Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard Headed in Very Different Directions

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Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard Headed in Very Different Directions
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Let's delve for a moment into the murky world of NBA hypotheticals, highlighting Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

If I had asked you before the 2013-14 season tipped off who, between Irving and Lillard, you'd rather be, which would you have picked?

Chances are, you would've gone for Kyrie.

After all, Irving's nearly two years younger with an All-Star selection already under his belt. His path back to the midseason exhibition is much clearer than Lillard's, partly due to his own incumbency but largely due to the uncertainty surrounding the returns of Derrick Rose, who's since been cut down by another knee injury, and Rajon Rondo, who's just been cleared for full participation in practice with the Boston Celtics (per Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe).

Lillard, on the other hand, would have to compete for a spot in a Western Conference that's absolutely loaded at point guard.

As promising as Lillard looked in following up Irving as the league's Rookie of the Year, could he really be expected to outperform experienced All-Stars like Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday? Heck, what were the odds that he'd jump ahead of more established borderline-type guys like Stephen Curry, Ty Lawson, Mike Conley and Monta Ellis?

Or even a notoriously flashy passer like Ricky Rubio, whose game is practically tailor-made for the All-Star Game?

That same disparity in talent held true for Irving and Lillard's teams as well. Lillard's Portland Trail Blazers seemed a stronger outfit than the Cleveland Cavaliers. They had another All-Star in LaMarcus Aldridge and a newly improved bench in the mix.

But Lillard's Blazers weren't necessarily a better bet to make the playoffs.

They'd have to contend with at least six teams that seemed like mortal locks to qualify (the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies), along with a slew of hopeful returnees (the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers) and teams looking to make "the leap" into the postseason (the Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans).

The Cavs, meanwhile, figured to have a fine shot at snagging one of the three Eastern Conference playoff spots left up for grabs after the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.

 

Shifting Expectations

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

What if I posed that same question to you now? Who would you rather be: Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard?

My guess is that your answer has flipped.

As far as conventional box-score statistics are concerned, these two young floor generals are nearly neck-and-neck at the moment:

Kyrie vs. Damian: By the Box Score
Mins Pts FGA FG% 2PA 2P% 3PA 3P% Ast TOs
Irving 34.5 20.9 18.7 .411 13.8 .442 5.0 .325 5.8 3.1
Lillard 35.8 20.1 15.5 .394 8.8 .386 6.7 .405 5.7 2.2

Basketball Reference

Irving takes (and makes) more shots overall, especially from inside the arc. Lillard, though, ranks among the most prolific three-pointer shooters in the game. He's launched 6.7 treys per game this season, the fourth-most in the NBA, and made a solid 40.5 percent of them.

Other than that, their numbers are nearly identical.

You can forgive Irving for his higher turnover average because he handles the ball considerably more for the Cavs (31.0 usage rate) than Lillard does for the Blazers (24.6 usage rate).

In some respects, these two are eye-to-eye as far as "next level" stats are concerned—and not just because they're about the same height in real life. Have a look at how they measure up according to NBA.com's SportVU database:

Kyrie vs. Damian: Speed and Distance
Average Speed (mph) Miles/Game Miles/48 Minutes
Irving 4.2 2.4 3.4
Lillard 4.2 2.5 3.3

NBA.com/stats

On a basic level, Irving and Lillard travel at the same average speed over nearly the same distance, both per game and per 48 minutes.

Kyrie vs. Damian: Touches and Possession
Touches/Game Time of Possession Pts/Touch Pts/Half Court Touch
Irving 80.9 5.9 0.26 0.29
Lillard 84.2 6.5 0.24 0.29

NBA.com/stats

Lillard touches the ball slightly more often and, in turn, possesses the ball for better than a half-minute more per game than Irving, though each produces approximately the same share of points per touch, both overall and in the half court.

Dig a little deeper, and we can see how they fare by shot type:

Kyrie vs. Damian: Shooting Efficiency
Drives/Game Drives FG% Close Shots FG% Catch and Shoot FGA eFG% Pull-Up FGA eFG%
Irving 7.7 .314 .500 3.8 .438 10.1 .421
Lillard 7.8 .392 .222 3.6 .646 9.4 .439

NBA.com/stats

Lillard is the superior jump-shooter, at least in catch-and-shoot situations, while Irving takes the cake on drives and shots close to the basket. This goes along with what we've seen from these two youngsters so far: Lillard's more of a marksman who can attack the rim, while Irving is closer to the inverse.

The numbers from Synergy Sports (login required) paint a similar picture between these two:

Kyrie vs. Damian: What Synergy Says, Part 1
Spot Up % PPP Rank FG% 3P% Off Screen % PPP Rank FG% 3P%
Irving 9.2% 0.72 201st .292 .296 5.7% 0.65 41st .308 .182
Lillard 12.2% 1.11 62nd .397 .373 4.4% 1.14 NR .421 .545

Synergy Sports

Note that rankings pertain only to those who have partaken in a particular play type at least 25 times. According to Synergy, Lillard has been involved in 22 plays off screens so far this season.

Once again, Lillard comes out ahead as a shooter, both spotting up and off screens. Irving has shot poorly in such situations, though he's thrived off his top-notch handles and nifty tricks around the hoop in the pick-and-roll.

Kyrie vs. Damian: What Synergy Says, Part 2
P&R % PPP Rank FG% 3P% Iso% PPP Rank FG% 3P%
Irving 37.9% 0.91 11th .446 .429 15.1% 0.83 38th .342 .278
Lillard 45.6% 0.85 33rd .333 .327 10% 1.08 5th .405 .429

Synergy Sports

 

A New Divide

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Interestingly enough, these two begin to diverge when one looks at their exploits in isolation. Irving may be more clever with the ball, but Lillard has been much more efficient at putting it through the net when left to operate one-on-one.

And, last I checked, NBA rules don't award points for crossing over your defender until his ankles melt.

This disparity likely stems, in part, from the quality of talent with which each point guard plays. As alluded to earlier, Irving spends more time with the ball in his hands than Lillard because Kyrie simply doesn't have many teammates who can create shots and are trustworthy with the rock. In that regard, he can count only on backup point guard Jarrett Jack and wily sixth man Dion Waiters for support.

Lillard operates in an offense built around the post-up play and mid-range shooting of LaMarcus Aldridge. Damian doesn't have to shoulder the same burden for his team that Kyrie does for his, even less so when you consider what Nicolas Batum can do off the bounce.

It's no wonder, then, that Lillard actually performs better in the clutch—defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with neither team up or down by more than five points—than Irving:

Kyrie vs. Damian: In the Clutch
Min Pts FG% 3P% +/- Win-Loss
Irving 52 47 .341 .333 -5 7-6
Lillard 47 52 .500 .500 +48 11-2

NBA.com/stats

Lillard leads the league in both points scored in the clutch and crunch-time plus/minus. Irving's not far behind in scoring, though his impact on his team's success down the stretch has been a net negative.

These stats may come as a shock to those who remember the late-game heroics that defined Kyrie's rookie and sophomore seasons. His ability to take over games when his team needed him to set him apart from his peers and put him on a track toward a degree of dominance at the point guard position—the likes of which has otherwise been reserved for point guards like Isiah Thomas and Chris Paul.

More shocking still is the extent to which Lillard has lit it up in crunch time, according to the Trail Blazers' public relations feed:

This was after Lillard scored eight of his 23 points, including the game-winner, in overtime against the Detroit Pistons on Sunday:

 

Context Counts 

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

Neither player is considered an elite, or even above-average, defender for his position. Like many young point guards, Lillard and Irving are both prone to ball-watching, missed assignments, lapses in focus and myriad other mistakes that plague youngsters who bear massive burdens on the offensive end.

The Blazers give up about the same number of points per possession whether Lillard is on the floor or not. The Cavs, on the other hand, allow nearly three fewer points per 100 possessions when Irving is on the bench, per NBA.com.

By and large, the gap between these two point guards has narrowed considerably—though, truth be told, it was never that wide to begin with. You could argue that Lillard has improved or that Irving has regressed, particularly when you consider that Kyrie's shooting percentages have slipped year by year.

But if the goal here is to take an honest look at how each of these guys is performing and we're already knee-deep in hypotheticals, here's another one to throw out there: How would Kyrie and Damian be doing if they traded places? And how much better or worse off would the Cavs and the Blazers be if that happened?

There's no way of knowing for sure.

What we can say with some confidence, though, is that Portland is far superior to Cleveland right now. The Blazers own the best record in the ultra-competitive Western Conference at 21-4, and the third-best point differential in the NBA at plus-7.2 points per game against the ninth-toughest schedule to date.

The Cavs, on the other hand, sit at 9-14, "good" for 10th in the awful Eastern Conference, with the fifth-worst point differential (minus-5.6 points per game) against the third-easiest schedule.

The disparity makes sense with a quick glance up and down each team's roster.

Both teams feature All-Star bigs, though Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge is arguably the best power forward on planet Earth right now, while Cleveland's Andrew Bynum is slowly working his way back from knee injuries that cost him the entirety of the 2012-13 campaign. The Cavs' other big, Tristan Thompson, may be more productive than the Blazers' Robin Lopez, though Lopez isn't that far behind statistically and is actually a superior rim protector:

Kyrie vs. Damian: Front Line Help
Mins Pts Rebs Blks Opp FG% at the Rim
Tristan Thompson 32.5 11.4 10 0.5 .608
Robin Lopez 30.7 9.7 8.6 1.5 .434

NBA.com/stats

Cleveland's best wing, Dion Waiters, was recently relegated to bench duty, albeit to positive effect—he's scored 15.2 points per game since the switch. Portland's corps of swingmen features a clutch jack-of-all-trades player coming into his own (Nicolas Batum) and one of the NBA's deadliest three-point shooters (Wesley Matthews).

The Cavs own the upper hand off the bench, if only because Jack and Waiters are two of the most productive subs in all of basketball. But Portland's clean-up crew of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson, while admirable for its contributions, hasn't needed to work as hard thanks to the team's superb starting five.

As far as coaching is concerned, Mike Brown would've been considered the superior sideline stalker just a few years ago, when Terry Stotts was still a "retread" in his profession. Stotts, though, seems to have emerged from his stint on Rick Carlisle's staff with the Dallas Mavericks a changed man, integrating newfangled analytics into his approach about as well as anyone has this season.

Brown's reputation took a serious hit after his ill-fated go-round with the Los Angeles Lakers, and it hasn't improved any upon his return to Rock City. Cleveland's defense has finally begun to inch up the league-wide rankings, but only after a series of early-season meltdowns that likely contributed to the closed-door meeting that allegedly involved a tiff between Waiters and Thompson.

Irving reportedly called that meeting.

As the Cavs' best player and leader, though he cannot be held entirely responsible for what transpired, the team's results ultimately fall on him—despite the fact he's barely old enough to buy a drink at a bar and isn't at fault for Cleveland's calamitous draft record of late.

 

Choose Wisely

Cameron Browne/Getty Images

But isn't that the point of the question with which we began this exercise? If you had to choose between being Kyrie Irving and being Damian Lillard today, you'd probably go with Lillard.

Not because Lillard is necessarily a "better" basketball player—he and Irving are nearly even on the whole, and even if they aren't, there's not much separation between the two at this point—but because Lillard's circumstances are superior to Irving's.

Which point guard is in a better spot right now?

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Lillard's team is the surprise of the season so far, blowing everyone's expectations out of the water with a fun, offensively oriented style of play and a sense of camaraderie and team chemistry that makes the Blazers a joy to behold.

Irving's, meanwhile, looks like a mess of disappointing parts and misfit personalities, the product of head-scratching gambles that haven't paid off in the wake of the devastation wrought by LeBron James' "Decision."

To be sure, the Blazers have a past of their own that they're just now escaping. The troublesome knees of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden submarined what had been a promising squad in Rip City and, in turn, nearly sent the lone superstar-caliber survivor of that epoch (Aldridge) in search of somewhere else to take his talents.

Lillard has played a pivotal part in the team's eye-opening turnaround, just as Irving hopes to in Cleveland. At the moment, though, Damian is already well ahead of schedule, while Kyrie's trying to catch up.

 

Which point guard do YOU prefer? Let me know on Twitter!

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