Kyrie Irving MVP – The Case For and Against

Could Kyrie Irving win the 2017-2018 MVP award? 

The Westgate Las Vegas Superbook released its updated MVP odds last week, with the usual names finding their way to the top of the rankings. Kevin Durant led the pack, followed by Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard, and reigning MVP Russell WestbrookKyrie Irving, the Boston Celtics‘ newly acquired star, slotted in at number 8, neatly behind Steph Curry and ahead of Chris Paul.

This is obviously early; no one knows how Irving will perform, which young guys will emerge, which stars will regress. Nobody knew Westbrook would become a triple double machine or that Curry would scorch every record book. Until the season is underway, this conversation is barely worth having.

But here we are, in the dog months of the NBA offseason, so we’re having it anyway.

The case against Irving: how much better is he really going to be?

Let’s get this out of the way: Kyrie Irving is a tremendous basketball player. He dazzles opponents with dribble moves, but it’s not all flash; he delivers, very consistently. You can make the case that he is the best individual scorer in the league. In the playoffs, when the rest of Cleveland’s offense went cold (yes, including Lebron), Kyrie typically delivered.

But take a look at some of these statistics, provided by teamrankings.com and basketball-reference.com

PPG        APG        EFg%        ORtg/100        DRtg/100        WS        PER

Kyrie Irving           25.2       5.8          53.3         116                    112                    8.9        23.0

Isaiah Thomas     28.9       5.9          53.8         122                    112                   12.5      26.5

John Wall               23.1      10.7        48.2          111                   108                    8.8        23.2

Chris Paul              18.1       9.2          55.4         126                    106                   10.6      26.2

 

These 2016-2017 statistics show Irving compared with some of the league’s other top point guards – other guys with their names in the MVP conversation. Statistics only tell so much of the story (we’ll get to what else matters later), but there are some interesting takeaways.

For one: Irving’s defensive rating per 100 possessions (higher is worse) was the same as Isaiah Thomas’s. Thomas is extremely limited due to his diminutive size, and is considered to be so much of a liability on the defensive end that it is a drain on his teammates – and Irving was on the same level. Granted, this is one statistic, and simply saying that Irving is Thomas’s equal on the defensive end is far too simplistic. Yet to a large degree, the eye test backs this one up; Irving is bad on defense. He gets beat in isolation, he gets lost off ball, and he simply gives up on plays.

While we’re talking about Thomas, let’s look a little closer at him vs Irving. Their assist numbers were more or less the same, as were their effective field goal percentages. But if you had to pick which one was better in 2016-2017, you’d have to pick Thomas. He was stronger in win shares, PER, offensive rating per 100 possessions (higher is better), and simple PPG. If you’re thinking this is because Thomas was the centerpiece of Boston’s offense while Irving was Lebron’s sidekick, think again – Irving actually averaged more shots per game than Thomas; 19.89 to Thomas’s to 19.05, per TeamRankings.

Comparing Irving to John Wall and Chris Paul doesn’t provide too much clarity – they’re just entirely different types of players, so I won’t waste much time delving into this. But one point that is important to make: Irving’s advanced metrics say that he is not good enough yet. His win shares and PER lag behind Paul and the serious contenders, despite a similar usage rate. He simply does not produce at that level. The advanced metrics say he is right around the level of Wall, who was elite but not in the MVP discussion.

And if you made me pick between Irving, a ball-dominant isolation scorer who really doesn’t do anything else; and Wall, a hyper athletic, hyper intelligent floor general who can play lock-down defense…well, the choice isn’t all that hard.

This isn’t to excessively disparage Irving, who is a fantastic player and will likely keep getting better. But the jump it would take to be MVP-caliber is a lot larger than people seem to realize. He is not going to be the MVP.

The case for Irving: this year is going to be very different.

We’re analyzing Irving in 2016-2017. He is a year older (a boon at this point in his young career), and he will get to be the star of a team. Even without thinking about X’s and O’s, the conclusion isn’t hard to draw – he should get better.

Irving has had an interesting role on the Cavaliers. Cleveland’s offense, when it’s operating properly, starts with Lebron James. He probes and penetrates the defense, often finding an open shooter; it’s very basic drive-and-kick, and it works. Cleveland was 26th in the league in passes per game, but 7th in points created by assist, per NBA.com. They are not a lightning-passing offense like the Warriors, but their passes are very effective (an aside: the Houston Rockets, led by James Harden driving and kicking, had very similar statistics).

Irving was their break-glass-in-case-of-emergency weapon. He didn’t create much for his teammates,  but apart from an occasional rebuke from Lebron, he wasn’t really required to. James was the point guard; Irving’s job was to go score when everybody else was cold, or when the usual offense couldn’t find its rhythm. As a result, he largely operated in isolation (he was 6th in the league in isolation percentage in 2016-2017).

As good as Cleveland’s offense could be, and as much as Irving excelled in it, that was not a system. Irving exhausting himself to create space against elite defenders is not an efficient usage of his talent, even if he was efficient doing it. Imagine Irving in Brad Stevens’s system: taking dribble hand-offs from Al Horford, cutting, using Gordon Hayward as a screener. Irving has never experienced what it’s like to have a system designed to maximize his potential. If everything breaks right, this could be an incredible year for him.

Interestingly, the thing working in Irving’s favor the most may be the field he’s running against. As good as they are (and as good a season we’re likely to see from stars with the NBA again reducing the number of back-to-backs), many of them don’t seem like natural MVP selections going in. Durant is considered the MVP-favorite going into this season, but it seems difficult to imagine voters calling him the Most Valuable Player while playing on a team that was historically great without him (and in similar fashion, it’s hard to imagine Curry winning the award as long as Durant is arguably the best splash brother).

Lebron always has a chance, but MVP voters have grown numb to his excellence at this stage of his career. Kawhi Leonard might be in for the best season of his career, but the Spurs – who lost a lot more than they gained this off-season and are without Tony Parker for the foreseeable future – are projected for a big drop-off, both by Vegas and by Sportsline. Even if his season is MVP-caliber, falling behind in the West would significantly hurt his odds. Westbrook probably won’t average another triple double, and with Paul George in town, his narrative becomes less compelling (more on this later). James Harden and Chris Paul could wind up stealing votes from each other.  Giannis Antetokounmpo is still painfully young, and his team isn’t ready to compete in the upper echelon of the East yet.

Again, this is all incredibly early. Any of these individuals could surprise us. But the way it stands right now, it seems that all the MVP challengers have significant roadblocks between them and the award. That means it’s anybody’s to grab; and if Irving can make a big statistical leap and lead the NBA’s most storied franchise to a dominant season, then good luck keeping it from his grasp.

The verdict: Irving has a long road ahead of him.

Narrative matters, my friends. Westbrook didn’t just average a triple double – he did it while keeping his team afloat with superhuman intensity after Durant left town. Curry didn’t just break records, he did it while capturing the fans’ attention with magical, mind-boggling shots. Narrative most certainly matters, and right now, the narrative on Irving is murky. Some voters will want to reward Irving for the guts it took to step away from Cleveland. Others will see him as a diva who is more interested in the spotlight than in competing for a championship.

Let’s say Irving improves – he becomes less of a liability on defense, he ups his offensive metrics, become more of a distributor, etc etc. Even with a sizable statistical jump, his statistics will probably be right around Isaiah Thomas’s from the 2016-2017 season. Thomas – a woefully undersized lightning bug who somehow always managed to score in the fourth quarter, even against much larger defenders –  had maybe the most compelling narrative in the entire NBA, and his Celtics finished first in the Eastern Conference. His reward? Zero first and second place MVP votes, and a whopping 4 third place votes, per NBA.com.

Irving has a serious chance to win MVP at some point in his career – he really is that good. To win the award this year, though, he’d have to:

  • Improve dramatically on defense
  • Make a large enough jump on the offensive end that he at least outperforms Isaiah Thomas’s 2016-2017 season
  • Endear himself to fans and ensure that the narrative surrounding him is favorable (insert flat-Earth joke)
  • Prove that he’s not a one-dimensional player
  • Lead the Celtics, who will almost definitely need a significant adjustment period, to a season impressive enough to wow MVP voters (whose expectations will be high)

Kyrie Irving’s road to the MVP award is there, but it’s very long. This could very well be the year where he cements his name in the annual conversations, but that will likely have to be enough. Unless he absolutely stuns the world, he will not win the 2018 MVP award.

(But man , if he does, be prepared to watch the Celtics play in the Danny Dome. In Ainge we trust.)