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Grading Each Facet of Kyrie Irving's Game

Michael KeefeContributor IIIJanuary 12, 2017

Grading Each Facet of Kyrie Irving's Game

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    One crazy decade.

    That's exactly what the Cleveland Cavaliers have experienced. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Cavaliers were a bottom-feeding team, the laughing stock of the NBA. Quality free agents wouldn't come to Cleveland, and the front office missed on just about every draft pick they had.

    Until 2003. 

    The Cavaliers finished one of their worst seasons of all time, only to be rewarded with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, which was one of the best draft classes ever. The city exploded because that meant the Cavaliers would be able to select hometown high school phenom LeBron James.

    The next seven years were the most exciting in the history of the franchise. A perennial playoff team, the Cavaliers had some epic postseason battles with the hated Detroit Pistons, finally getting over the hump in 2007 and making it to the NBA Finals.

    Though they didn't win the championship, the Cavaliers were legitimate title contenders until 2010.

    And then, the unthinkable happened. 

    In an instant, the city of Cleveland went from enjoying the best time in the history of its basketball team back to that familiar, disappointing feeling people from the Forest City are so accustomed to.

    The following season was tough, to say the least. While James was helping his new team make it all the way to the NBA Finals, the Cavaliers were the worst team in the league, enduring a losing streak that lasted almost two months!

    And then, by luck of the NBA lottery, things looked bright again in Cleveland.

    For the second time in eight years, the Cavaliers had the first pick in the draft, and they used that pick to bring in point guard Kyrie Irving.

    Irving is the new face of hope for the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers franchise. Less than a month into his career, he is making strides on and off the court to give the people of Cleveland a reason to believe, and they have welcomed him like he is one of their own.

    On the court, Kyrie has been everything he was advertised to be, and then some. Follow along to see the breakdown of Irving's game.  

Offensive Awareness

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    Several aspects of Kyrie Irving's game as a rookie have stood out as quite impressive, perhaps none more than his offensive awareness.

    As a rookie, Irving has hit the NBA in full stride. Named the Game 1 starter by coach Byron Scott, Irving has shown a special ability to pick up Scott's offensive scheme quickly and execute it on the court.

    Irving has become the clear leader on offense, constantly making plays to get himself open, or to set up his teammates with easy looks at the hoop. At no point has Irving looked like a rookie on the court. 

    This isn't to say that Irving hasn't made his share of offensive mistakes. Very, very few of those mistakes are mistakes that even the best point guards in the league wouldn't make, however.

    It's clear, through his fundamental skill and his lightning-fast recognition of his offensive surroundings, that Kyrie Irving is a very special player on the offensive end of the court. 

    The real exciting part to think about is that he should only get better from here.

    Grade: A+

Passing

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    One of the most basic fundamental measures of a good point guard is his ability to make passes, easy or difficult, to set up his teammates. 

    After the first few games of the 2010-2011 season, Kyrie Irving is literally passing this measure with flying colors. 

    Kyrie is averaging just over five assists per game through the first nine games of his career. For a point guard, five assists per game isn't exactly a jaw-dropping stat. However, this is a situation in which the stat sheet doesn't tell the whole story of Irving's passing abilities. 

    First of all, that number would probably take a dramatic jump if the Cavaliers could put the ball in the hoop with a little more consistency. Players like Anthony Parker and Omri Casspi have had a plethora of open looks because of Irving, but they have struggled to actually make good on those looks. If they can pull it together, Irving's assist numbers will jump.

    Irving has a unique gift to be able to make any pass at any point in time on the court. He not only makes the smart, easy pass, but he actually passes guys who open. Much like an NFL quarterback can pass his wide receivers open, Irving has a knack for getting the ball to a teammate in a position to score easily.

    As far as the passing game is concerned, Irving definitely gets more than a passing grade.

    Grade: A 

Ball Handling

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    Yet another fundamental necessity of a point guard is to be the primary ball handler for his team. In high-pressure situations, the point guard needs to be the one who wants to ball and who can control it when everyone on the defense is after it. 

    Not surprisingly, this is another area in which Kyrie Irving excels. Irving is a player who plays with extreme control. No matter what is happening around him, Irving maintains his composure and is always in control. 

    That can make for a less-than-flashy brand of basketball.

    Dribbling the ball is an area which allows Irving to display some flash in his otherwise controlled game. Kyrie is a master with the basketball. At least once per game, Irving makes a move with the ball that leaves his defender moving the wrong way and Irving with a lane to the hoop. 

    He seems to have the control-to-flash ratio just right, because Irving rarely commits errors as he is dribbling the ball. When the opposing defenses are really trying to pressure the Cavaliers, Irving is a great weapon to offset that pressure.

    Grade: A 

Shooting

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    Many point guards are able to have successful careers just by being good passers and ball handlers. Being a good shooter is not necessarily a prerequisite to being an NBA point guard. 

    Kyrie Irving can be included in those special point guards who can not only handle the ball and dish it to teammates, but who can also take over the scoring duties for his team.

    Perhaps the biggest strength scouts pointed out about Irving before he was drafted was that he was an excellent shooter. At this early stage of his career, it's clear to see that the scouts were definitely right about that.

    Irving is not just a great shooter, but he's also a great decision maker. So many good shooters in the NBA seem to struggle with when to shoot and electing to put up good shots. Not Irving. Rarely does Kyrie put up the dreaded, ill-advised shot. Normally, Irving pulls the trigger on his jumper at just the right time, which sets him up to succeed. 

    Kyrie hasn't exactly been a dead-eye shooter to this point. At 44 percent on field goals and 35 percent from beyond the three-point arc, Irving definitely has room for improvement. However, for a person playing at NBA speed for the first time, Irving's numbers are definitely respectable. One can only assume that his percentages will climb as the season goes on.

    Grade: B

Finishing at the Rim

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    Different players in the NBA are at natural disadvantages when trying to accomplish various things on the court. Point guards face that disadvantage when it comes to finishing at the rim.

    Point guards usually have to contend with players who can be a foot or more taller than them whose sole duties on defense involve protecting the rim. It's a daunting task to score on those players, to say the least. 

    Kyrie Irving has been magnificent when driving to the hoop this season. The one advantage a point guard does have when driving to the lane is that the other team's big men have to respect their abilities to pass the ball at the last second, after the defender has committed to them. 

    Since Irving is so good at finding open teammates on the court, defenders have to think twice about fully attacking him at the hoop, or they might be leaving their man open for a dunk. Irving takes advantage by passing at the right times, but also by being aggressive and finishing with both hands at the hoop. 

    With such exceptional quickness and ball-handling abilities, Irving is usually able to beat his defender at the perimeter. What makes him special is that he is also able to maneuver his body in the paint to avoid the outstretched arms of defenders and put the ball in the hoop. 

    Grade: B+ (Yes, I did deduct points for the missed layup that would've won the Pacers game.)

Transition Offense

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    Of all the areas Kyrie Irving has been impressive in during his rookie season, transition offense is where he really shines. 

    Irving is able to use his court vision, passing ability, ball handling and athleticism all at once as the leader of the Cavaliers' fast break. The majority of his success on the fast break this year can be attributed to his awareness of all things around him on the court. 

    Just like his half-court offense, Irving is seemingly always aware of when to shoot, when to pass and when to pull back on the break. He has made several plays this year where he either finishes at the hoop or makes a great pass leading to an easy bucket for his teammates. 

    Irving is also able to use his quickness and underrated athleticism on the break to truly become a handful for other teams to deal with. The best part is, Irving is doing all this while playing on the Cavaliers' first unit, which really isn't set up to run the break, which is why he hasn't been able to run even more. 

    As Irving grows in the NBA, and he starts playing more with some of the talent from the reserve group, he will be putting on clinics as to how to run the fast break. 

    Grade: A

Transition Defense

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    Before you even start reading about the rest of Irving's transition defense, go ahead and watch the clip above. I know, you've probably already seen it 100 times, but watch it again anyways; it's the signature play of the 2011-2012 season for the Cavaliers at this point.

    Did you watch it? 

    Watch it again! 

    Awesome...on to the grading!

    Kyrie Irving's transition defense is generally associated with the above clip, in which Kyrie Irving never gives up on a play after a turnover, and he gets a great chase down block on DJ Augustin of the Bobcats

    Unfortunately, Kyrie's transition defense can be better assessed by re-watching the Blazers game from earlier in the week. The Blazers, a very good team, were able to get out and run on the Cavaliers all game long. Some of that can, and should, be attributed to the Blazers being aggressive. 

    The Cavs deserve some blame for playing poor defense as well. Part of that blame has to fall on Kyrie Irving's shoulders. Irving can be very aggressive on offense, often finding himself near the hoop when the opposing team gets the ball and heads the other way. This basically takes Kyrie out of the transition defense game.

    Kyrie needs to focus on being the first line of defense against the break. If he can get back with the streaking opponent, he can cut off some of the long-distance passes that lead to easy buckets. 

    Although he has made some spectacular plays on the defensive end of the court this year, there is still plenty of room for improvement in Kyrie's transition defense.

    Grade: C+

On-Ball Defense

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    Another area that Kyrie Irving could use a little improvement would be his on-ball, half-court defense. Through nine games, Irving has matched up with players like Jose Calderon, Brandon Knight and Ricky Rubio, and they've all been able to have some success against him.

    Now, much of the credit for those performances by the aforementioned players has to go to those players. They've all been very impressive when they played the Cavaliers. However, in the games against those players, Irving didn't do a whole lot to slow them down. 

    Irving shows many of the traits of a solid defender. He's got quick feet, he's strong and he communicates well on the floor with his teammates. Irving is a ball hunter, though. He will sometimes leave his man to attempt a steal or to step into a driving lane. So far this year, his men have made the Cavaliers play for the fact that they were left open.

    Once again, once Irving gets more comfortable in the NBA, and once he gets a little more playing time with both Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson, his on-ball defense will improve.

    Until then, it's going to remain an area he needs to improve.

    Grade: C  

Active Hands

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    While transition and on-ball defense remain as areas that Kyrie Irving needs to improve, his activity level on defense is just fine. 

    Kyrie Irving has terrific hands on defense. Whether he's going for a steal in man-to-man situations, or he's stepping into a passing lane to intercept a pass, Irving has made quite a few plays already this season because he keeps his hands active on defense. 

    A great way for a player struggling to adjust to the speed of the NBA on the defensive end is to focus on forcing turnovers. Irving has done a great job of that so far, especially when he's helping in the paint. Kyrie is not afraid to go into the painted area and cause havoc by tipping and intercepting passes. 

    Young players can get into trouble if they get too aggressive-looking for turnovers, too. Kyrie has spent a couple games in foul trouble so far this year because he gets caught reaching. 

    For the most part, though, Irving has been smart with his help defense and with trying to cleanly force turnovers. That approach should help him become a better on-ball defender as the season moves on.

    Grade: B+

Rebounding

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    Rebounds are a bonus for point guards in the NBA. Sure, there are some historically great rebounders at the point guard position, like Jason Kidd once was, but for the most part, the rebounds go to the taller guys. 

    Early on in this season, Kyrie Irving has shown an interest in being a point guard who can rebound the ball. He has skied for some huge rebounds over bigger players, leading people to believe that Irving could really turn into that triple-double threat that Kidd once was. 

    Kyrie should probably focus more on his transition offense and defense rather than fighting for rebounds he will most likely not get. His energy on the glass has been exciting so far, but as I said before, any rebound he brings in for the Cavs is just a bonus.

    Grade: C

Basketball IQ

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    Lost among all of the measurable stats Kyrie Irving brings to the table for the Cavaliers are some of the intangibles. 

    When listening to coach Byron Scott talk about Irving, he constantly repeats that Irving is smart and confident on the court. Scott had enough confidence in Irving's abilities to lead a team that he made him the starter from day one. 

    Kyrie is just one of those guys who always seems to be in the exact right place at the exact right time. Whether he's getting a steal on defense, or a rebound, or shooting a little pull-up jumper on the break, Irving always makes the most of situations he is in. 

    As opposed to the other positions on the court, it is crucial to have a point guard who truly understands the game and the game plan. 

    Kyrie Irving is showing that he can be that player for the Cavaliers for years to come. 

    Grade: A

Leadership

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    People expect more out of a franchise point guard (something the Cavaliers haven't had in a long time) than just points and assists. Steals and crossovers are a great part of any point guard's repertoire, but those things alone won't make a point guard great. 

    A great point guard needs to have the things that fans can't necessarily hear or see. Basketball IQ is one of those things, which is something Kyrie Irving has an abundance of. 

    Another intangible in which Kyrie Irving has shown real promise in is his role as the leader of the team. 

    Obviously, it's tough for any rookie to come onto a team and really feel like a team leader, especially when there are guys on the team that have been in the league for 10 or more years. 

    Kyrie isn't showing much trouble adapting into that role. Not only is Kyrie calling out plays, he is constantly shown talking to his teammates who might not be having great performances. He is a calming voice for his team, and a person they want to listen to and play for. 

    Big moments in games also happen to find leaders all the time, and that's no different with Kyrie, who has already had a shot at the end of regulation to try to beat the Indiana Pacers. He may have missed the shot, but it was easy to tell that his teammates wanted the ball in his hands in that situation.

    Kyrie Irving, though he is still very young, is turning into the true leader of the Cavaliers, which is a position he seems to thoroughly enjoy.

    Grade: A 

Athleticism

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    Plenty was said about Kyrie Irving this past offseason. 

    From the days leading up to the draft, until the day Kyrie made his NBA debut in Cleveland, analysts and people in general were trying to break down the strengths and weaknesses of Cleveland's No. 1 overall pick. 

    They said a lot of things that are turning out to be true. Kyrie IS quick, Kyrie CAN shoot, Kyrie IS smart, etc. 

    Perhaps the biggest lie of the entire offseason, however, was that Kyrie Irving wasn't very athletic. As far as NBA point guards go, Kyrie was supposed to be a little slower, and a little less athletic.

    That has turned out to be a big lie. Fans are shocked every game by the sheer athleticism Irving displays. Whether he's chasing down a player and making a block, or he's going up strong for a slam or a reverse layup, Kyrie is much more athletic than anyone gave him credit for. 

    Grade: B+

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