Is Kyrie Irving Hitting the Wall Under Mike Brown?

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Is Kyrie Irving Hitting the Wall Under Mike Brown?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

With Kyrie Irving entering his third season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, there was reason to suspect that he would only further develop as the face of the franchise.

After he secured the NBA Rookie of the Year Award and an All-Star selection in his sophomore campaign, the hype for Irving had only grown during the offseason, with ESPN ranking the Cavs star the NBA's eighth-best player—ahead of such established names as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker and Deron Williams.

The one thing missing from Irving's resume was wins—which the Cavs were expected to earn plenty of with the arrival of defensive-minded head coach Mike Brown, a legitimate and rejuvenated low-post threat in Andrew Bynum and the continued growth of a promising young core.

Eleven games into the season, the Cavs stand at 4-7. Though the team's defense has been solid, its offense has bottomed out, with Irving's uncharacteristic inconsistency symbolizing the squad's struggles on that end.

Elite Point Guards During Year 3 (Year 2 in Parentheses)
Player PPG APG TS% PER
Chris Paul 21.1 (17.3) 11.6 (8.9) 57.6 (53.7) 28.3 (22.0)
Russell Westbrook 21.9 (16.1) 8.2 (8.0) 53.8 (49.1) 23.6 (17.8)
Stephen Curry 22.9 (18.6) 6.9 (5.8) 58.9 (59.5) 21.3 (19.4)
Derrick Rose 25.0 (20.8) 7.7 (6.0) 55.0 (53.2) 23.5 (18.6)
Kyrie Irving 21.3 (22.5) 7.0 (5.9) 49.0 (55.3) 17.6 (21.4)

Basketball-Reference.com

For better or worse, the game's current elite at the point all made their first leaps in their third seasons. This isn't to say they peaked—that would be unfathomable at such a young age—but rather, they started to resemble the players that they'd be billed as in the coming seasons.

Disregarding Stephen Curry's injury-riddled third season in favor of his fourth full season, the precedent looked solid for Irving. But so far, the former No. 1 overall pick has noticeably regressed, with his number of heroic performances equaled by a number of frustratingly inefficient outings. So who—or what—is to blame for this inexplicable start to a would-be, should-be solid season?

 

The Mike Brown Effect

The easy answer for Irving's struggles, and for the offense of the team in general, has been to blame head coach Mike Brown. Cavs fans fondly recall the years in which Brown and a certain Akron native utilized a system defined as "Dump the ball to your lone All-Star and let him carry the offense."

In Brown's defense, his team has been generating offense through its defensesomething that every Mike Brown-coached team preaches as its offensive identity. Per Synergy Sports, Irving in particular is generating 10.3 percent of his offense off transition buckets, with a conversion rate of 1.29 points per possession (PPP)—good for 15th in the league. Still, for this season, the overall picture is not encouraging for Irving.

NBA.com/Stats

At first glance, it would seem that some of the brilliance from last season has worn off; compared to last season, there is significantly more red in Irving's shot chart, indicating below-average shooting percentages.

It's not like his struggles this season have been from a lack of reps. Irving ranks second in the league in points scored off pull-up shots, with his 105 points behind only the Golden State Warriors' Curry. The aggression is there, too, with his 95 drives in the early season placing him fifth in the league, just ahead of the San Antonio Spurs' Parker.

In fact, Irving's taking virtually the same distribution of shots in this early season as he did last year. The problem? Those same shots just aren't falling. To be more specific, defenses are playing him smarter, and his ability to finish within eight feet of the basket has plummeted—from a modest 52.45 percent to a below-average 43.04 percent.

If Irving is hitting a wall, it's not the wall that fans are thinking of, which means his offensive funk can be remedied, but not before addressing a few other issues.

 

Pace, Pace, Pace

It's safe to say that as a 21-year-old, Irving enjoys having the ball in his hands and has a fair bit of confidence in his handle. This is fine, but it's also no secret that his tendency to overdribble and waste precious seconds off the shot clock isn't helping the Cavaliers offense—and this offense really needs some help.

Generally speaking, pushing the pace of an offense can be good; even the best teams can be sucker-punched by quick execution. Last season's Cavs offense—fairly bad, at 19th in the league, in terms of offensive rating, but still not as bad as this season—was aided, in part, by a quickened pace of 92.3, ranked 13th in the league.

With that in mind, there have been far too many possessions this season—heck, in last Saturday's game alone—where Irving has held the ball while the clock and the offensive options dwindled. However, on the possessions where he did push the pace a little, good things generally happened.

Take, for instance, this basket in the second quarter at the Washington Wizards. Irving secures the bad pass as it bounces off the hands of Nene, and he takes just four dribbles to get across the half-court line. While the opposing defense is wary of a semi-transition basket, Irving fires a clear pass to C.J. Miles, who's already settled on the left wing for a wide-open three-pointer.

The entire sequence is choreographed without excess, and even if Irving hasn't been playing particularly well, opposing teams still perceive him as a threat. This means Irving can leverage that threat for quality shots for his teammates. Doing so, and doing so early in the shot clock, will be vital not only to Irving's continually growing skills as a floor general, but also to his own personal offense, as the floor opens up to accommodate the increased respect teams have to pay to his teammates.

Of course, as has been the case, consistency has and will most likely continue to be an issue. Consider the following Cavs possession.

Interestingly, the possession is nearly identical to the previous one in how it unfolds: Irving secures the rebound following a missed opportunity by Nene and quickly advances the ball. Miles is once again wide-open in the exact same position thanks to Martell Webster's ball-watching. However, Irving opts to go for the step and blow by Garrett Temple—an ordinarily nice move, except he continues to drive even as three jerseys retreat below the free-throw line to deflect the shot and secure the rebound.

While Irving had an opportunity, the team needs him to continue pushing the ball while trusting his teammates to alleviate his scoring responsibility when an optimal opportunity arises. Alternatively, there is another way for the Cavs and Brown to help aid Irving's recovery from an early-season slump.

 

Kyrie Irving: 2-Guard?

Even if Coach Brown deserves some flak for indirectly contributing to the Cavs' woes by shuffling the rotation in search of some offensive flow, he has allowed the Cavs to experiment with smaller lineups featuring Irving as the off-guard.

Sure enough, while his recent percentages have been off, his limited doses of offense as a secondary ball-handler have yielded some interesting results, with Irving's natural advantage in quickness and craftiness serving him well.

In this example, with Jarrett Jack splitting ball-handling duties and Matthew Dellavedova playing due to Dion Waiters' absence, Irving's free to cut across to the right corner for an uncontested three-pointer. In fact, it's one of several open shots he would receive while heating up in the quarter.

Again, despite the small sample size, Irving has made use of his 2-guard opportunities, scoring on about two-thirds of his off-ball cuts for a conversion rate of 1.33 PPP—the highest figure for his offensive plays, per Synergy Sports.

And although the unit has logged only 47 minutes together, the combination of Irving, Waiters, Jack, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao leads all of the Cavs' five-man lineups with a plus-11.

Coincidentally, this same lineup offers the trio of Irving, Waiters and Jack the most flexibility in a space-and-pace offense, with all three players comfortable in either a primary or secondary ball-handling situation. The trade-off, again, is a detriment on the defensive end, but given that Thompson and Varejao are two of the league's more energetic bigs, it should be no surprise that the unit has been a net positive so far.

Still, regardless of the necessary changes, this is a squad that ultimately is still in search of a reformed identity. It may go as Irving goes; or perhaps Irving will naturally go as the team goes. To call Irving overrated or to claim he's hit an insurmountable wall after 11 games is still premature, especially if last Saturday's performance is less an aberration and more a sign of things to come.

 

Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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