Given the way the Cleveland Cavaliers have been playing lately, the Cuyahoga River might as well be on fire. Electric third-year point guard Kyrie Irving has been lackadaisical in his play, and that has resulted in diminished playing time. As he rattles the cage and sulks through the losses, it comes at an awful time since his regression dovetails with numerous ascendant point guards.
There is no denying that Irving was on almost everyone's list of top-10 point guards—and plenty of top-five lists—before this season started, but what a difference a year makes! We examine Irving's recent play and also consider his disgruntled attitude regarding the Cavs' losing ways. After delineating the league's best point guards into three tiers, it is clear that Irving has indeed fallen out of the top 10 despite his potent stats.
2 Steps Forward, 1 Step Back
Let's be clear: Irving is a sensational talent capable of stellar playmaking. He can put defenders on skates with an array of jab steps and head fakes. He collected Rookie of the Year honors in 2012, took home the trophy at the 2013 Three-Point Shootout and earned All-Star nods in 2013 and 2014.
As of Feb. 8, Irving ranks fifth in the East in scoring at 21.5 points per game. That's down one point from a season ago, but his shooting is the bigger concern. After hitting 45.2 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2012-13, he's shooting just 42.6 percent this year. His three-point shooting has also declined from 39.1 percent to 35.1.
The good news is that Irving's assists are up (by 0.4 per game to 6.3) and his turnovers are down (by 0.5 per game to 2.7). However, his player efficiency rating is also down from 21.4 in each of the last two seasons to 20.2, according to Basketball Reference. That's still an admirable mark, but it's slightly troubling that Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings is posting a higher PER.
You'd probably be surprised to learn that I used Kyrie Irving as an example of poor leadership in my class of high schoolers this afternoon— David Zavac (@DavidZavac) February 8, 2014
Irving ranks 30th in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, tied with J.J. Barea and fellow Cav Jarrett Jack. His shooting percentage ranks 13th among all point guards.
Irving's durability has also been a question after he missed 38 games over his first two seasons, making his reliability in the future an additional concern.
Unfortunately, Andrew Bynum's presence may have rubbed off on Irving, as he's suddenly become pouty instead of feisty with his team continuing to plummet in the standings. Through 50 games, the Cavs are just 17-33. Their defense is rotten, surrendering 102.7 points per game, and they rank 24th in both offensive and defensive efficiency per NBA.com.
According to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal: "Two opposing general managers this season have told me they think Irving is pouting."
Irving's demeanor has been one of the central problems this season. Instead of cheering his team on, demanding that they be accountable for their poor play and encouraging them to work harder and play better, Irving has seemed malcontented and disinterested.
On Feb. 5, the Cavs hosted the Los Angeles Lakers, a team that started the game with eight available players, and then fell behind by 29 points in the first half on their home court. The Lakers ran out of players at the end of the game when further injuries and a pair players fouling out reduced them to four eligible bodies, but Cleveland still couldn't complete the comeback.
More significantly, Irving sat on the bench for the final 19:31 of the game. The Cavs' second unit looked to be the more spirited bunch, and Irving looked on as they trimmed the deficit to six points late in the fourth.
After the loss had mercifully ended, Irving admitted he belonged on the bench, saying of the second unit via the Associated Press: "They definitely deserved to be on the floor... If I were the coach, I would have played that second group as long as he did."
Cleveland coach Mike Brown said he will look to duplicate the success he found with the reserves, stating: "Maybe we can learn something from what that group did on the floor. They played the right way." Implicit within that statement is this: Irving was not playing the right way.
Now it seems Irving wants to leave Cleveland altogether despite being locked into a very reasonable contract through next season, after which it would be time for his qualifying offer. ESPN's Chad Ford reported in late January that Kyrie has "been telling people privately he wants out."
The hangdog Cavs seem to have misspent their draft resources over the past few years. In 2011, they took Irving first and Tristan Thompson fourth overall. Both have played well, but it has yet to get the team out of the lottery.
Dion Waiters, the fourth overall pick in 2012, has not been quite as prolific as Cleveland hoped, and he sits behind C.J. Miles on the depth chart. 2014's No. 1 Anthony Bennett has been widely derided for his struggles, but he has shown signs of improvement recently.
In hindsight, the Cavaliers would have been much better off drafting Kawhi Leonard in 2011, Damian Lillard in 2012 and Victor Oladipo in 2013, but Superman will not be reversing the rotation of the earth to help them with that.
Somehow, despite their wealth of young talent, the Cavs have been unable to glue it all together into a winning product. And amidst this lost season, Irving's stock is falling due to his slight regression in output and problematic temperament. Meanwhile, a host of PGs are showing out with their skills and producing wins for their teams.
Tier 1: The Cream of the Crop
The five best point guards in the NBA are Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker and Damian Lillard. I would have said "in no particular order," but that actually seems like the right order.
Though Lillard is only in his second year, the reigning Rookie of the Year's all-around skill set vaults him onto the top tier. The rest of the group are no-doubters.
Paul is the finest mix of offense, defense and experience at the position. Curry is arguably the best shooter in the history of basketball. Westbrook is a terrifying athlete who can score in bunches and blaze past defenders. Finally, Tony Parker has just been averaging 17.2 points per game on an unreal 49.5 percent shooting for the last 13 years. No big deal.
Tier 2: Dishing and Swishing
The next tier of point guards consists Rajon Rondo, Mike Conley, Ty Lawson, John Wall and Goran Dragic. Irving has sufficient talent to leapfrog any of the players on this tier, but his poor response to Cleveland's losing holds him back.
Rondo is the best disher of dimes in the NBA now that Steve Nash is well past his prime. Mike Conley is among the league's three best defensive point guards, and this season he is averaging career-highs with 18 points on 45.8 percent shooting.
Lawson shined in the playoffs last year with 21.3 points and eight assists per game, and he's posting career-highs in both categories this season with 18.3 and 8.8 per game. Dragic can play at both guard positions, and that's a very good thing for the Phoenix Suns in light of Eric Bledsoe's injury. His narrowly missed All-Star nod was especially costly in light of the million-dollar bonus in his contract.
Wall shares Irving shooting woes with both hitting near 42.5 percent to produce their 20-point per game averages. Wall's long-range shooting is considerably worse, but he is clearly comfortable being "the guy" in Washington judging by his new contract extension worth five years and $80 million.
Tier 3: Don't Sleep on These PGs
Williams' stock has been sinking somewhat largely due to his balky ankles. When healthy, he's a strong candidate for the second tier with career averages of 17.6 points and 8.9 assists per game over nine seasons.
Lowry continues his rise up the point-guard ranks, and this season he's averaging career-highs in minutes (36.3), points (16.6) and assists (7.4). He's just a 42-percent shooter for his career, but his overall output has progressed by leaps and bounds with the last four seasons.
LeBron James (9.8) is the only player in the Eastern Conference with more win shares than Kyle Lowry (7.7). Yet, Lowry isn't an All-Star.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) February 7, 2014
Holiday earned an All-Star nod a season ago as a Philadelphia 76er, posting 17.7 points and eight dimes per game. He increased his shooting efficiency since joining the New Orleans Pelicans, but a leg injury has derailed his season.
Youngsters Jeff Teague and Kemba Walker are also knocking on the door to this club, and it often takes promising point guards a few seasons to raise their NBA IQ sufficiently. Hopefully, all Irving is lacking is a little bit more experience and some inspiration to act as a team leader.
Is Kyrie Irving a top-10 point guard?
One distinguishing factor is that all of these players bar Irving either have playoff experience or are headed for some this season. The Cavaliers are headed for the lottery. Despite their excellent drafting position lately, they have not cracked the postseason since LeBron James took his talents elsewhere.
Irving has the ability and potential to carry the team all by himself, but he clearly lacks the will to do so. LeBron took Cleveland to the NBA Finals with very little talent around him. Kyrie isn't taking the Cavs anywhere.
Before we sound the alarm, it's important to point out that he is just 21 years old. This is an early hiccup in what is likely to be a long, productive career, but the returns from his third season are troubling.
As point guards around the league stand out from the pack in greater numbers, Irving's play is fading into the background along with his team. He's struggling even to remain in the league's dozen best point guards as all the losing has him feeling snakebitten.