint on the game in a number of different categories. The list of active “Point Guards” since the 2004-05 season (giving us 10 seasons to work with) that averaged greater than or equal to 19.0 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.0 RBG and 1.5SPG in one season is the following:

Chris Paul (4x), Russell Westbrook (4x), Derrick Rose (3x), Deron Williams (3x), Tony Parker (2x), Stephen Curry (2x), Kyrie Irving (2x), Damian Lillard (2x), Isaiah Thomas (1x), John Wall (1x), Mike James (1x), Devin Harris, (1x), Chauncey Billups (1x), Goran Dragic (1x), and Aaron Brooks (1x).

Outside of four major outliers, career years for Mike James (2005-06 season with the Raptors age 30, when his previous career average was 9.2 PPG, 3.5 APG and 2.4 RBG), Devin Harris (in his first full season with the Nets, his only All-Star year, where he upped his average from 10.0 PPG to 21.3 PPG), and Aaron Brooks 2009-10 season with the Rockets (8.8 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.6 RBG in two seasons before) and one “Brandon Jennings VS. The World” season in Milwaukee, those lists match up pretty well, right? The only difference is my placement of Thomas and Dragic; two pegs too low compared to the numbers, or possible outlier season themselves depending on your viewpoint.

While Kyrie Irving will always be known for his flashy offense, he’s made an impact setting up teammates, grabbing a few rebounds and even playing a little defense (I know, even I was surprised). Just in case you happen to think that those players don’t match up with the title “elite,” using the same parameters (19.0 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.0 RBG, 1.5 SPG) here’s the list of ALL active players to achieve those numbers over the last five seasons: Curry, Harden, Irving, James, Paul, Wall, Westbrook, Monta Ellis and Dwyane Wade. Say what you want about Monta Ellis’s inclusion, but that’s a group consisting of the NBA’s best player, second best shooting guard (sorry, I don’t want Kobe Stans attacking me for calling Wade better) and a handful of the top young talent.

Say what you want about his inefficiency, his catch-and-shoot percentages or his low-ish assist-to-turnover ratio, but Kyrie Irving’s numbers say he’s in the same elite company as Harden, James and Wade. While it’s possible his numbers will go down playing alongside James this season (and are almost guaranteed to go down playing alongside James AND Kevin Love), Irving’s too talented to become an afterthought. After three seasons, who has been Kyrie Irving’s best teammate? The one-year rental season of a worn down Luol Deng? Antawn Jamison’s last relevant season in the NBA? Or a career year from role player Anderson Varejao? It’s your decision.

Playing with his first playoff worthy roster since entering the league, Kyrie Irving does need to prove he can play more off the ball this season. But, at least in my opinion, expect Irving’s catch-and-shoot numbers to be higher this season playing as the second option offensively. Why? Because playing alongside the MVP has its perks: Dwyane Wade, for all his greatness, never posted a higher field goal percentage than the four seasons playing alongside the King. Sure, Wade deserves credit for adjusting to LeBron, and there’s no doubting he’s a Hall Of Fame level talent himself. But he had his four most efficient seasons with LeBron. Kyrie Irving is talented and statistically in the same grouping as Wade. An elite player on his own, let’s see his rise playing alongside LeBron.

[1] Yes, I believe Curry is top of the class worthy… he showed much improved attacking and passing skills and can literally shoot a team back into a game.

[2] Lillard had better stats than Irving last year but is two years older and Irving suffered through a down year while Lillard had a breakout season. I think Portland takes Irving in any secret trade, but that’s just me. Also, Wall is the ultimate “never included” guy: continues to improve his game, freak athlete, still young… Are you on my side yet?

[3] My only reasoning behind Thomas being so low: If he is going to above anyone else, why was it just assumed he’d start off the bench?