Kyrie Irving: Playoff Ready

At just 23 years old, Kyrie Irving is one of the NBA’s best young players. In just his fourth season, Irving has individual accolades including, NBA Rookie of the Year winner, 3 x NBA All-Star, NBA All-Star MVP and the FIBA World Cup MVP. However, despite Irving’s individual trophy cabinet piling up, his team successes were not forthcoming. Naturally, fans and journalists alike wondered whether Irving in fact had the pedigree to win in the NBA. As the 2014-15 season has rolled on, Irving has silenced the critics with breathtaking performances throughout the season and is wonderfully poised to make his first trip to the NBA Playoffs.

I know what you’re saying: He’s got LeBron freaking James and Kevin Love as team mates, how can he not make the playoffs?! It’s true, vastly more talented team mates have made Irving’s life much easier this season with defenses unable to key in on him as much as they have in the past. However, it’s worth mentioning that Irving has made great adjustments playing off the ball with LeBron handling the rock for large parts throughout the season. According to Basketball Reference, Irving’s usage rate is at a career low this season at 26.0%, down from 28.2% last season and a 28.1% career number.

“It is hard to believe that Irving is still just 23 years of age”

As a result of playing with another ball dominant player, Irving has received several open catch and shoot opportunities per game and he has converted far more efficiently in comparison to last season. In the 2013-14 season, according to stats.nba.com, Irving attempted 3.3 catch and shoot field goals per game and averaged 3.0 catch and shoot points per game. Irving shot just 35.3% on these opportunities and had an effective FG% of 46.0%. In comparison, this season Irving has attempted just 2.6 catch and shoot field goals, but is averaging 3.2 points per game on these opportunities. Furthermore, Irving is shooting an improved 42.8% on catch and shoot field goals and has an effective FG% of 62.2% this season.

Much of Irving’s success shooting this season is a result of smarter offensive play on Irving’s part. Irving is attacking the rim significantly more this season and has gone away from his mid-range shots in comparison to last season. According to Shot Analytics, an astounding 44% of Irving’s shots last season were in the mid-range. This season, this number has gone dropped to 34%. Irving has exchanged the mid-range pull-ups for drives to the basket. Irving has attempted 36% of his shots at the rim this season, up 8% from last season’s figure of 28%.

A comparison of Irving’s shot charts, courtesy of Shot Analytics shows Irving’s improvement in shooting all over the court and he is clearly benefiting from having more space in which to work in with the likes of James and Love on the floor with him. A look at his 2013-14 shot chart shows Irving struggling with his right corner three’s, shooting a paltry 24% from this area of the court. Irving was generally colder from the right side of the floor, shooting just 30% on right wing three’s.

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Irving’s 2013-14 Shot Chart

In comparison, Irving’s 2014-15 shot chart shows that he is not only a smarter offensive player but also a flat out improved shooter. Being a teammate of LeBron’s, Irving’s shooting improvement this season spells danger for opposing defenses. While in Miami, James wreaked havoc in small-ball lineups surrounded by elite shooters such as Ray Allen and Mike Miller. Irving has shot the ball better in almost every single zone, increasing his right corner three percentage to 45% this season, while his right wing three’s are going in at a 39% clip this season. Irving has also increased his shooting percentage on straight-on three’s, shooting them at 44% as opposed to 38% last season.

Irving's 2014-15 Shot Chart
Irving’s 2014-15 Shot Chart

Much was made over the off-season about Irving’s defensive deficiencies as well as the Cavaliers’ defensive short-comings and Irving has worked hard this season on defense and has shown a great deal of improvement. Irving has said time and time again that he wants to be known as a two-way player and he is finally backing it up this season. Irving’s defensive rating has improved from 106.8 last season to 104.6 this season.

It is hard to believe that Irving is still just 23 years of age and is several years younger than his point-guard competition such as John Wall and Damian Lillard. Having achieved many individual goals, Irving has one that has eluded him thus far, that being an NBA championship.

With his play this season, he might just go a long way towards rectifying that.

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